One aspect of the Lipkin talk at WPI was surreal, his appeal for someone to write a check for one million dollars to research CFS, MS, Parkinson's or diabetes. This at an institute which has been effectively blacklisted ever since they had the temerity to claim a new retrovirus was loose in the general population and blood supply.
He had earlier covered how pyrosequencing could provide rapid pathogen discovery, and untangle knotty problems where previous work had failed. So, we are left with the tantalizing glimpse of new tools, and a strong reason why we can't expect to use them. The contrast between the $4 million needed to fund all of the proposed studies and the $25 billion/year which has gone to fund a large amount of biomedical research which, so far, has been virtually useless to patients with those disease is striking.
The question for NIH should be "Are you so busy funding unproductive work you can't come up with a fraction of a percent of your budget for innovation with a reasonable chance of dramatic success?" We need to find out if they are interested in promoting scientific innovation, or openly hostile, as they appear.
If innovation does not come from government researchers, what about venture capitalists?
As it happens I have had some dealings with venture capitalists. When they really want innovation, they typically expect one start-up in ten to pay off. When it does, it pays for the other nine, and then some. As one who has encountered venture capitalists, and lived to tell the tale, I feel compelled to say a few words about translating research into a business.
First of all, typical measures of academic success will not play well with these people. Where you may see a solid career with a string of accomplishments, they will see millions of dollars going in and inches of paper coming out. This will not excite great enthusiasm.
At this point, academics regularly come up with various wild ideas to turn a technological breakthrough into a fortune. The problem here is that academics are about as experienced with this as nuns are with sex. The V.C. will have already been entertained by a whole string of plausible con-artists with wild ideas ideal for separating people from money -- particularly venture capitalists.
If the V.C. is actually interested in starting a company to commercialize research, (and not simply surfing the fad of the moment,) he/she will be looking for people with either a track record of innovation or the youthful exuberance to tackle a problem despite warnings from older and wiser heads that it is impossible. Youth is also a factor in deciding how far they can be expected to get before they drop dead from the effort. (The wise V.C. will demand substantial life insurance policies.)
Your typical government-funded researcher will not have a track record of innovation. By the time they acquire authority they will no longer be young. In emotional terms, you may call them risk-adverse. The corresponding personality type is better suited to commercial banking than any activity requiring innovation beyond creative interpretation of regulations.
This does not, however, make them unemployable. Once you switch from concentrating on know how, and pay attention to know who, you are selling a profitable commodity. Someone who knows where the mines are buried in the regulatory minefield, and to whom to talk about defusing them, can almost name their price.
The downside of this is the near certainty those contacts will suddenly vanish should they take any action contrary to the wishes of the powers that be. Inside or outside of their government jobs senior researchers are trapped into supporting the status quo.
Blog entry posted by anciendaze, Jul 22, 2011.