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Leaving Disney and starting Applied Minds

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Hollywood culture versus tech culture
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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It was a funny time, because cell phones... small cell phones were just coming out and the Hollywood agents loved them. They were real status symbols, and the tech guys had, like, the newer models. And so at one point, we had the head of Motorola, [Bob] Galvin, came and arrived with the StarTAC. And he had it on his little clip on the outside, and he sits down with me and Michael Ovitz and he pulls out his StarTAC and he puts it down, this beautiful... you know, it was the original flip phone. And it had just come out, nobody had seen it. And Michael says, 'Wow, that's amazing. I would really like one of those.'

Now this is where Hollywood culture and tech culture is totally different, because in Hollywood culture, what this means is, give me one as a gift. But in tech culture, you would never have a business relationship with someone and give them an expensive gift. I mean, that was a $2000 phone, that. So in Hollywood culture, you would just hand it, say, 'Here, take this one.' But in tech culture, that would be like an illegal, unethical thing to do, to give a $2000 present to somebody that you're talking about having a business deal with. So I immediately, like, saw it from both sides, and I wondered what's going to happen here. And Galvin says, 'I'll give you a phone number where you can buy one at the lowest possible price.' And Michael Ovitz, like, looks and I'm like, okay, like Michael did the right thing by his culture, but it didn't work... I mean, sorry, Galvin did the right thing by his culture, but it didn't work with Michael. And sure enough, we get up from the dinner... from lunch and Michael says, 'Well, I can tell he doesn't want to do business with us.' And that was the end of that discussion.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Bob Galvin, Michael Ovitz

Duration: 2 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017