Diving Deep into the Future at an Arc Fusion Jeffersonian Dinner

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Ever heard of a Jeffersonian Dinner? I’ve been invited to one or two over the last few years, one of which was being held in Washington DC, where it was birthed in the 1800’s by none other than Thomas Jefferson himself. Because of those invitations, I had some vague idea of what they were, but never actually participated in one until the Arc Fusion folks hosted one recently in San Francisco.

Thomas Jefferson

Photo credit: www.smithsonianmag.com  

Rewind the clock to 1819 and visualize yourself at a long and decadently adorned table with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, his elegant Virginia home. Around the table, you’re seated with a group of people steeped deep in culture, philosophy, education, history, politics, art, literature, science and theology.

The idea behind a Jeffersonian Dinner is to bring people together from different disciplines, creating a new cause-centered community around a topic of importance or significance you might want to discuss for whatever reason. This can be done to tap into new resources, raise funds for a non profit or important issue, or simply to expand the group’s thinking about a variety of topics.

It’s important that it be somewhat intimate so 12-15 people at a table is a good size and I’d argue that while someone’s home isn’t a requirement, it makes it more personal — a private dining room could also work.

The purpose of the Jeffersonian Dinner is to build a sense of community and partnership around a shared interest or theme. One of the rules is that everyone participates in a single conversation and are not encouraged to engage in one-on-one dialogues with their partners on either side.


Photo credit: blog.asana.com. 

How fitting that the San Francisco Arc Dinner be held at the 1880’s Payne Mansion on Sutter Street and also how intriguing that the topic at hand was not about the past, but about our fears and concerns for the future, say in 100 years.

David Ewing Duncan kicked off the event. A historian, author, journalist and also CEO of Arc Fusion, which celebrates the conversion of IT, healthcare and biotech, David decided to take us down memory lane before dinner.


Photo credit: Arc Fusion Website.

We went back to 1915 and recalled some of the provocative insights, inventions and historical moments of the time. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beating Stress was out at the time (surprising I know), the first EKG was used in 1913 and OMG was first used in 1917 (yes really).

The industries David and his team at Arc are most interested in exploring are at the intersection of what is happening in health, IT and biotech. It’s not hard to see why, with nearly $800 billion being spent on health and wellness and $1.1 trillion on IT services with $50 billion on Health IT alone.

He asked attendees before they came to the dinner whether they felt they’d be alive 100 years from now. 18% said yes whereas 82% voted no. In case you think that even 18% is insanely overly optimistic, remember that the audience is highly vested in technology and some are actually working on the most important research in the fields on longevity/aging, science, technology and medicine.

The same audience voted on what will be most important to humanity’s fate in 100 years — 40% voted for politics whereas it was no surprise to see technology lead that vote at 60%. As far as the impact on humans in the next 100 years, 36% felt it would be in gene editing and a whopping 70% went for stem cells. Pharma only came in at 11% which tied with health and wellness and bionics took last place at 9%.

Other things on people’s minds included mood manipulation, synthetic biology, longevity tech, next generation deep learning and renewable energy.

James Canton asked the audience to imagine a future where embedded devices and technology automate the work, resolving issues that need to be addressed in our bodies. The truth is that nano and quantum technologies are expanding so rapidly that we are now in a game changing time for our health. Innovative ecosystems will start to do disease detection for us, hopefully before it turns into disease.

Drew Endy asserted that learning “how to” solve problems is the secret to sustaining life over the long haul. His deepest wishes include a future where biology will have distributed manufacturing and distributed systems and that humans will start to think of a world outside of themselves. Hear hear.

Casey Lynett addressed where we are going with Alzheimer’s pointing to some important finds for this disheartening disease that seems to be soaring not reversing.

Artist and molecular biologist Una Ryan showed us her work, reminding us of the beauty inside our bodies through our cells, our protein and our blood. She refers to the image below as the Tree of Life since it contains everything that makes our bodies operate.



The food they served at the dinner was not surprisingly farm-to-table and organic. It was also very purposely selected based on a fascinating premise — each ingredient was chosen to serve every vital organ of the body. Dishes ranged from salads and nori rolls to fresh fish and wine for the heart — two thumbs up for the Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon that showed up on our table.



The most riveting part of the evening, at least for me since it touched on some of the most controversial conversations happening around healthcare today, was the fireside chat between venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur Vinod Khosla and renowned doctor Dean Ornish.

Both visionaries took the stage to share their take on the future of healthcare. Vinod formed Khosla Ventures to focus on both for-profit and social impact investments and as a big believer in the importance raw data can have the future of health, he invests in both healthcare and biotechnology.

Says Vinod, “almost nothing that is relevant in medicine today will be relevant in 20-30 years. Even though some of it may still be true, it will be too imprecise to be that useful so no one will use it.” He asserts that medicine will be mostly science and data driven over the next 10-15 years.

He added, “we will have more research opportunities but we won’t use them because we won’t have the causality which is most important.”

He also went on to say that we won’t use doctors that much in the future to get a diagnosis and what we may pay more credence to is the doctor or (non-MD) who has the highest EQ not the highest IQ. Hear hear Vinod! I couldn’t agree more. Bedside manner, using common sense and logic and listening between the lines to a patient is something that so many traditional doctors so sadly “don’t get.”


Dean takes a slightly different approach although they agreed more than disagreed. While he agrees that data gives us a lot of useful information we may not have had access to twenty years ago, if all we are is a set of algorithms, then humans can simply be replaced by an app. The reality says Dean is that we are so much more.

What I love about Dean’s approach and always have ever since I first met him now over a decade ago, is that while he’s far from a luddite, he tries to get people (and the industry) to look at the underlying cause of an issue. He believes that lifestyle and diet shifts are fundamental game changers, pivotal to reversing symptoms and in many cases, the disease itself.

He’s interested in lifestyle medicine which is very low tech, but the power of low-tech interventions is very very real and something that techies sadly discount all too readily, focusing most of their time on connected devices, data and the Internet of Things.

Personally I lose sleep at night thinking about how so many brilliant scientific and medical minds can be so misguided, overlooking the raw fundamentals of what can keep us healthy and happy, holistically so.

Bottom line, we need to treat the underlying cause and also look at the mind, body and spirit, NOT just the body alone.

This integrated approach is what the techies and scientists keep missing and a sad reason why insurance companies put holistic care like acupuncture and body work, organic food, diet modifications and supplements last on the priority list.

It’s the same broken record when it comes to addressing the disgusting impact that processed foods are having on Americans today. (Note: processed food ingestion is increasing globally of course, but the yanks still sadly take the cake when it comes to fast food and boxed processed ingredients as their go-to- diet). I digress but the whole thing sickens me so much that I can’t help but vent at times like this.

Truth be told, as Dean took the provocative and controversial low-tech stance amidst so many tech-centered entrepreneurs in the room that night, I wanted to stand on my chair and boldly blurt out – “GO DEAN and oh btw, don’t stop here!”

He is a big advocate of lifestyle and diet changes and given recent research findings, they’re finding that the same lifestyle interventions that deter heart disease are the same ones that can keep prostrate and breast cancer at bay and even in some cases, Alzheimer’s.

You can apparently see a positive and reversing effects to 500 genes over the course of 3 months through lifestyle changes.  For most chronic diseases, which account for 86% of issues, we can reverse their onslaught through shifts in our lifestyle and diet.

Dean thinks that we’ll see a future where the placebo effect will be more important not less. Why? Because, it works.

Vinod doesn’t disagree with Dean although he wants to see data behind it, proving that it’s real. In his view, the math is the math of networks, but agrees with Dean that diet is important and that symptoms are the wrong way to look at a disease.

Given that we live in an information age and are drowning in so much data we don’t know what to do with it, I agree with Dean that while data may be important and there’s no doubt having access to what our bodies are doing and why is useful, its only part of the equation. Plenty of people have data but even if you know that smoking cigarettes can kill you, if you’re suffering from deep anxiety and depression, you’re not going to quit smoking anytime soon.

Anxiety and depression are very real, particularly in the states. The stats are going up and pharma companies are making millions on drugs, some of which cover up the real issues that lay behind what is making them depressed in the first place.

Dean asserts that what is even more vital is the mantra I keep beating people over the head with every day: the more so called connected we are, the more disconnected we are….I mean physically and emotionally disconnected, not the fact that we can now communicate with people instantaneously on Facebook or Skype from our cell phones in real time.

What’s really missing is the deeper sense of meaning you get from being physically and emotionally connected to others. There’s no doubt that people need to rediscover inner peace, joy and purpose in their lives.

Bottom line, it’s all about changing the raw materials we give to people and place as a priority. I’ll end with this note and thought to reflect on: if we can take this “ground level” low-tech approach seriously by beginning with the things that provide deeper purpose and meaning, then we can really begin to accelerate healing. While data can continue to feed the bigger picture, if we don’t get back to the fundamental basics of what feeds the soul, we’ll remain a far cry from a truly sustainable solution to holistic health, happiness and well-being. A big high five to Dean Ornish!

For more information on Arc Fusion, check out their site at http://arcprograms.net/ where you’ll also learn about their upcoming Arc Fusion Summit being held in southern California September 1-2, 2015. What David has created is a truly innovative, future thinking and leading-edge organization and he has managed to bring together some of the smartest minds to address what both plagues and interests us most today.

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