Harnessing the Hustlers to Address Global Megatrends

I recently attended the 2014 Foresight conference, which is a nanotechnology conference that was held in Palo Alto.  They have a strict media policy, so I can’t write about the presentations per se, but a lot of the scientists have already published related work, so I will focus on those ideas.  I would like to address the gap between basic research and commercialization here in the US, and how that fits into global trends for the future.

Banning Garrett of the Atlantic Council gave a presentation on the Global Trends 2030 report by the National Intelligence Council.  I look forward to reading that in full and writing a separate summary, but the gist is that the world population will become more urban and the global middle class will be growing dramatically:

“Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively, owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class.”

The report also asks a crucial question:

“Will technological breakthroughs be developed in time to boost economic productivity and solve the problems caused by a growing world population, rapid urbanization, and climate change?”

Timothy Persons of the GAO gave a presentation on nanomanufacturing.  One key point was that there is a funding and investment gap between basic research in the labs and commercialization by the private sector.

Persons mentioned the industrial commons being built by SUNY Albany and UT Austin to help transfer technology developed at those schools into the private sector and bridge that gap.  Although the US leads the world in scientific research, technology developed here is often commercialized overseas.

One barrier (highlighted in the media recently) to commercializing scientific research in the US stems from problems with reproducibility.  A recent Bayer study showed that many cancer studies were not reproducible.  I had previously focused on problems with incentives in academia that reward showy, positive results, while downplaying reproducibility and research with a lower media impact.  But another issue came to light during discussions with various scientists at Foresight.  The scientists were asserting that the reproducibility problem is based on not recognizing the “control parameters” of the experiments in question.  There are some crucial parts of experiments that grad students or lab techs are taking for granted, or not noticing, and then not recording properly.  So there are some opportunities there to capture and document these processes better.

Many schools already have technology transfer offices, and startups are created all of the time, but a lot of good ideas languish for lack of funding.  Scientists tend not to be business people, so they often just shrug their shoulders and move on to the next interesting research topic.  I am reminded of the hipster/hustler/hacker paradigm.  Startups need a hipster (or designer) to make a product cool, a hacker or engineer to make a product work, and a hustler to make a product sell (i.e. ensure the product is satisfying a demand in the market).  But scientists are fairly removed from this triad of personalities.  Scientists are not engineers, let alone designers or MBAs.  So who is going to capitalize on all this great technology?

The NIC is showing us that the world faces huge challenges in generating enough energy, food, and clean water for everyone.  Not to mention the environmental pressure from the increased consumption that will occur as billions more enter the global middle class.  Technology will be absolutely essential to facilitate favorable outcomes for humanity.  It makes sense for us all to focus on this key gap in the technology development process that occurs between basic research and the manufacturing of products for the market.

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