When Max Levchin begins to answer a question, he first notes how he could do so in one of any number of ways that flashed through his head while he was being asked the question.
So suffice it to say he's a smart guy. Not only did he revolutionize digital payments more than a decade ago with PayPal, but he's now dedicating his life to tackling health issues like female fertility and the hurdles of leveraging biometric data to meaningful ends. In Levchin's future, your bathroom mirror will tell you when to take an aspirin, hurricanes will provide us energy, and data streams will be all encompassing and endlessly informative.In a one-on-one with AllThingsD's Kara Swisher Wednesday afternoon at the Mixpanel Data Driven Conference in San Francisco, Levchin further outlined the vision of his company Glow, which makes a ovulation-tracking smartphone app, and how data can be better used in the tech sphere at large. "If you step back and think about the world in terms of measurable and actionable data, how do you take something observable and quantifiable and tie it to something you can change?" Levchin said.
Levchin noted that problems with the U.S.'s current health care system bar women from using their coverage to help pay for fertility treatment. "It's an incredible, family-ruining problem," he said. "If you are north of 30, you know of someone who has had a problem conceiving."
That's why with Glow, Levchin's taking a gamble: if he and his company can't use data to get a woman pregnant, they will pay for it. "I think the fundamental truism of data-driven companies is you either talk about it or you take a principal risk," he said. "You have to put you money where your mouth is, or in this case put your money where your data is."
The app allows people the option to contribute $50 a month to a mutual assistance program that will help pay for fertility treatments in the event a user is not pregnant within 10 months of using it. Levchin has already announced that he's putting up $1 million of his own money to the pool.
But Glow is just the beginning for Levchin's foray into public health and quantified self. On his wrist, he wore a Misfit Shine, a soon-to-be-released all-metal quarter-sized fitness tracker that's the first of its kind to be all wireless (the Nike FuelBand and Fitbit Flex, for instance, use Bluetooth pairing to sync data). Levchin, an investor in Misfit, is fascinated with the ways in which technology will be able to keep us healthy in the future.
For one, he envisions the bathroom mirror as an incredible avenue for a future self-analyzing, biometric-generating device. If the mirror could decode the pigment of your skin and match it with your sleep cycle the night prior, it could prescribe a daily vitamin regiment or loop in your physician to help predict how your patterns of behavior might be influencing your health five or 10 years down the line. The trade-off, Levchin noted, was the obvious fact that people will not want a camera looking at them in the bathroom.
Far and away Levchin's most outlandish directive for the future was mankind's need to harness mother nature.
Noting that a hurricane releases the energy equivalent of a "50-megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes," Levchin pointed out that it was silly to think it was impossible to capitalize on that if humans are able to dig up and burn portions of the Earth. While the facts there might be a bit skewed -- the 50-megaton number certainly isn't verifiable, and a fair chunk of a hurricane's immense wind energy is used to keep itself going, making the fraction of collectable energy far lower -- it's an idea that's certainly not as crazy as it sounds. After all, scientists have experimented with man-made tornados.
"Weather data is the single largest chaotic data set money can buy," Levchin said, adding that a good amount of it is now freely available through online databases. After all, for Levchin it's less about the ability to collect the data than what we're able to do with it.
When asked by Swisher how he measures success, Levchin responded, "I measure success by the sheer number of people whose lives are better."