Amazing People – Game Changers – Henry Elkus

Henry Elkus became founder and CEO of HELENA.ORG when he was 21 years old. Members include Four-Star Generals, Fortune 100 CEOs, Nobel Peace Prize and Scientific Laureates, Academy Award Winners, former CIA Directors, leading Academics, NGO Leaders, and more. HELENA identifies potential solutions to critical global problems and implements them through individual projects.

[Applause] [Music] so [Music] henry elkus became the founder and ceo
of helena when he was 21 years old a precocious age to start anything of the scope that helena has become members include four star fortune 100 ceos nobel peace prize and science laureates academy award winners former cia directors leading academicians ngo leaders and more helena identifies potential solutions to critical global problems and directly implements them through individual projects please welcome to our stage henry elkus [Music] about six and a half years ago i was having uh what you might call a one-fifth life crisis i was a sophomore in college and i was thinking about what problems i would face the rest of my life in my generation and i was meditating on something i thought was very unique about this particular generation about
how problems come about and i think there's three unique things we're seeing problems arise in the world at a faster speed than ever before you know this would have been a shocking thing to say you know many years ago but of course we've all been through covid while they are rising faster than ever before they're rising at global scale the black death didn't jump the atlantic ocean but kova did and then finally we are mixing that speed and global scale with unfortunately exponential technologies and and problems i think a lot of you will remember the first example that all three of these things came together the manhattan project and here's of course the the trinity bomb the night before the first test so sitting in college 19 years old thinking about this i realized that we're actually about to have multiple of these issues occur during our lifetime some of them are positive and some of them are negative but we're actually in a generation of robert oppenheimers we're having manhattan projects in our neurotechnology we're having manhattan projects with crispr and
genetic engineering we're advancing nuclear in scary and very optimistic ways and artificial intelligence is also having its renaissance but there's again positive and negative exponentialities to this artificial intelligence is allowing us to know ourselves is understanding ourselves better than we know we know ourselves it's able to kill us autonomously and it's able to fool us without us knowing with things like deep fakes so while this renaissance of exponential scaled and fast problem generation is occurring who are we in trusting to solve these problems and it's going to happen during the next 50 years which i developed a you know belief that we could have the most consequential decisions that humanity's ever made during my generation and what do we do about it well we rely on institutions to solve our problems however institutions haven't really changed their models to follow
this ra this rapid rise in how problems arise we still rely on the westphalian system to understand what a country is we still rely on a constitution in the 18th century to govern our country so have we actually paid the attention to update the internal structures of our institutions to address the societal problems that we're gonna face and i think in my youthful delusion the answer was uh basically no and we need to do something about it if so how do you sustain a business model and i'm reminded sorry of uh one example of this when uh zuckerberg was uh at congress in which you saw kind of somebody overseeing an exponential technology at global scale at fast speed trying to actually interface with one of the modern institutions we rely on so i thought this was an interesting tidbit of the problem well if so how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service senator we run ads i see
so perhaps i'm cherry-picking but these are the institutions that we're relying on to address these problems and if we can't understand the business model of something like facebook how are we going to address some of the issues that we're outlining here so sitting in college i was thinking deeply about this and i wanted to dedicate my life to this problem about the design of institutions that we will have to rely on to address the societal problems of the 21st century and i became convinced that we needed a model that was a little bit different so again kind of in some youthful delusion i said why don't i go build one of those institutions and actually try my shot at it and the idea was that it would be a parallel vehicle where you would have non-profit projects aside for-profit projects because we can't keep siloing implementations of solutions just in the policy realm just in the non-profit and philanthropic sphere and just in the foreproof sphere why don't we try to do something that actually thought thinks about these as horizontal and of course having no capital having no resources to actually come up with these solutions and implement them
what if we could actually recruit a group of people that represented all the assets necessary to do this the ideas the diligence capabilities the capital and the operational capabilities and what if we call these people members what if we bring all three of these things into one organization and then run that could that be a model for how the 21st century addresses societal problems so this was the idea and we decided to call it helena for two reasons helena means bright shining light and i thought if you were gonna run an organization that attempted to address societal problems maybe call it something that was a north star itself and then the second reason was that uh the url was available and it was very cheap so here i am uh sophomore year kind of pitching the idea of the organization for the first time and the first step was how do i get these members to join so i can get these assets to then actually do the work so i actually wrote out a spreadsheet with 4 000 names the x and y axis were off and i thought well the internet exists i could actually just email the people that i wanted to join so i actually emailed about 4 000
people world leaders of many different stripes as you can imagine i got a very low response rate um with my 80 page memo about why i was going to build an organization that you know you four star general needs to join to help me solve the world's problems but i ended up getting one person to join very luckily i asked my high school math teacher he said no um but i ended up getting myron shoals as the first member the nobel prize winner in economics as some of you may remember from black shoals theory fast forward about six and a half years we now have about 150 uh members uh four-star generals two former cia directors nobel prize winners nobel prize winners in in science uh you know billionaire entrepreneurs and finance folks human rights activists and what we do is we actually convene them all the time around the world sometimes every single day in small groups this is an example of a helena meeting at our la office and the meetings are just like this they're very informal uh not everybody wears bow ties and we're able to bring a really intergenerational group of people together step one to just discuss like
okay what are we gonna do what are ideas that we can actually implement in the world without structure and the idea is that we would take these concepts that emanate from the meetings and then actually concretize them and these people that you're seeing don't just represent the ideation they can actually help us execute so this was the very beginning of the organization and we actually started it just as a non-profit and started to execute these projects via 501c3 structure we thought maybe at some point we've been able to get the credibility to actually add a parallel for-profit and achieve this dream of doing everything side by side so the non-profit now has many different projects but i wanted to highlight a couple for you today some of you may remember this cover of the new york times in 2019 this was one of our first projects we did via the non-profit and i think it won't be a controversial statement to say that we're experiencing um a broken civic system in our country right now there's division that we've never seen before and we need to do something about it we need to have a fix to some of the tools uh that address um uh and and and coax our democracy so we had a crazy
idea which is what if we could actually get a fully representative sample of the entire united states in one place and figure out what americans actually believe about the most critical issues facing our country and get accurate data on this and then do something about it so we started with six million americans at random and through an amazing partnership with stanford university and the university of chicago we actually winnowed that down to two groups the first was a group of 523 people and the second was a group of 800 people and we took that group of 523 people and we flew them to one place we rented out one of the largest hotels in the united states the gaylord texan hotel outside of dallas and we flew everybody there for three straight days and before they arrived we gave them an extensive poll on what they believed about the top critical issues that were actually facing the country for the 2020 election and that 800 person group that was also represented the entire country we didn't bring so we first started with this amazing
group in small group sessions of 12 13 people at a time you can see these amazing photos from the event you had to you know be there sitting there at the side it brought tears to my eyes to actually see a representative sample of our country and these small group sessions generated some of the most insightful questions we had ever heard at the end of the small group sessions however we brought them together to the most representative room in american history all at once and here's what it looked like on stage we had the presidential candidates former white house chiefs of staff from both parties former dod heads from both parties they were actually tasked with answering the questions from this representative sample of the american people and it was just fascinating to see so we ended up publishing the data and the data was breakthrough we actually saw up to a 40 change in both directions across the sample so republicans went to the center democrats went to the center republicans softened on issues like immigration democrats learned what taxes were and they became a little bit more
conservative and it got a lot of attention i think we achieved a cultural moment in our country uh president obama tweeted out about it we're on the cover of the new york times we're on the top page of cnn and we were able to actually demonstrate that hey wait a second you actually can do democracy right you can have people respect each other you can have people come together and ascertain what the will of the american people is this crazy idea that the founding fathers said that a democracy should be founded upon but that actually wasn't the end it was just the beginning we saw countries actually end up adopting this model so afterwards the country of chile and the country of iceland actually were undergoing constitutional changes and they did this deliberative poll in which they brought together a representative sample of chilean of iceland and this actually helped change their constitutions we then did another american one room on climate this was during covid and it was the largest deliberative poll the most representative sample of any country ever brought together in history 900 plus people and we did this online with an ai moderator and which were able to do it all over the united states all
simultaneously this again was a huge moment we actually brought the data to cop 26 the un climate summit because we actually had a representation of what americans would actually vote for are we going to vote for carbon dividend proposals are we going to vote for carbon taxes we were able to answer these questions we released the data with harvard we had an amazing partnership at the harvard school of public health and i thought this was a fascinating anecdote i just wanted to share this is one of the women that was in our sample and it kind of concretizes the sentiment that we had in this amazing group if you don't step back from being a politician just be just be a person just be uh what what do you see as far as the future for your children what do you see the future for your grandchildren look at it from humanity's perspective and not from a political perspective so we're actually going to be doing this project again even at a larger scale hopefully with hundreds of thousands of people at a time and i'll keep you all
posted about that but i want to move to another project we did on the nonprofit side in conversations with some of the helena members of the intelligence community we realize that the electrical grid is insanely vulnerable and it shouldn't be we're vulnerable to cyber attacks because this is actually the largest machine in the world is the north american electrical grid we're vulnerable to extreme weather which is not going to be a surprise to any of you who live in texas floods but there's actually something even scarier which is that the sun i don't know if you guys know this emits solar flares that threaten our grid called coronal mass ejections and the funny thing about this is you can actually solve this problem uh with legislation except it just hadn't been done so we decided to take our hand at it first our amazing ceo and executive director sam feinberg did a ted talk on this which didn't get much attention at the very beginning and they got millions of views because he talked about some of the issues that could happen to the grid and of course it ended up actually happening in texas for some of you that were there so inside of our non-profit working with these incredible helena members we actually wrote and passed legislation
both at the state level and then through a cooperation with the intelligence community we did a summit with folks at the cia and other organizations in arlington virginia we actually drafted and helped pass presidential executive orders on this issue releasing quite a significant amount of funding towards the problem and this is just basic stuff putting surge protectors and faraday cages on the most critical parts of the grid so here's one of the helena members actually passing unanimously a bill in the state of california bipartisan then when covet hit we did a project in which we realized that there was two issues happening the first is there was a major supply chain breakdown on critical protective equipment called ppe that hospitals actually weren't getting it because the 3ms of the world had run out of their supply so we ended up actually sending an email to all of the helena members in about two days we'd raised 20 million dollars and we actually ran a merchant bank inside of our non-profit we diligenced bought and sold 37 million units of ppe and then during the early moments of covid we actually routed that at cost to hospitals got the money back and did it again and here i am talking to the chief white
house correspondent at cbs about it but while we were doing this we actually became one of the largest buyers of pp and i was in this new business and i said wait a second how do we figure out where to actually take this this stuff and there wasn't a great answer so our members actually built a ai based predictive analytic model county by county hospital by hospital across the entire united states it was so successful overseeing so many different transactions that we actually gave it to the us government through crowd agreements with the air force and the army who ended up using it as one of their official pathways to respond to covet here's what it looks like you're able to see at a hospital by hospital level exactly what these hospital needs and the exact number they need and then a prediction of what they will need next week and philanthropists could actually directly as well as government institutions just press a button and then route their capital or their resources there one final example of another project we're working on farther into the future is actually floating cities the united states the un states that in by 2050 there will be 1.2 billion people that will move and where are they going to go right now there's countries that are pushing sand
into the ocean but we don't think that's good so we're actually the lead strategic partner of an organization called oceanics which is building the world's first floating city and this is actually beginning construction now in busan south korea and this is a bit of what the floating city looks like what's interesting about this model is that it uses less water per person than the democratic republic of congo per person it's energy neutral completely energy efficient we think this is actually a model for how the world will live in the future so that you can live symbiotically with the ocean so here's an example of some articles about the signing and ratification in busan so about four and a half five years in which is about 18 months ago we actually ended up starting the for-profit that we always wanted to start and the idea was the exact same thing what if we could actually identify solutions to societal problems that required the for-profit world to scale due diligence on them and then actually pair capital with our kind of quote unquote king-making resources from the helena members and actually do something about it so i want to give you
a couple examples of this grid scale energy storage storing energy from renewable energy from renewable generation like wind and solar is one of the achilles heels of transitioning the world to electric energy and solving climate change we found an amazing approach that actually doesn't use lithium ion rare earth minerals battery chemistry anything that blows up to do it and it's rudimentary science you actually take large bricks and then you lift them into the air potential energy and you release them down to release that energy back into the grid kinetic energy to store and release that energy what's interesting is that you can actually make these bricks and this is through a proprietary partnership with cemex out of remediated toxic waste so when we're retiring coal plants you have billions and billions of dollars of this stuff called fly ash and coal ash which is killing people in southeast asia what do we do about it we can actually get paid to take this material in build it into our bricks and then those same utilities that are paying us to take that that waste material are paying this company again to store and release their energy it's an amazing concept
here's the first system that they built in switzerland six-headed crane very clunky but this is actually cheaper and the same level of round-trip efficiency as lithium-ion it's an amazing structure now the company has moved on to its next generation system which kind of looks like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of single-story elevators next to one another but it's the exact same concept so we invested actually 21 million dollars into this company before they built their first system we helped them every step of the way and they went public on the new york stock exchange two weeks ago for 1.6 billion it was an amazing outcome for us and kind of a very first case study of the for-profit model of using this amazing group of members and actually applying them to addressing societal problems to work i want to give a couple other examples of the for-profit work plastic is one of the biggest issues we have plastic in our bloodstream i think a lot of you guys don't know this so what if we could actually find a replacement for plastic and excuse my french there was non-bullshit something that actually didn't uh harm the environment
but was the same cost as plastic or less and we did we found this amazing company that could take plastic let's just say you're done with it you put in your dishwasher and it goes away completely gone so it's fully biodegradable and water soluble and again this doesn't require that you pay three or four times your plastic which nobody will do as cool as this is so this company has jumped seven and a half x in its value since we invested 12 and a half million dollars into the company a little bit a little bit over last year and this company can make products across the spectrum we're actually making pill cups there's 800 million pill cups sold per year you go to your cvs we can make that out of this material everything to your golf balls golf sticks forks and spoons and knives here's one of my personal favorites the very first project that helena did via the non-profit was actually supporting this launch and scale of the first time that humans could actually build a machine to suck carbon dioxide out of the air commercially which is essential if we're going to solve climate change because even if we
press the button to stop all co2 emissions from getting in the atmosphere we have such an excess that is already in the air that we need to remove it at exponential scale and we're simply not doing that because it's too damn expensive just like it was too damn expensive to make solar and wind work in the 80s or 90s so you guys are smart business people how do you get the cost curve down of a technology you need more non-dilutive r d funding to go back to the process so we can't just take this carbon out of the air and stuff it underground which is being done now we need to turn it into materials so what type of material could we make out of carbon well i'm thinking of something that is especially beautiful that is made out of pure carbon and we're actually doing it we're making diamonds out of this atmospheric carbon flawless pure diamonds you put this under a machine and a test is a mined diamond so this is not a synthetic diamond not a man-made diamond with two sweaty guys over a machine using petroleum as an input we're taking that pure carbon out of the air and then turning it into diamonds and this was on the cover of forbes yesterday we got one of the top articles read on vogue and we're creating a real diamonds company
not just on the commercial side although it makes a beautiful commercial piece and if any of you are getting married i know we're all um thinking about that these days you could all buy diamonds out of the atmosphere but a lot of you guys may not know this there's actually a larger industry than just commercial luxury consumer diamonds diamonds are actually used in some of the most tough uh industrial cases like semiconductors actually all of these screens are polished by crystals and diamonds all of your watches are polished by that so what if we could rid the supply chain of mine diamonds and replace them with carbon capture diamonds where every single carat of one of these removes 20 tons of co2 out of the atmosphere so if randy doesn't kill me i'm going to go over by one or two minutes just to show you a couple more of these projects another company we invested in partnered in is called heliogen one of the most carbon emitted things we do is create industrial heat how do we fuel our cement practices how do we fill our molding practices we need heat heliogen uses ai-controlled mirrors that optimize their relationship to the sun to actually create heat that is actually
a thousand five hundred degrees celsius or higher we invested fifteen million dollars in next generation nuclear fusion a company called commonwealth fusion systems that we think is cracked the tokamak reactor approach to create boundless free energy and i'll give you a final example of something really proud of that we actually just started two weeks ago there's a advanced artificial intelligence company that googlebot that is most known for actually the alphago achievement beating the world's top go player which is one of the most complex games in the world a lot of you remember gary kasparov getting beaten by deep blue this is the next generation version of that i think trillions or quadrillions of different permutations and the ai was able to beat a human at it but this same technology did something different that is a little less sexy but i think is very sexy they went back to google and they said hey google one percent of all the world's co2 emissions are just computer servers and you own the world's largest collection of these computer servers we're going to build an ai for you so that we run all of the heating and cooling across your entire server population for you
and they did and it reduced google's heating bill by 50 so you can kind of see where the ai comes on and comes off so imagine a business that sells a piece of software that replaces humans to control the most complex mission-critical industrial equipment in the world and it does it cheaper and more efficiently and it saves you 50 of your money these are the types of implementations we're doing on the for-profit side because they can harness the power of capitalism just to end here one of the dreams that we have beyond all of this is to actually run a completely circular organization in which our non-profit can scale along with our for-profit and we can actually become our own philanthropist we no longer have to pass the hat in order to raise the money on the non-profit side we can actually make the money ourselves and run a completely self-sustaining organization and my dream over the next 50 years is to build the world's top and most effectatious organization that actually solves societal problems in partnership with some of the world's top leaders and that's what i want to dedicate the rest of my life to and we're now six and a half years in i would love any of your support and just come up to me after and talk about it if
you'd like thank you guys [Applause] you