Perhaps the Cryonics Industry Needs a Luxury Line
Permalink | View Comments (3) | Post Comment | | Posted by Reason

Industries are rather like certain forms of insect - they go through characteristic stages in their life cycle in which the look, internals, and behavior are very different. Moving from one stage to the next is a matter of growth: gaining customers, revenue, mindshare, and the funds for significant research and development. Industries start out as advocacy projects - a few people who think they're right, and have the necessary luck, skill, and staying power to convince a market into their way of thinking. In those early stages, the dynamic between leaders and followers is very different than it is in mature industries. There is a lot of passion and zealotry, people doing things for love rather than money, active advocates with strong opinions and no fear of shouting them out loud. Lots of drama, excitement, and rapid change. But as an industry grows into its later stages, and the number of customers swell, that passion and zealotry fades into the background, to be replaced by the quiet hum of businesses that are all about professionalism, standards, reassuring public faces, steady wages, and long term profits. Look at the personal computer industry, for example - it's no coincidence that all the good stories and larger than life characters are from the 1970s, back when everyone knew one another and the whole thing was a collection of people in various garages.

The computing industry succeeded, evidently, but the cryonics industry - born around the same time - never made it much beyond the early stages of growth. The reasons for this have been discussed to death over the years, so I won't go into them here, but the industry is presently in that early stage middle ground where staid, long-term business practices and the passion of the zealots are equally present and influential. This has been the case for the past twenty years, and there the industry will stay until there is significant growth in the number of customers: when an industry remains small, there is no chance for the original founders - colorful characters who are passionate enough to set out and do what most people never get around to trying - to fade away in favor of solid bottom-line-and-marketing businessmen. It it stays small for long enough, you end up with a significant fraction of embittered zealots and their drama, which is never fun.

When an initiative does succeed attracting broad support and a large community, the energy and quirks of the early activists are tempered by a sea of more sedate, everyday folk. Sometimes the pioneers are quietly airbrushed out of the official histories - once an initiative becomes large enough for its leaders to want it to look like a shiny, official, professional machine, then the original barnstormers and larger than life personalities start to be seen as a liability. Justifiably or not, they are shuffled to one side of the growing crowd. In this way, the ultimate accolade of success is to be made irrelevant in the movement you helped found: accepting that likelihood up front is the way to peace of mind for activists and advocates.

But when things don't go according to plan, and what was intended to be great fails to achieve its original promise, or moves too slowly, then the problems start. Some of the early activists, untempered by large numbers of new volunteers and supporters, become poisonous. Their hyperactivism manifests itself in perfectionism, attacks on members of the community, and other displays of frustration or bitterness: to their eyes, failure was avoidable, and the problem must be the other people involved.

While you might not think of it as such, given the $100,000+ sticker price on a cryosuspension ordered at short notice, cryonics is actually a service priced for the mass market: people who can plan enough to regularly put aside a little for the long term. Most customers pay for cryonics through life insurance, which when started in middle age is no more than a very modest monthly payment - less than your car payments, perhaps less than your car insurance payments.

There is nothing wrong with that per se, but the industry isn't overcoming the barriers to growth. The most reliable way of pushing through a barrier to growth is investment: large sums of money poured into marketing, research, development and so forth. Those of you who have been involved in young companies will know about barriers to growth: there are times when your venture speeds ahead and customers pour in seemingly of their own accord, and there are times when you hit a brick wall and the only way through is via money - spent on changing the business, spent on marketing, spent on researching how to get past the barrier ... whatever works in the end. But fundamentally, that's what investment in a business is all about: figuring a way past the next brick wall so as to become larger and thus more profitable in absolute terms.

There are two sources of capital for investment: investors and your customers. We'll leave investors out of this discussion, as there are few willing to invest in cryonics. It looks terrible as a money-making proposition, given its history, and the known cryonics-friendly philanthropists are not particularly deep pocketed in the grand scheme of things. Obtaining funding from early customers is a time-honored tradition in many businesses, however: the early customers tend to be wealthy and pay high prices for their early access to a product. The money they provide pays off the debts of prior research and development and funds ongoing growth - this is a part of the process in many industries by which products start out as a costly luxury item and later become a mass-market commodity that is both far cheaper and far better.

Cryonics seems to have skipped the costly luxury item stage in its existence, which is both interesting and possibly a liability for the industry in the long term. One might envisage some form of Cryonics Platinum organization that offers $500,000 or $1 million packages for folk like Simon Cowell, Ted Williams, politicians, and other multimillionaires who can both afford it and have use for the additional services, security, process management, and cachet that a higher price point can supply.

I have no idea whether such a thing is viable, but I don't see any obvious purely economic reason as to why it wouldn't be. It's really little different in structure than, say, the business of long-term leasing of luxury yachts or private jets and their crews. Something to think about.

Comments

I don't think it needs a luxury line. It needs to wait for more atheists & agnostics to reach old age. With every generation there's more atheists & agnostics, for obvious reasons. The cryonics industry needs to stay patient and continue as it is, although further advances are, of course, welcome. Nowadays, the majority of people don't believe in cryonics and prefer to have a normal burial and then to meet their god/s. This won't change overnight, though.

Posted by: Nick at September 4, 2011 2:35 PM

I think you're right, Reason. A luxury line would increase the status of cryonics overall, and help the mass market realize what a good deal they are getting. Large amounts of money going towards research and advertising could make cryonics much bigger than it is today.

Posted by: Luke Parrish at September 5, 2011 8:20 AM

This is a fantastic idea. A luxury line would be brilliant. Hope someone at Alcor or one of the other cryo companies takes notice.

Posted by: Witek at December 31, 2011 5:28 PM
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