Tech's Most Dangerous Idea

Good ideas usually have unintended consequences, some of which can be nasty. Consider social media. The let-me-tell-you-everything-there-is-to-know-about-my-pet-turtle people are helping to fuel what could be the next billion-dollar business idea in Twitter. At the same time, they're exposing themselves to huge security risks. Thieves are using Twitter and Facebook to find targets, reports a new survey from European researcher Opinion Matters.

Silicon Valley's Singularity University isn't reaching social media, nor is it likely to endanger its students. But its $25,000 tuition, ostensibly for access to venture capitalists and tech big wigs, could have huge, unintended consequences.

You'll pay for the Singularity
Singularity University is backed by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and named after a vision of the future popularized by inventor, author, and school co-founder Ray Kurzweil. Its students end their coursework by developing business ideas. The goal: Use technology to improve the lives of at least 1 billion people. Faculty and potential investors were in attendance at least week's presentations, The Associated Press reports.

I'm shocked. Shocked. Investors? Attending presentations by would-be entrepreneurs? In Silicon Valley? No. Way.

Pardon my sarcasm. The point is that Singularity, while no doubt an interesting idea, is effectively selling access: $25,000 for a chance to wow investors and get hooked into a killer alumni network.

To be fair, Singularity is typical in that every major university bills access to its alumni network as a selling point with prospective students. Stanford and Berkeley have long made hay of their connections to some of Silicon Valley's best and brightest. Stanford talks of how it helped give birth to Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: JAVA  ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , and of course Google. Berkeley claims rebellious biotech Exelixis (Nasdaq: EXEL  ) , among others.

Nor is this practice confined to Silicon Valley. Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) was born at MIT. Harvard helped give birth to both Facebook and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) .

Singularity appears to be aiming for similar successes. The difference is that coursework may not lead to a transferable degree recognized by other universities. That's why I say Singularity offers a degree in access.

And while it may be a coincidence, Singularity is making headlines at a time when angel investors are getting stingier. One group, FundingPost.com, charges entrepreneurs for time with angels and venture capitalists, The New York Times reported recently.

Rebellions shouldn't come with a cover charge
Please don't get me wrong. Singularity's emphasis on rule-breaking big ideas is exactly what's needed right now. But I worry that charging access to investors -- the net benefit of a Singularity degree -- is becoming the new reality of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial business culture.

Venture capitalists, angel investors, and even corporate investors such as Google have every right to protect themselves and their limited partners from unsteady, volatile markets. But they ought to be able to do so without shifting risk to entrepreneurs.

For related Foolishness:

Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Akamai, Exelixis, and Google are Rule Breakers recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Google and a stock position in Akamai at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy can be neither stopped nor contained. But it can be soothed.


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