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How Alphabet’s ‘Moonshot Factory’ Decides Which Projects Deserve to Live

Greetings from TED in rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. TED is the conference where art and ideas are as important as technology, and all the powerful people in tech congregate to broaden their minds and, no matter what they tell you, do business. I’ll be reporting from the conference all week with the aim of giving you a sense of what goes on here well before the famous TED Talks hit the Internet.

TED’s opening night was dramatic, as usual. The choreographer Bill T. Jones presented an original work that infused his life and experiences. Television producer and writer Shonda Rhimes delivered a technically masterful piece of rhetoric about how she reconciled her workaholic ways with her desire to find joy outside of work. (Awkward TED moment: Rhimes and non-profit activist Dan Pallotta, presumably away from their young children, urging a roomful of 1,000-plus workaholics away from their children to spend more time with their children.)

The one pure tech talk of the evening was a confident, breezy presentation by Astro Teller, head of X, formerly known as Google X, Alphabet’s (GOOG) much ballyhooed “moonshot factory.” (Moonshot evokes the grandeur of Google’s plans, Teller said. Factory reminds the dreamers of the imperative to have “concrete plans to make them real.”)

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Teller spoke convincingly of his outfit’s willingness to fail and of its cultural predisposition toward trying to come up with reasons to kill projects. A scheme to automate vertical farming—the allure was lower land use and proximity to end markets—failed because staple crops didn’t fare well. An effort to build a “lighter-than-air variable buoyancy cargo ship” was too expensive to produce, at $200 million for a prototype.

The sparkle in Teller’s eye is Project Loon, Google’s effort to bring the Internet to 4 billion unserved people via stratospheric balloons. The project hasn’t been without its hiccups—“We’ve busted a lot of balloons,” said Teller—but Google hasn’t killed it yet. Teller says Google is in talks to test its project in Indonesia this year and that five billion more people will get Internet access in five to ten years.

WATCH: 5 inspiring TED Talks by women.

More from TED tomorrow.