Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering are developing a technology that can get test results for sepsis in an hour. Researchers often have to pursue their riskiest projects on the fringes of more mainstream work, says Wyss Director Don Ingber. But the Wyss puts that risky work front and center, giving researchers the freedom to pursue ideas that would not make the cut for traditional grants from funders such as the National Institutes of Health.

Photo courtesy of The Wyss Institute

Science & Tech

Innovate, create

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Innovation, creativity power fresh thinking at Harvard

The heart pacemaker. Surgical anesthesia. Facebook. Even breathable chocolate.

Harvard’s combination of questing minds, passionate spirits, and intellectual seekers tackling society’s toughest problems fosters a creativity that has produced a stream of innovations, from novel inventions to history-making devices that provide profound benefits to the public.

Creative thinking is a key component of Harvard’s Schools, centers, and institutes. Many innovations have come from looking at old problems in new ways, from recognizing the importance of serendipitous results, and from understanding that failures are steps to success. That innovative spirit has long been part of Harvard’s DNA, leading to the first use of anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 and the development of the pacemaker by Paul Zoll in the 1950s.

President Drew Faust highlighted this University role when she took office, noting that an institution of higher education has an “accountability to the future.”

“One of the most significant things about our research universities,” she told a gathering of civic and higher education leaders in Boston, “is that they are engines that also produce the fuel — the scientists, physicians, and engineers, the thinkers and ideas … that spur the new products, new jobs, and new companies that will help renew our economy.”

Increasingly, Harvard fosters not just innovative thinking, but also development of the University’s big ideas into products and companies that create jobs. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering focuses on moving cutting-edge breakthroughs from the lab into the hands of private industry. Harvard Business School’s (HBS) planned Innovation Lab aims to foster creativity and entrepreneurship for undergraduates and graduate students alike.

The Office of Technology Development (OTD) plays a vital role in the University’s public service mission, helping to propel emerging Harvard technologies out of the lab and into the marketplace where they can be put to use. OTD’s Accelerator Fund provides resources to develop new technologies after traditional research funding ends until the discoveries become attractive to private industry. Inventions that have been licensed to industry and are now in commercial development include everything from nanotechnology used in computer memory and DNA sequencing to a feline leukemia vaccine already on the market; from a cholera vaccine in clinical testing to microfluidics technology used in cosmetics.

Companies with names like RainDance Technologies, SiOnyx, even Le Whif, which markets Biomedical Engineering Professor David Edwards’ breathable food technology, resulted from discoveries in Harvard’s labs. Chemist George Whitesides has had a hand in starting several companies, including Surface Logix, which creates diabetes and obesity drugs; the nanotech company Nano Terra; and Diagnostics For All, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that medical diagnostic devices are available in resource-poor settings.

Administrators and faculty members whose work has led to new companies and products said that, even though the University may sometimes be viewed as a staid institution, academic freedom actually catalyzes problem solving by curious, smart, highly motivated people, creating an innovative ecosystem at Harvard.

“I see much more innovation here than I did in industry,” said David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Weitz worked at a private company for 17 years before coming to Harvard. “You have clever students, a clever environment. Harvard is a wonderful place in the sense that, more so than most universities, [you can] do anything you want as long as you do it well.”

Several ideas from Weitz’s lab were identified as having commercial potential, which led to the formation of spin-off companies. In these tough economic times, Weitz said, he is most proud of helping to generate about 100 jobs. The largest company spawned from this group, Lexington-based RainDance Technologies, employs 75 people and announced on Jan. 25 a $37.5 million round of financing from investors. RainDance develops medical technologies that create chemical reactions in droplets. Each droplet functions as a tiny test tube, uses fewer chemicals than other methods, and speeds the testing process.

Since 2006, Harvard faculty members have had a hand in starting 39 companies. The number of new inventions reported by faculty members has risen from 180 in 2006 to 301 in 2010. Hundreds of patents have been issued in that period, and 134 licenses have been negotiated with companies covering new technologies that were invented at Harvard and that have brought in $77 million to the University, much of which is reinvested in further research. One 2009 estimate indicated companies that were begun by Harvard faculty members or that commercialized technology developed here provide 7,500 jobs in Greater Boston alone.

Innovation often starts with Harvard’s students, who put imaginative twists on class projects that can result in products like VertiGrow, a modular planter that can be stacked vertically in crowded urban spaces, providing a way to improve nutrition in developing world slums. VertiGrow, which won an Innovator Award from the Harvard Initiative for Global Health, has taken its inventor, Elizabeth Nowak ’10, to Africa for product research. The venture serves as a reminder of other exciting ideas that have emerged from the work of Harvard students in the past. Think of Microsoft and Facebook.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, innovation can be taught. It had better be teachable, said Peter Tufano, the Sylvan Coleman Professor of Financial Management at HBS and soon-to-be dean of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, because it is a key to success in the business world. SEAS Dean Cherry Murray, who has a couple of patents of her own and experience at the renowned Bell Laboratories, said innovation’s roots lie in creativity. She learned long ago, watching her mother teach art, that every child is creative in some way. The goal of Harvard faculty is to nurture such inventiveness.

“Normal children are innovative. They’re very creative,” Murray said. “I don’t think you have to teach them. You need to reach in and let it loose.”

Among SEAS’ courses are “Innovation in Science and Engineering,” “Social Entrepreneurship,” and “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.”

The new Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH) supports student projects and advises innovation-minded student groups. A new emphasis on design-based teaching, Murray said, will give students hands-on experience that teaches in ways that lectures and readings cannot.

And then there’s CS 50. Offered for 27 years, CS 50 is a perennially popular introductory computer science course that not only teaches basic computer programming, but it forces students to program on their own, with sometimes transformative results. The annual semester-end fair, held in December in the Northwest Science Building, drew hundreds of faculty, students, staff, and industry representatives to look over student projects. The course so energizes students that some continue their work even after class ends.

“This is literally one of those classes that changed my life,” said instructor David Malan, who took CS 50 as an undergraduate in 1996 and switched from a concentration in government to computer science. “After CS 50, I knew what I wanted to study. … It’s really gratifying what you can do by immersing yourself in a new world and realizing what’s possible.”

Eric Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and area dean for applied physics, thinks science teaching should be reformed. Much traditional instruction requires students to memorize facts and solve problems, but Mazur believes that problem solving taught in school is unlike problem solving in the real world.

“In the classroom, all that matters is whether you got the right answer. In any real-life problem, you already know the answer. All that matters is how you get there,” said Mazur, whose discovery of light-absorbing black silicon led to the creation of SiOnyx, which markets a process that improves the sensitivity of optical detectors used in imaging systems. “How can it be that we still manage to have quite a bit of innovation when we don’t know how to train for it?”

Creativity and innovation come from being able to apply fresh insights to different contexts. To teach that, classes have to take students out of their comfort zones, Mazur said. He encourages his graduate students to try new approaches without worrying about results — at least at first. Such experiences, he said, can be disconcerting for goal-oriented individuals, but the exploration often generates new ideas that point in a unique research direction.

“Real creativity is not a straight path. Real creativity goes left and right and runs into walls,” Mazur said. “In an optimal world, we want our students not to be able to reproduce what we did, but to stand on our shoulders and push the envelope further.”

Seeking fresh insights to existing problems was behind a novel effort last fall to generate new projects in diabetes research. Associate Professor of Pediatrics Eva Guinan, director of the Harvard Catalyst Linkages Program, and a partner, HBS Assistant Professor Karim Lakhani, sent out a call for ideas to the entire Harvard community. In December, a dozen winners were selected from 190 submissions. The winners — and funding — are being handed off for further exploration.

Though such “crowdsourcing” may seem a new approach, Guinan said the concept traces its roots to the centuries-old prizes offered for solutions to knotty problems. The method’s advantage, Guinan said, is that it garners ideas from people with different backgrounds and fresh perspectives.

“ ‘You just never know’ is the point,” Guinan said. “We have an incredibly rich community that can think creatively. Not to use it would be to miss an opportunity.”

Another way to spur innovation is to encourage high-risk, high-reward research that is often pushed to the margins by more mainstream projects. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering takes such a tack as it tries to improve medical care and environmental sustainability by applying lessons learned from nature. It has rapidly grown since being established two years ago with the largest single gift in Harvard’s history — $125 million from entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss. It has 230 staff members from laboratories across Harvard’s Schools, affiliated hospitals, and other academic institutions, all working together at the institute site. Integrated within this group are product-development experts recruited from industry who help Wyss researchers bring new technologies rapidly to a stage where they attract private industry.

“It is very different,” said Wyss Director Don Ingber, the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and professor of bioengineering at SEAS. “We’re not a research institute. We’re more about technology innovation and translation.”

Projects are developed at the Wyss in shared laboratory space that Ingber calls “collaboratories,” designed to encourage staff from many faculty laboratories and diverse disciplines to work together. Their projects span an array of fields. There’s Ingber’s “lung on a chip,” which makes lung tissue that could be used for testing without turning to humans and lab animals. There is also a stabilizing shoe insole that, through electrical signals to the wearer, helps to restore normal balance in the elderly.

Researchers often have to pursue their riskiest projects on the fringes of more mainstream work, Ingber said. But the Wyss puts that risky work front and center, giving researchers the freedom to pursue ideas that would not make the cut for traditional grants from funders such as the National Institutes of Health.

Once an innovative idea is conceived, it often requires a different kind of support than is typically available in a classroom. One solution to that concern is the Innovation Lab, a University-wide facility designed to capture the power of creativity at Harvard’s diverse Schools, centers, and departments. It is scheduled to open in Allston later this year.

“We can teach students about innovation and entrepreneurship, but at the end of the day the teaching is not only through courses, but through hands-on practice,” said Tufano of HBS. “We expect a lot of activity in the evenings and early mornings. There seems to be an extraordinary level of interest.”

The lab will support innovation and entrepreneurship by students and faculty across Harvard’s many Schools, as well as from the community. The facility will have workspace in the back, “pitch rooms” where groups can meet with potential funders, and a larger space for public events in front. It will host discussions on entrepreneurship and intellectual property rights, and it will offer counseling to student groups and small businesses in the community, with the goal of supporting the creation of new businesses and nonprofits.

And as it evolves, the lab will help the University to be accountable to the future.

“Education, research, teaching are always about change,” Faust said in her inaugural address, “transforming individuals as they learn, transforming the world as our inquiries alter our understanding of it, transforming societies as we see our knowledge translated into policies … or translated into therapies.”

To read more about Harvard’s Office of Technology Development.