Lessons from past explored to expedite future research

4 min read

People, knowledge, communication, and capitalism were front and center last week as authorities on innovation sought to shed light on ways to speed up the development of new medical treatments from discoveries in the lab.

The speakers, who drew on lessons from the computer industry and from past startup ventures, were part of the “Harvard Medical School Dean’s Symposium on Clinical and Translational Research,” sponsored by Harvard Catalyst: The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center.

The event presented three separate symposia over two days. The opening event, “Challenges to Successful Innovation and Translation,” was held Thursday evening (April 30) at Harvard Business School’s Spangler Auditorium. The remaining two events, “Thought, Emotion and the Brain” and “Medical Nanotechnology: Small Is Big,” were held Friday (May 1) at Harvard Medical School and at the Harvard-affiliated Schepens Eye Research Institute.

Topics covered ranged from microfluidics and nanoelectronics to the search for autism genes and regulating the brain. On Thursday, Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, said that knowledge resides mainly in individuals and that innovation depends on getting people to communicate. Information flow, however, tends to be blocked by efforts to control that information, for profit or other reasons.

Benkler compared how Massachusetts and California’s Silicon Valley each weathered the computer transition to personal computing and the Internet. While Massachusetts companies suffered, Silicon Valley companies such as Apple and Google flourished. The reason, he said, is that there was a culture of sharing information in Silicon Valley and people regularly switched jobs. The legal underpinnings in California were more conducive to information flow, he said, since no-compete clauses were rarely enforced.

“Knowledge resides in people. A lot of knowledge is passive and not something that can be passed onto the next person [in a job],” Benkler said. “Innovation emerges from connecting people’s minds.”

Another example Benkler used was the open-source software movement, which requires collaboration from people who don’t work together to constantly improve software. Though it may not be competitive to share information outside one’s company, the movement recognizes a truth about technology that also applies to other fields such as health care.

“Knowledge resides in people, not all of whom work in your project or company,” Benkler said.

One problem with the current model of medical research, Benkler said, is that it doesn’t recognize or reward someone who may be particularly collaborative, bringing together different people in different departments, even though those connections may be essential for innovation.

“Ensuring flow may mean releasing control and that may mean changing some of the basic aspects of the systems we have,” Benkler said.

Srikant Datar, Dickinson Professor of Accounting, senior associate dean, and director of research at Harvard Business School, said that innovation often comes packaged with a measure of distance from a problem. He cited the success of an English clockmaker in determining longitude, a problem that had defied scientists and sailors alike.

George Whitesides, the Flowers University Professor, drew on his own experience with startup companies to offer more practical advice about taking scientific discoveries to market.

Whitesides said that commercialization of an advance is important because without a company to bring an advance to market, it is useless to patients and other potential customers. That happens through capitalism, often through venture capitalism.

Whitesides cautioned that though venture capitalism can bring money to a project, it also can lead to a loss of control and so should be used sparingly. He counseled that one should hire good people and pay them well, but keep a sharp eye on expenses.

From a commercial standpoint, he said, a risky project that might not work is bad, as is one that will take a long time to come to market, since each will raise costs. He advised researchers to “finish the science” before starting a company, because research comes along on its own schedule. In addition, he urged researchers to learn basic accounting before embarking on any business venture.

“That way you won’t appear as an object of prey rather than as a partner,” Whitesides said.