#BioHacking – ‘And science at homeso the apocalypse came upon mankind, not by way of rogue nation states or covert warfare, but from the curiosity of a teenager with an easy bake oven of tools for using CRISPR-Cas9 to tinker with A,G,T, and C in the place where he was supposed to be doing his homework.’

Check out the NYTimes coverage of this issue: NYTimes on BioHacking.

Malcolm Gladwell is clever.  Anyone who has read his books can quickly deduce this.  However, perhaps what is most clever about Malcolm Gladwell is that he recognizes that cleverness is not necessarily all about being smart.  In fact, most of the truly great things that people get credit for were not really invented by them.  Henry Ford did not invent much truly new, he just was exceptional at making it work together.  Andrew Hargadon had a recent post on his blog about this issue as well, but for every great invention / business / whatever you can name, I can find three people who could probably lay claim at the idea first. It’s not that ideas are not precious, or necessary, it’s just that they are not enough.  Malcolm Gladwell is best known for several books (Tipping Point, Blink, etc.) that take well established ideas from many domains, repackage and add new insights, and make him into an icon.  The fact that most of these ideas are not original Gladwell creations does not diminish his contribution, and he’d be the first to tell you it was not all him.  It’s about putting things together in the right context, with the right people, and sometimes the right business model.

This simple insight could be pretty influential for those who seek big ideas.  Be an idea harvester, not just an idea creator.

For many people, the biggest issue in politics today is jobs. To me, it seems that America could learn a lot from Mr. Jobs about creating jobs.

From the beginning, Steve Jobs was an imaginative and farsighted thinker.  He built Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world by focusing on two things: 1.) Creating value for people with innovative products that simplified people’s lives and 2.) Constructing new markets from scratch for these products.

Apple is really just a tremendously successful construction company. [Market Construction]

Think of all of Apple’s biggest revenue drivers: iPod, iPad, iPhone, iTunes ß each of these constructed a new market from scratch. Apple has excelled because they construct new markets that create value in people’s lives.

Why is it so great to be in the [market] construction business? There are big advantages to this approach: Better margins, less competition, more job growth, and first mover advantages.  When you pioneer, you set the standards – just ask Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook!

The market construction business is not easy, but it’s worth it. Market construction requires a different frame of thinking. The questions revolve around what could be rather than what is. Leaders think about how customers might re-imagine their experience of a product (think Apple’s mouse for computer interaction; mobile music libraries; a person’s entire life in their pocket command center). Market construction also requires a different approach to marketing / development. Questions become: Who is the customer? (You must find them because they don’t know they need you yet). What do they want from the product? (They don’t know yet.  You have to educate them). What is the right price point? (You decide, based on the value you create for customers).

For America, real and substantial job growth will come from innovative market construction. Simply, America needs to get back into the construction business

America has struggled to truly transition from ‘old industries’ where we had strong capabilities (for example, the auto industry, textile industry, and most manufacturing industries) into ‘new economy’ markets that are only beginning to emerge.

The good news is that America is exceptionally well prepared to lead in this century, but we will need to follow Apple’s example of leading on new frontiers.

The biggest areas for growth in the next 20 years, essentially the real estate with the largest “green fields” ready for market construction, will likely be in the areas of: Life sciences (personalized medicine), technical services, green technology, new sources of power generation, nanotech, pharma / medical devices.

The government can play an important role in four key ways:

  1. Fund basic science (in areas too expensive for industry to drive cost effectively)
  2. Aid fast growing companies however they can (particularly in ‘targeted’ industries)
  3. Support business-enabling infrastructure (infrastructure bank, high speed rail)
  4. Get out of the way (avoid regulatory interference)

Essentially, the government can double down on [market] construction.

Steve Jobs was a visionary. America could use a new generation of visionaries that put on their hard hats as market construction engineers and deliver the jobs of the future.

For more, I was part of a panel on “To the Point with Warren Olney” on PRI/NPR talking about these issues: click here for a link to the broadcast of the show.


Is everything a Remix?

Kirby Ferguson has put together a fantastic short video series that nicely describes an idea I’ve been trying to highlight in my research for a long time – that very few “breakthroughs” are really about creating something truly new, but instead are more about copying, slightly transforming, and combining other people’s ideas.

Simply: breakthroughs are a myth, and copying is king.

In the series of 3 videos linked to below, he shows how even masterful / novel contributions to music (video 1, highlighting Led Zeppelin), movies (video 2, highlighting Star Wars), and technology (video 3, highlighting Xerox before the Mac) are really remixes. Very powerful ideas that run counter to society’s views on creativity!


Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

For most of recorded history, God was the only one who created life.US-SCIENCE-GENETICS-VENTER

Although I’m largely a huge fan of Craig Venter‘s work and approach to science (he is the guy who won the race to code the human genome), his new project creeps me out.  He and his colleagues are setting out to conquor the next great genetics challenge, synthesizing life from scratch. The technology is largely in place, and they have now succeeded in their primary efforts.  The team chose an ‘easy’ target for their first attempts, trying to create a simple bacteria called mycoplasma genitalium. It worked. Technically, it is not alive, as it lacks the biological machinery of a cell.  However, the genome is basically all there.

The good news is that by doing this, they will be able to probe a ton of very fundamental questions about the functioning of different parts of the genome directly. This type of work will help to really move our understanding of genetics into the 21st century.  The implications of the work are huge for pharma, biotech, and others who can use this info to build better drugs, and solve medical mysteries. Still, they are basically creating frankenstein. The logical extension of this work is to move to more complex organisms.  Where will that lead?  Design-your-own pet / friend / child / husband laboratories?  Hmmm.  Science is moving ahead at full steam.  I’m not sure the world is ready.

Creepy fact # 1: To make sure that their frankenstein did not escape captivity from their lab, Venter and company made it dependent on an antibiotic so that if it escaped it could not survive. The fact that they were worried about this worries me.  What would happen if it was let loose to run around with God’s other creatures?

Creepy fact # 2: To make sure that frankenstein was clearly identifiable to anyone through a genetic test, the scientists wrote the name of their institute and their individual names into its DNA code. Creepy!

There are a lot of stereotypes about smart people.  Most of these stereotypes are well supported with the geeks and freaks that occupy the top of the intellectual spectrum.  However, a few of the absolute intellectual elite break the mold.  Nathan Myhrvold is one of these.  He is as one-of-a-kind as people come, and he is amazing.

Let’s start with some of his geek cred.  It’s pretty good.  He started college at age 14 (ala Doogie Howser).  He graduated from UCLA having studied math and physics with bachelors and masters degrees.  Then on to Princeton, where he recieved his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23 (now I’m thinking of the “Charlie” character from the TV show Numbers).  What does a wunderkind do with a Princeton PhD by 23?  He went to study cosmology and quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge.  Like most super-geniuses this was just the beginning.  He left Hawking to start a computer start-up in California, which was soon snapped up by Microsoft.  He then worked at Microsoft for 13 years, launching many of their best selling products, the Microsoft research division, and running a bunch of the company as the Chief Technology Officer (also getting filthy rich).  After leaving Microsoft he has broadened into a variety of scientific and technical ventures, and is currently wrapped up in running an ‘invention company’ called Intellectual Ventures that is shaking some of the foundations of invention with its approach to brainstorming the future of everything from semiconductors to lasers that shoot mosquitos out of the air and biotechnology (there will be a future post on their methods). He holds many patents and has published widely in the top echelons of science.

That is the geek cred, which is pretty A+ stuff.  Along the way, however, he has demonstrated an amazingly diverse and rounded taste for life.  He is a master French chef (once an assistant chef in a top Seattle French restaurant).  He is a paleontologist.  Not just a museum-dwelling paleontologist, but a get-your-hands-in-the-dirt digging up dinosaur bones in Montana every year paleotologist.  He has a complete t-rex skeleton in his living room.  He is a world champion barbecue master (winning 1st and 2nd in Memphis, TN world championships).  He is an award winning nature and wildlife  photographer.  He is an avid searcher for alien life with SETI.  He is a dad, husband, and family man.

Malcolm Gladwell once famously described him as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  I agree.

A few years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for her heart surgery her Yale-educated doctor and I were talking about everything from obscure rock bands to the latest in medical innovations with sonic technology.  When I commented on his broad knowledge base, he laughed and said that you never want a doctor whose brain power is fully maxed out with the medical knowledge, instead opting for the doc with enough bandwidth for other pursuits as well.  Nathan Myhrvold is an example of breadth on steroids.

What is he doing now?  In addition to shooting mosquitos out of the sky to help with the malaria crisis and solving global warming (by building a shield of sulfer in the atmosphere), he has another project he is hot and passionate about.  What, you might ask?   Working on a cookbook, of course.

Solving world hunger with vertical indoor farming makes for a pretty good headline.  Add saving the atmosphere from carbon emissions and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and you will get people downright giddy.

Valcent, Inc. is one of several companies pursuing new technologies that basically super-size the idea of indoor farming into a scalable solution that may well change the landscape of agriculture in the future.  Their basic idea is to use hydroponic vertical farming to build farms on small footprints that stretch high up into the air using very-low water usage farming methods.  In trials Valcent has increased some crop yields by up to 20 times the normal production volume and only required 5% of the average water used in conventional growing conditions.  Further, due to the scalability and portability of their technology, they can build enormous farming operations very close to urban centers to make the product available fresher than ever before.  In addition, the technology is self-contained and thus can be constructed almost anywhere, including in barren landscapes that do not support traditional farming methods.  The implications for the developing world are huge, where the threats of hunger are very real.  These technologies have the potential to transform the agriculture industry (more than 50% of the economy in many countries).  Finally, the technology is also being developed to create huge algae growths that produce vegetable oils in huge quantities for bio-fuel.  Thus, in addition to solving world hunger, they may also save the planet from carbon emissions and eliminate the U.S.’s dependancy on foreign oil.  Not bad.  Its always good to have high aspirations and big goals.  Go big or go home!

One part of all this that continues to make me laugh every time I read it is the frequent references to contrast vertical farming methods with what the industry calls ‘field farming’.  Oh yeah, ‘field farming’ — the kind with miles of corn popping up in rows?  Rice paddies and potato farms?  The way that humanity has produced almost 100% of our food for 10,000 years?  Yes, that antiquated method is now referred to as ‘field farming’.  How old school.

Nate Silver is the man.

A 31-year old 1996 East Lansing high school graduate was recently named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.  Pretty good stuff.  How did he pull it off?  Pretty simply, he believes in data.

To be honest, lots of people believe in data.  Silver’s angle is that he uses data endlessly to build statistical projections that are about as good as any you can find anywhere.  So, logically, what does he use these projections to forecast?  Baseball.  Well, he started off in baseball, but now he is branching out.  Based on his early success creating PECOTA, a statistical system for evaluating baseball players based on comparable players, he moved on to other contexts using similar methodologies.  His most famous achievement is correctly predicting electoral voting outcomes in 49 / 50 states in the most recent presidential elections (he missed on Indiana) and every single senate race.  Not bad!  Considering how many people do professional political polling, his accuracy is unbelievable.  At the heart of his approach is just pounding the data, using as much data as he can possibly devour, and weighting the data by its own past accuracy.

Embracing the fame that has come with his incredible penchant for accuracy, he spent last year’s election cycle on every national news show in the world, from the Colbert Report to CNN and the like.  So, what is next?  He recently tried his hand at predicting another hotly debated contest —- the Oscars.   How did he do?  Not so good.  Taking stock of his performance, he has decided to hold off on projecting new contexts until he has his models better tuned.   Turns out even Nate needs a little time to make the data talk, and rushing too quickly into the Oscars didn’t work.

I wonder what he has planned next?  He already uses this stuff to play online poker.  Maybe next he will go for predicting hurricanes and stock market shifts.  One thing I’m sure of…. I’ll bet he gets rich!

Did you know that people who like broccoli likely suffer from a genetic taste defect?

I really believe that genomics will be at the center of most of the big advances in medicine and health over the next 50 years.  How this will emerge, who will control the process, and the details are currently being sorted out. 

One interesting player in a field dominated by pharma companies, universities, and research institutes is  The for-profit entrepreneurial startup was started by Anne Wojcicki (aka Sergey Brin‘s wife) on the idea of bringing genomics to the masses. Although backed by seriously big hitters, from Google to Stanford, they are catering their products to regular people.  Although there has been much pomp and circumstance around the idea of personalized medicine, this is how personalized medicine very well could look. 

After recently making a splash by lowering the price of their signature ‘product’ from $999 to $399 (due to incredible cost efficiency advances in the processing technology to analyze DNA), they now can much more feasibly reach the masses.  The basic gist of their product is this:  1. purchase the kit, 2. spit in a cup, 3. send the cup to 23 and me, 4. they send it to an outside lab to process, 5. they send you a link with your results.  Most of their company is based around the interpretation and presentation of your personal information in a very stylish, easy to understand format.  Your results provide you detailed personal information about your genome and its clues to your health and ancestory.  The ancestory tool allows you to track (in very raw terms) your ancestoral roots pretty well on the maternal side and to a lesser extent on the paternal side, back hundreds of years or more.  The basis of the health information is single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that have been demonstrated in academic research literature to be associated with certain diseases, medical conditions, and abnormalities.  They are very clear that nothing is set in stone, the best they can do is probabilities, and the research is emerging.  Still, they can tell you that you are more likely to have psoriasis, crohn’s disease, and potentially why you might not like broccoli.  In all, there are over 90 conditions they can give you information about, including how well you can smell, your intelligence, and potential longevity.

Critics have called the whole business extremely dangerous and have tried to get companies like 23 and me shut down.  They argue that providing such unproven data to consumers is irresponsible, and should not be allowed.  They show that many of the ’emerging findings’ and disease associations are later debunked, and providing such info to consumers is dangerous.

This will be an interesting process to watch.  I find myself rooting for 23 and me.

musk3Elon Musk is all kinds of crazy.

Who starts a car company in the U.S. these days?  Lets see, currently we have all of the drama of the auto industry bailout.  However, its not like this was hard to see coming.  Strikes.  Unions. Fierce foreign competition. Slow to declining sales. Layoffs. These were the big auto industry headlines in the 1980’s.  Given all this, who would start a new car company from scratch?  Elon Musk.  Tesla Motors.

I have a new idea.  Lets compete with NASA!  Yeah.  We can start a new space exploration company. Who does that?  Lets see.  Russia did that.  China is working on that.  There is a European consortium of nations working on that.  Not for the faint of heart.  Not many of the names on that list are private individuals… Elon Musk not only decided to start  SpaceX but he is building it on the back of brand-new reusable launch vehicles. Elon thought that the ones NASA designed were inefficient and outdated.  Oh.  Ok.  Well, NASA and company seem to be impressed.  So far he has contracts with the U.S. Air Force and NASA for over a billion dollars worth of potential launches, as long as SpaceX hits their development milestones.

The guy is 37 years old.  Wonder what he’ll do next?

“Cure to Cancer Discovered in Some Guy’s Basement” sounds like your typical headline at  Wait.  This one is real? 

John Kanzius is a former radio station owner who, experimenting with ideas in his basement, has created a machine that has exciting cancer-treatment potential.  He is not a cancer researcher.  He has no real ‘lab.’  The device Kanzius created emits very specific radio frequencies that can excite nano-sized particles to heat them up and cause cell death. By carefully modulating the radio frequencies emitted, he can potentially target only certain particles in cancer cells to destroy such cells while preserving healthy cells nearby.  Part of the technology is about getting the right particles into the cancer cells to be targeted by the machine.  Now Kanzius is focusing on getting funding for scaling up his invention and prepping for clinical trials.  Although he started off alone in his basement, he now has some heavy-hitter help from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of Pittsburg to move his work forward.

By the way, another cool trick from John Kanzius’ crazy cancer destroying machine is that it has potential in the green power generation field because of its freaky ability to light salt water on fire.  See the picture above, where an ice cube is engulfed in a flame.

gatesIn case anyone was wondering, the key to real wealth creation is entrepreneurship.  A little exercise to help illustrate my point.  Click on the link above and check how many of the richest Americans can blame their wealth on entrepreneurship.  If you remove the inheritance crowd, the percentage is even bigger.  Oh, wait.  Yeah, most inheritance-based wealth is the direct result of earlier entrepreneurship by the innovative ancestor of the inheritor.   If you are a fan of larger sample sizes, expand your search to the global list of the world’s billionaires on Forbes.  Check.  Yep, they are mostly entrepreneurs too.

Word to the wise:  start your own high-growth business.

Where do ideas come from?  How does science solve problems?  My research suggests that it is usually  more than just some scientist in a lab somewhere with a eureka moment.  In recent years I have become fascinated with the field of informatics, and specifically, bioinformatics.  bluekeyboardAt a level of abstraction, informatics is the articulation of my organizational learning research at a much more broad level.  The key question driving my research on organizational learning is that of understanding how organizations create breakthrough new knowledge.  I see these types of breakthroughs as the driver of of most business and science, those ideas that transform industries, create new markets, and improve the human condition. Informatics aims to make the process of finding solutions / breakthroughs much more systematic… driving the questions we ask to be more precise and efficient. 

Who decides the direction of science?  On the ‘supply-side’ of course there are several answers, including individual scientists, research grants, and private funding.  Certainly the ‘demand-side’ of the equation has some influence too….  when an epidemic rages, science quickly jumps to find solutions.  Pharma companies very carefully choose their projects based on projected market sizes for potential drugs.  So, supply and demand control the direction of science.  I think its more idiosyncratic than that.  People have a wide variety of  motivations, and some of these motivations lead them to think about grad school.  Some do biology, some do engineering.  Maybe they even come  into grad school with some sort of idea of the type of work they would like to do.  Maybe.  More likely they read bios for people they might work with, decide which sound most interesting, and eventually work with one of these people.  At the end of their graduate studies they are a fresh-minted scientist, maybe a Ph.D., but what will they work on?  Something deriving out of their work in grad school.  This path dependency constrains science in existing directions.  Why are most major math breakthroughs created by people under the age of 30?  Because they are free of the rigidities of their experience.  The same goes for science.  Some break the mold, and all scientists morph over time to create their own identity, but their work, their version of science, their paths are significantly influenced by their experience. 

Informatics has the potential to change the questions people ask.  Why study the properties of one particular enzyme and not another?  People assign probabilities to certain directions, after engaging in local search around what they already know.  If informatics can provide tools for analyzing the big-picture, or make search generally more broad, or make search generally more effective by using more data more effectively to shape the questions we ask, the potential is crazy.  Everything could be solved faster.  Science would still be incremental, but the gains could be so much more systemic. Labs become exponentially more productive.  Collaborations can be driven by likelihood models instead of just social relations or geographic proximity. 

Informatics could be the solution to solutions.  Or at least the solution to asking better questions, and attacking better problems.  I think that is fascinating.

Apparently Microsoft thinks so too… see this doc on Microsoft’s vision of science in 2020 and the roadmap to get there (driving straight through informatics).

Huggy Rao has a new book called “Market Rebels” with some cool ideas.  I particularly like Bob Sutton’s summary of one key idea that I find particularly interesting:

The book is full of useful ideas, but perhaps the central one is that, if you want to mobilize networks of people and markets to embrace and spread an idea, you need the one-two punch of a “Hot Cause” and “Cool Solutions.”  A hot cause like deaths from tobacco or medical errors can be used as springboards to raise awareness, spark motivation, and ignite red-hot outrage.  And naming these as enemies is an important step in mobilizing a network or market. But creating the heat isn’t enough; the next step needs to be cool solutions.   This doesn’t just mean identifying technically feasible solutions, it also means finding ways to bind people together, to empower them to take steps that help solve the problem, and to create enduring commitment to implementing solutions.