Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Missing Link: Lablets as Innovation Hubs

By Keith McDowell

Richard Dawkins in his wonderful book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution presents a compelling and overwhelming scientific and logical case for the theory of evolution. One of his major points is that the standard vernacular phrase used to encapsulate evolution, “man descended from the apes,” is not correct. The correct phase should be something like “man and the modern ape are descendants of a common ancestor, each representing different evolutionary branches from that ancestor.” I suspect that disbelievers will not be mollified by such a correction or change their minds. Nonetheless, scientists continue the search for all of our differentiated ancestors along the evolutionary tree, whether they link to apes or not. Unfortunately, to the chagrin of the science community, the search for the common ancestor became know as the search for “the missing link.”

Another aspect of evolution or systems that grow from genetic-like algorithms is the expectation that all available niches in the ecosystem will be filled after a sufficient passage of time. And if not, then the ecosystem can be forced or driven to fill a niche – much in the way that animals and specific crop varieties have been “bred” by human manipulation. The concept of “directed evolution” has even been applied to social systems and, more specifically, to innovation. As an example, Ideation International Inc. provides an entire suite of business services built on “directed evolution” as a tool to obtain a competitive edge.

Humankind’s quest to understand the dynamics of systems, no matter their character or nature, is a worthy and ongoing endeavor. Indeed, the very essence of innovation is the emergence of something new from a system, whether done by man for commercial purposes or by Mother Nature to invent the superbug that is resistant to all drugs. And specifically as a society, it behooves us to study and understand that which we call “the American innovation ecosystem.” It is an ecosystem created and driven by human manipulation through government rules and regulations and many other factors. But have we created the best of breed? Or have we driven ourselves to an evolutionary dead end?

Specifically, I posit the following question as one of many that we need to answer for ourselves.  Does the American innovation ecosystem have all available niches filled? Or, to twist the tail of the phrase “the missing link,” are we “missing a link?” Do we need to evolve a new breed of dog? My answer is emphatically yes!

In fact, it is quite easy to see that we are “missing a link” by observing the scale and scope of the R&D enterprise from individual investigators to large projects on the order of the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project, both with respect to the number of people directly involved and the level of funding. At the present time there is a continuum in these two metrics from individuals to centers to large centers – the largest being the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program of the National Institutes of Health. The CTSA program had made 46 awards as of October 2009 with an expectation of growing to 60. Typical awards ranged from $5 million to $10 million per year for five years. The common vision of CTSA consortium members is “to reduce the time it takes for laboratory discoveries to become treatments for patients, to engage communities in clinical research efforts and to train clinical and translational researchers.”

As we move along the axis defined by a combination of the two metrics, people and funding, we find a dip nearly to zero before we encounter national laboratories and large scale projects on the order of a thousand people and a billion dollars. It’s the missing link – an unfilled niche in the innovation ecosystem.

Some would argue that industrial R&D laboratories fill the niche and they do to some extent, although many have argued for the demise of basic research within such industrial labs.

Even more interesting, although difficult to prove easily, many of our societal grand challenges require a scale and scope perfectly matched to the “missing link.” And we wonder why America is falling behind in the innovation game!

But there is a solution vector to fill the niche caused by the “missing link.” It’s a new entity or, if you like, breed of dog called by some “lablets” and by others “innovation hubs.” I personally prefer “lablets” because “innovation hub” is a separate and equally important concept requiring a name. Indeed, lablets would be part of an innovation hub.

The concept of “lablets” is not new and has been under discussion and development for the past decade. For example, a 2005 draft report from the National Academy of Engineering entitled Assessing the Capacity of the U.S. Engineering Research Enterprise addressed many of the features of a lablet. More recently, the U.S. Department of Energy introduced the notion of energy innovation hubs and funded several across the United States.

So, what is a lablet? A lablet is an entity competitively funded at a scale of $25 million per year, for a five-year term, with additional start-up funding of $10 million for space renovation, equipment, and instrumentation. The entity would directly fund approximately 100 researchers. As I see it, the basic purpose and essential features of a lablet encompass the following goals:

·      Create discovery-to-innovation institutes melding interdisciplinary research, education, outreach, and practice.
·      Engage in transformational, use-driven R&D targeted to address or solve a specific, identified, and vetted societal challenge structured to avoid “me too” research.
·      Form crosscutting “dream teams” of outstanding scientific leadership that can recruit and nurture extraordinary talent and instill high expectations.
·      Manage by “best practice” project management with oversight from an external advisory board.
·      Pursue “open innovation” emphasizing “gateways” rather than “gatekeepers.”
·      Form public-private partnerships composed of all innovation entities with each contributing resources, but with the federal government being the principal financial supporter.
·      Generate connectivity across universities, national laboratories, industry, research institutes, and other players in the innovation ecosystem with due consideration of differentiated missions and cultures. Such connectivity with the “lablet” as a hub promotes and accelerates commercialization.
·      Focus on trans-disciplinary challenges requiring transformational engineering to affect “the global, knowledge-driven society of the twenty-first century.”
·      Disperse geographically the institutes to make use of all resources and consequently enhance all elements of America.
·      Provide experiential learning for undergraduate and graduate students from “engineering, management, medicine, law and social sciences.”

Lablets provide the ultimate in flexibility and adaptability as the entities from which they are formed self-assemble into new lablets when societal grand challenges are solved and new ones are found. They are not fixed organizations that outlast their utility or serve as an ossified jobs program.

In the final analysis, support for lablets is all about culture and what we value. Do we want incentive systems that attract all the players because of access to a profoundly fun network that is funded and sustainable? Do we want communication and connectivity across all the players that increase the complexity index of the innovation ecosystem as an organism? Do we want a layered structure that allows investigators to function on multiple planes? Do we want societal grand challenges attacked in a manner that can get the job done and thereby enrich our lives? Do we want innovations that lead to commerce and economic prosperity? Do we want the jobs that will result from such activity? Of course we do! Government can affect these improvements by stepping in where others will not tread. Government – namely, you and I – must fund the innovation ecosystem. And I believe that the lablet concept is an essential new feature of that ecosystem. It’s the link that’s missing from our American innovation ecosystem.

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