Page Pontificates About, Gates Produces Academic Entrepreneurism

The AAAS annual meeting took place last last week in San Francisco, and Larry Page was scheduled to be a plenary speaker on Saturday night. Having given my own talk at the conference Saturday, I stuck around afterwards to hear Page’s. It turned out that Page switched places with the plenary speaker scheduled for the night before, and I ended up seeing Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu instead. Too bad, because Page apparently talked about the need for academics to market their work and for academia to pursue entrepreneurism, something that is of interest to this blog and that I’ve posted about before (blog posts from others on the talk can be found here and here). Chu’s talk, however, was probably more interesting than Larry’s.

Chu directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and spoke about global energy resources, agricultural development, and world health. One part of his talk that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of a chemical engineering professor at UC Berkeley, Jay Keasling, who has discovered a way to get bacteria to become mini-factories for the creation of a malaria vaccine. His work, which I’m going to guess was being funded by the NIH, got the attention of the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation who subsequently donated $43 million to develop his technique on a mass scale so that his treatment could be distributed cheaply and efficiently around the world.

One stipulation of this funding was that the malaria treatment would have to be sold at no profit for the developing company. But, the company could use whatever technology and inventions it did create during the development of the malaria treatment for other profitable purposes. The first not-for-profit biotech company was created with the Gates funding and this company was given a mandate to increase the volume of this treatment by a factor of a million (or so) and reduce the price of the treatment down to 20 cents a dose (or so), which they did—astonishing, given the price of newly developed drugs these days. And, the company created technology that it believes will spur other drug developments and, of course, create a profit for the company’s continued existence.

This is a unique example of integrating academic research with entrepreneurship, something that Larry Page had promoted the night before. In the absence of the Gates Foundation’s initiative, Prof Keasling would likely have received more government funding at a considerably lower amount than the Gates offering, and the development of a cheap malaria treatment available on a large scale would have taken years longer to get to those who need it. Proposing to fund R&D only if the resulting product is sold at cost while allowing profit from any collateral development is a great funding model—one that the NIH’s Small Business Funding Opportunities program should consider. It solves the problem of jointly satisfying the desire to make inventions from government-funded grants as widely accessible as possible while providing startup companies the opportunity to profit from their efforts in productizing the grant-funded technology. University professors want their ideas to be “free to the world”, while companies need to make a profit on the ideas that they bring to market in order for the company to survive (and have the ability to bring more ideas to the market in the future). This does both.

I also like the hutspah of the Gates Foundation to simply come in, tell a researcher to “Make it happen”, and give them the resources to do so. No screwing around with the slow slog of writing grants, getting them reviewed, possibly further rounds of submissions, then finally training graduate students to do the research. Much of the $30 billion spent by the NIH to fund academic research is done so with the intention that the research will benefit the general public whose tax dollars pay for it. Certainly, grant proposals often proclaim the potential benefit of the research to the general public right up front (in my field, many grants begin by stating that the US has 30 million hearing impaired people and that their research will help develop better hearing aids). Most of this research ends with a published paper as the only resulting final product—science advances through a better understanding of the topic that was researched, but no direct benefit to society is discernible. This has been one of the reasons for the NIH initiative towards Translational Research.

As an aside, I was stunned a few weeks ago when Bill Gates was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and spent 15 minutes talking about the Windows Vista launch with no mention of the incredible work that his foundation is doing. Gates is changing the shape of philanthropy and this was a great time to talk about it to a large, young population who probably doesn’t think at all about gift-giving. My wife suggested the explanation—she is a professional fundraiser—that the Gates Foundation likely depends on the success of Microsoft for their financial ability to pursue their high goals. So, Gates wasn’t actually wasting an opportunity on The Daily Show by being a salesman, he was simply trying to maximize the capabilities of his Foundation by promoting Vista sales. Maybe.

Oy, I’m a Mac

I snapped this photo today of a poster ad with my cellphone while in a London Tube station. Looks like the Apple vs PC characters are a little different in England than in the US. In my opinion, the PC guy doesn’t look as nerdy as the American version, and the Mac person looks more like a footballer than a Gen-Y hipster—he’s more likely to beat you up than help you download cool tunes. In fact, it looks like the Mac bloke is about to give the PC chap a right good thumping!

MacPc

Getting Plaxoed

Plaxo is a great contact management service that has been begging to be integrated with other Web 2.0 services. Now it has.

Plaxo is a free, easy-to-use contact management service that synchronizes your Outlook contacts with a web-accessible contact list, and allows the contacts on one computer to be synchronized with contact lists other computers, which it does with ease (ast least with Outlook and Outlook Express).

Not only that, it has a push system among Plaxo members exemplified as follows. A friend of mine who is a Plaxo member recently modified their cell phone number in their own Outlook contact entry and that information automatically got modified in both my Outlook contact lists. If everyone were a Plaxo member, keeping up with contact info would be effortless.

People have been hoping that Plaxo would collaborate or even merge with LinkedIn, an online business network (why do people call it a social network when people use it for business?). While we still wait for that to happen, scanR, a free online scanning service, announced integration of their online service with Plaxo’s. You can take a photo of a business card with your cell phone, e-mail it to scanR, and they will scan the information and automatically enter it into your Plaxo database, after which it gets automatically added to all of your Outlook contact lists. Very cool. And about time. Bring on the Plaxo integration, and more Plaxo members.

More Ive

A colleague of mine, Sridhar Kalluri, informed me of this post on Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of Design responsible for the iPod, iMac, all things “i” who I’ve posted about before. It’s a preprint of an article from the soon-to-be-published Ten4 magazine’s issue on British creativity.

Ive provides some insight into design that isn’t common knowledge to people unfamiliar with modern design processes. The article begins with Ive explaining that design is about problem solving:

The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context.

When talking about how his design team addressed a specific difficulty with a stand for the latest iMac:

We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was.

This interview from the Design Museum is also interesting, Ive identifies technology convergence when asked to name catalysts for today’s design development:

New products that replace multiple products with substantial histories is obviously exciting for us.

I want to say one word to you…Plastics

Gustave_Dore_Inferno25I used to think that there was a special circle of hell reserved solely for the inventor of the packaging for music CDs—and apparently I’m not the only one. I imagined a mountain of new CDs from which the inventor must forever open new CDs, with the mountain never reducing in its supply.

Well, I now believe that this circle holds an even bigger mountain for an even bigger sinner, and the inexhaustible supply this mountain spews forth contains plastic molding packaging that contains mundane consumer goods. Not expensive consumer electronics but ordinary items that used to come in ordinary cardboard and easily-opened packaging. You know, packaging that didn’t require the use of a blow-torch, surgical laser or chainsaw to open. An didn’t produce bloodied stumps where fingers one protruded after trying to open by hand.

While this packaging is normally only annoying and inconvenient at home, I’ve now discovered that it can actually keep you from accessing the item that you’ve purchased if you are traveling, when you don’t normally have mini-jaws-of-life tools handy.

Two months ago I realized that I had forgotten to bring my razor on a business trip. Good thing there’s a Target nearby, I foolishly thought. By the end of the night, my fingers were sliced and blood lay on the hotel’s linoleum floor as I finally overcame the seemingly indestructible packaging that surrounded the cheap non-electric razor that I bought. No, the cuts didn’t come from the enclosed blades—Gillette engineers are going to heaven, not the inventor of the now-ubiquitous plastic packaging in which more and more items are being sold.

JUMP CUT: TODAY

INT. ROOM — NIGHT

The scene: a nondescript hotel room which one wouldn’t want to see under a black light.

A red-faced man stabs at a package, the veins popping on his neck. He holds in one hand a slim transparent yet indestructible plastic package containing A PEN, and stabs at the package with his other hand holding the hotel’s feeble BALLPOINT PEN.

PSYCHOTIC TRAVELER

Aaaaarrrrggghhhh!

Yes, I bought a pen tonight at Office Depot, only to find out that I COULDN’T GET TO THE PEN BECAUSE SOMEONE HAD APPARENTLY SEALED IT TO SURVIVE A THOUSAND-YEAR BURIAL ALONGSIDE SOME MODERN-DAY TUTANKHAMEN.

Destroyed PlasticsThe photo to the right shows the hideous remains of my conquered enemy. This time, I survived opening the package without leaving bloodstains to worry the hotel’s maid. But what in the gods’ names (to reference BSG) was such protective packaging doing on a cheap pen in Office Depot? I would advise others to avoid my perils by traveling wherever they go with scissors, but I know that one can’t travel very far these days carrying such tools of modern-day survival if one doesn’t check one’s bags.

Architectural Innovation

GordanaA friend of mine, Gordana Pavlovic, was featured in Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle for her architectural design work. I’ve always thought that she had a lot to say about innovation, and the Chronicle article articulates why.

Design is often thought of as a purely artistic process, where the designer does all of their work in front of their CAD program or sketchbook in the same way that a painter works in front of their canvas. Modern design, however, emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach that requires engineering, psycho-social research, manufacturing, and artistic vision to all work together in a process of innovation.

Gordana makes it clear that the same holds true for architecture. Her unique creations that include a glass-enclosed bridge tell how her work incorporates an understanding of the needs of her clients. She notes,

…you have to observe how people use space and how they live, and then design around that.

Similar sentiments were made in a short piece by architect Arthur Gensler in the January 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Gensler describes how many architects talk about their clients getting in the way of the architect’s vision. Gensler goes on to say that his vision is based on designing to the client’s needs—there is no conflict between designer and customer. The same holds true in technology: a modern focus of technology innovation is to focus on the user experience and unmet needs: the vision starts with a focus on the client/customer.

In the Chronicle article, Gordana notes that having significant constraints put on her design requirements makes the problem solving process an exciting one. Again, a common modern theory of innovation is that the existence of significant constraints on possible inventions provides a framework from which one can best exercise one’s creativity. Too much freedom to innovate is like providing consumers with too much choice: one is left frozen by so many possibilities that one doesn’t know where or even how to start. By providing constraints, goals are clearly set and strategies can be more easily defined. By requiring an integration of a house’s design with nearby centennial oak trees, for example, Gordana was given a framework from which to begin her own creative process.

The picture at the beginning of this post, by the way, is a photo that I took at one of Gordana’s art exhibits: a glimpse of three of her paintings. Good design, after all, is part artistic.