Whether its odd-looking Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) Glass spectacles or the seemingly pie-in-the-sky army of drones Jeff Bezos wants delivering Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) packages in five years, these two companies keep calling moon shots and raising a healthy dose of skepticism in the process.
Investors should not only be patient, they should embrace this experimentation, even if the eventual path to the bottom line can't be found with a helicopter and a bloodhound.
Why? Because these companies have some of the greatest minds on the planet today, and history shows us what good can come from letting great minds have free roam. And while investing is mostly about dollars and cents, it's also important to put our money where it can do society good.
We've already seen some of what can result from companies like Google, which long boasted a "20% time" that encouraged employees to work on their own projects one day a week. Google X labs, the same endeavor that's been working on Glass, has produced contact lenses that measure a person's blood sugar. This is something that will be a big step forward for diabetic patients who have had to endure the unpleasant task of providing blood samples in order to monitor their condition.
Some 26 million Americans have diabetes, and 79 million more are categorized at being pre-diabetic, meaning there's a good chance they will likely someday have the disease.
Amazon presents a different case. Its endeavors look far more tethered to its core business. But the company is using its high-profile position to advance technology in areas like unmanned aircraft and robotics. When Bezos unveiled plans for drone delivery on "60 Minutes," it may have seemed a publicity stunt. But Amazon is continuing to eat up a bigger share of retail, and if it's interested in drone delivery, you can bet companies that make drones are looking to fill the company's needs.
The same goes for the operation of its warehouses. Last fall, Amazon hired 70,000 workers to staff the holiday rush. If the company continues its growth -- 22% annually -- for the next five years, it could well find itself needing to hire nearly 200,000 seasonal workers, a seeming impossibility. What could handle that spike in demand? Robots. You can bet that Amazon is advancing technology today that will change warehousing and much more for many years to come.
Soy milk, X-rays were also moon shots
In the 1920s and 30s, Henry Ford's affinity for agriculture proved to be a great diversion from his budding automobile business. Ford not only started an offshoot to develop tractors that family farmers could afford, he bankrolled a team of scientists to explore the boundaries of what agricultural products could be used to produce.
It was moon-shot work without any doubt. But their endeavors over the following 20-30 years produced some remarkable items, some of which didn't find a mass market of consumer demand for 70 years. What did they include?
- Soy-based plastic auto-body panels that shaved as much as 50% off the car's weight, increasing efficiency
- Biofuels made from crops, providing alternatives to fossil fuels
- Soy-based paint
- Soymilk (Think White Wave)
- Crop-based simulated meat proteins (Boca burgers)
Ford, of course, is not the best example of a historic company whose itch to explore and penchant for moon shots led to great discoveries. That title would undoubtedly be the company founded by Henry Ford's longtime friend Thomas Edison, General Electric.
From the late 1800s to the early 1920s, Edison and GE gave the world the X-ray machine, the electric fan, the refrigerator, and radio broadcasting. By the time the second World War broke out, GE had developed the first jet engine. All that from a company that started some six decades earlier with a simple, incandescent light bulb.
The Foolish bottom line
Dating all the way to Leonardo da Vinci -- and likely before that -- inventive minds have made their biggest contributions when they were allowed to roam freely. That was true for Edison and General Electric and for Ford and his scientists. Today, companies like Google and Amazon have some of the greatest minds on the planet, from their leaders to their engineers. Their moon shots might seem like money wasted to impatient investors -- and pie-in-the-sky silliness to many others -- but they're something we should all learn to embrace. Because their big thoughts today might help make for a better life for generations still to come.