Monthly Archives: October 2011

Spend the night with a scientist from Cambridge (Massachusetts)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab is producing a video series, Cambridge Nights. From the Oct. 31, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

While it’s not uncommon to see scientists on TV, most of the time it’s just for a few minutes on the news to comment on a recent event or major discovery. A new late night show called “Cambridge Nights” coming out of MIT’s Media Lab is changing that by providing an outlet for researchers to talk about their work in a slower paced, conversational setting. The first episodes of the show are being posted at http://cambridgenights.media.mit.edu.

The programme host is Cesar Hidalgo, ABC Career Development Professor at MIT and there are now three episodes on the website. From the news item,

So far, eight episodes have been filmed, each about 30-45 minutes long. The episodes are being released every Wednesday, with the fourth episode appearing this week [Nov.2.11]. The three episodes that have been released so far feature interviews with Marc Vidal, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School; Geoffrey West, former President of the Santa Fe Institute; and Albert-László Barabási, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Complex Networks Research.

Due to the laid-back setting, the guests are able to tell stories that span their careers, peppered with interesting bits of trivia. For instance, as West discusses his research on how metabolism scales with an organism’s body mass, he notes that life is often marveled at for its diversity, but no less intriguing is how the characteristics of all known life forms follow some simple physical and mathematical laws. Even the arrangement of trees in a forest follows a formula, despite looking random, he explains.

They see this programming as an antidote to the ‘news byte’ mentality that has taken over the interview shows. From the news item,

As the shows are not pressed for time or commercial breaks, the guests are allowed to take their time while talking without being cut short by frequent interruptions or confrontational questions.

Thanks to MIT you can now spend the night with a Cambridge scientist or two.

Patents as weapons and obstacles

I’m going to start with the phones and finish with the genes. The news article titled Patents emerge as significant tech strategy by Janet I. Tu featured Oct. 27, 2011 on physorg.com provides some insight into problems with  phones and patents,

It seems not a week goes by these days without news of another patent battle or announcement: Microsoft reaching licensing agreements with various device manufacturers. Apple and various handset manufacturers filing suits and countersuits. Oracle suing Google over the use of Java in Android.

After Microsoft and Samsung announced a patent-licensing agreement last month involving Google’s Android operating system, Google issued a statement saying, in part: “This is the same tactic we’ve seen time and again from Microsoft. Failing to succeed in the smartphone market, they are resorting to legal measures to extort profit from others’ achievements and hinder the pace of innovation.”

Microsoft’s PR chief Frank Shaw shot back via Twitter: “Let me boil down the Google statement … from 48 words to 1: Waaaah.”

This was Microsoft’s PR chief??? I do find this to be impressive,but not in a good way. Note: Tu’s article was originally published in The Seattle Times. [Dec.17.11: I've edited my original sentence to make the meaning clearer, i. e., I changed it from 'I don't find this to be impressive ...]

My Sept. 27, 2011 posting focused on the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and their Science Technology and Industry 2011 Scorecard where they specifically name patenting practices as a worldwide problem for innovation. As both the scorecard and Tu note (from the Tu article),

… technology companies’ patent practices have evolved from using them to defend their own inventions to deploying them as a significant part of competitive strategies …

Tu notes,

Microsoft says it’s trying to protect its investment in research and development – an investment resulting in some 32,000 current and 36,500 pending patents. [emphasis mine] It consistently ranks among the top three computer-software patent holders in the U.S.

One reason these patent issues are being negotiated now is because smartphones are computing devices with features that “are generally in the sweet spot of the innovations investments Microsoft has made in the past 20 years,” said Microsoft Deputy General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez.

There’s no arguing Microsoft is gaining a lot strategically from its patents: financially, legally and competitively.

Royalties from Android phones have become a fairly significant revenue stream.

Investment firm Goldman Sachs has estimated that, based on royalties of $3 to $6 per device, Microsoft will get about $444 million in fiscal year 2012 from Android-based device makers with whom it has negotiated agreements.

Some think that estimate may be low.

Microsoft is not disclosing how much it gets in royalties, but Smith, the company’s attorney, has said $5 per device “seems like a fair price.”

Various tech companies wield patents also to slow down competitors or to frustrate, and sometimes stop, a rival from entering a market. [emphases mine]

It’s not just one industry sector either. Another major player in this ‘patenting innovation to death game’ is the health care industry. Mike Masnick in his Oct. 28, 2011 Techdirt posting (Deadly Monopolies: New Book Explores How Patenting Genes Has Made Us Less Healthy) notes,

A few years ago, David Koepsell, came out with the excellent book, Who Owns You?, with the subtitle, “The corporate gold rush to patent your genes.” It looks like there’s now a new book [Deadly Monopolies] out exploring the same subject, by medical ethicist Harriet Washington.

NPR (National Public Radio) highlights this story in their feature on  Washington’s book,

Restrictive patents on genes prevent competition that can keep the medical cost of treatment down, says Washington. In addition to genes, she also points to tissue samples, which are also being patented — sometimes without patients’ detailed knowledge and consent. Washington details one landmark case in California in which medically valuable tissue samples from a patient’s spleen were patented by a physician overseeing his treatment for hairy-cell leukemia. The physician then established a laboratory to determine whether tissue samples could be used to create various drugs without informing the patient.

“[The patient] was told that he had to come to [the physician's] lab for tests … in the name of vigilance to treat his cancer and keep him healthy,” says Washington.

The patient, a man named John Moore, was never told that his discarded body parts could be used in other ways. He sued his doctor and the University of California, where the procedure took place, for lying to him about his tissue — and because he did not want to be the subject of a patent. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court, where Moore lost. In the decision, the court noted that Moore had no right to any share of the profits obtained from anything developed from his discarded body parts.

According to the webpage featuring Deadly Monopolies on the NPR website, this state of affairs is due to a US Supreme Court ruling made in 1980 where the court ruled,

… living, human-made microorganisms could be patented by their developers. The ruling opened the gateway for cells, tissues, genetically modified plants and animals, and genes to be patented.

I gather the US Supreme Court is currently reconsidering their stance on patents and genes. (As for Canada, we didn’t take that route with the consequence that it is not possible to patent a gene or tissue culture here. Of course, things could change.)

Vampires, nanotechnology and derivative works

A vampire versus silver nano rap, eh? The Oct. 28, 2011 item on Nanwerk titled, Nano Halloween Special – Vampires and nanotechnology don’t mix, offers one up (about 1 1/2 mins. long) just in time for the Halloween weekend.

Continuing with the vampire theme but on a completely different topic, Tim Cushing in his Oct. 28,2011 posting on Techdirt offers this story in his discussion of derivative works,

Jonathan Bailey of the Plagarism Today blog has written up a fascinating piece on the early copyright battle between Bram Stoker’s estate and Albin Grau, the producer of the 1922 film “Nosferatu.”

Film producer Albin Grau originally got the idea to shoot a vampire movie in 1916. Serving in Serbia during WWI, Grau was inspired to make a film about vampires after speaking with local farmers about the lore.

Grau, however, hit a major snag. He had wanted to do a expressionistic retelling of the story of Dracula but the estate of Bram Stoker, spearheaded by his widow, Florence Stoker, would not sell him the rights. Though the book was already in the public domain in the U.S. due to an error in copyright notice (similar to the one that caused Night of the Living Dead to lapse 45 years later),

The film was made and,

… Since early prints still contained the name “Dracula,” the court ordered that all prints of the film be destroyed. Grau was forced to file for bankruptcy and his film studio was shuttered. “Nosferatu” would have been nothing more than a tiny footnote in film and copyright history, but one copy had already made its way to the U.S., where Stoker’s work was public domain.

If the estate had been 100% successful, we likely wouldn’t have performance pieces such as the “Vampires vs Silver Nano” rap. Lucky for us all that Dracula/Nosferatu made his way into popular culture to spawn so much creativity and fun.

Commercializing nano: US, Spain, and RUSNANO

Late September 2011 saw the Nanomanufacturing Summit 2011 and 10th Annual NanoBusiness conference take place in Boston, Massachusetts (my Sept. 21, 2011 posting). Dr. Scott Rickert (President and CEO of Nanofilm) writing for Industry Week noted this about the events in his Oct. 14, 2011 posting,

I witnessed an American revolution catch fire in Boston, and I feel like a latter-day Paul Revere. “The nanotech economy is coming, the nanotech economy is coming!” and that’s good news for the U.S. — and you — because we’re at the epicenter.

Let’s start with commercialization. Ten years ago, when I walked into the inaugural version of this conference, I was one of the few with money-making nanotechnology products on the market. This time? The sessions were packed with executives from multi-million dollar businesses, and the chatter was about P&L as much as R&D. Nano-companies are defying Wall Street woes and going public. And even academics were talking about business plans, not prototypes.

Dozens of companies from Europe, Asia and the Middle East were at the conference. Their goal was tapping into the American know-how for making science into business.

Seems a little euphoric, doesn’t he? It’s understandable for anyone who’s worked long and hard at an activity that’s considered obscure by great swathes of the population and finally begins to see substantive response. (Sidebar: Note the revolutionary references for a conference taking place in what’s considered the birthplace of the American Revolution.)

Speakers at MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Nanotechnology) EmTech event held in Spain on Oct. 26-27, 2011 were are a bit more measured, excerpted from the Oct. 27, 2011 posting featuring highlights from the conference by Cal Pierce for Opinno,

Javier García Martínez, founder of Rive Technology and Tim Harper, founder of Cientifica.com presented their view of how nanotechnology will transform our world.

Harper took the stage first.

“We have spent $67 billion on nanotechnology research this decade, so you can imagine this must be an important field,” he said.

Harper believes that nanotechnology is the most important technology that humans have developed in the past 5,000 years. However, he spoke about the difficulties in developing nanotechnology machinery in that we cannot simply shrink factories down to nano-scales. Rather, Harper said we need to look to cells in nature as they have been using nanotechnology for billions of years.

….

Harper spoke about the dire need to use nanotechnology to develop processes that replace scarce resources. However, the current economic climate is hindering these critical innovations.

Javier Garcia then spoke.

“Graphene, diamond and other carbon structures are the future of 21st-century nanotechnology,” he said.

Garcia says that the next challenge is commercialization. There are thousands of scientific articles about nanotechnology published every year which are followed by many patents, he explained. However, he reflected on Cook’s ideas about funding.

“There is still not a nanotechnology industry like there is for biotechnology,” he said.

Finally, Garcia said successful nanotechnology companies need to build strong partnerships, have strong intellectual property rights and create a healthy balance between creativity and focus. Government will also play a role with simplified bureaucracy and tax credits.

Hang on, it gets a little more confusing when you add in the news from Russia (from Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 26, 2011 posting titled, Russia Claims Revenues of One-Third-of–a-Billion Dollars in Nanotech This Year on his Nanoclast blog on the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering [IEEE] website),

One of the first bits of interesting news to come out of the meeting is that: “In 2011, Rusnano has earned about 10 billion rubles ($312 million) on manufacturing products using nanotechnology — nearly half of the state corporation’s total turnover.”

We should expect these estimates to be fairly conservative, however, ever since Anatoly Chubais, RusNano’s chief, got fed up with bogus market numbers he was seeing and decided that RusNano was going to track its own development.

I have to say though, no matter how you look at it, over $300 million in revenues is pretty impressive for a project that has really only existed for three years.

Then RUSNANO announced its investments in Selecta Biosciences and BIND Biosiences, from the Oct. 27, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

BIND Biosciences and Selecta Biosciences, two leading nanomedicine companies, announced today that they have entered into investment agreements with RUSNANO, a $10-billion Russian Federation fund that supports high-tech and nanotechnology advances.

RUSNANO is co-investing $25 million in BIND and $25 million in Selecta, for a total RUSNANO investment of $50 million within the total financing rounds of $94.5 million in the two companies combined. …

The proprietary technology platforms of BIND and Selecta originated in laboratories at Harvard Medical School directed by Professor Omid Farokhzad, MD, and in laboratories at MIT directed by Professor Robert Langer, ScD, a renowned scientist who is a recipient of the US National Medal of Science, the highest US honor for scientists, and is an inventor of approximately 850 patents issued or pending worldwide. Drs. Langer and Farokhzad are founders of both companies. [Farokhzad was featured in a recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation {CBC}, Nature of Things, television episode about nanomedicine, titled More than human.] Professor Ulrich von Andrian, MD, PhD, head of the immunopathology laboratory at Harvard Medical School, is a founder of Selecta.

Selecta pioneers new approaches for synthetically engineered vaccines and immunotherapies. Selecta’s lead drug candidate, SEL-068, is entering human clinical studies as a vaccine for smoking cessation and relapse prevention. Other drug development programs include universal human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, universal influenza vaccine, malaria vaccine, and type 1 diabetes therapeutic vaccine.

BIND develops targeted therapeutics, called Accurins™, that selectively accumulate at the site of disease to dramatically enhance effectiveness for treating cancer and other diseases. BIND’s lead candidate, BIND-014, is in human clinical trials as a targeted therapy for cancer treatment. BIND’s development pipeline also includes a range of cancer treatments and drugs for anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular conditions.

Here’s an excerpt from Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 28, 2011 posting where he muses on this development,

It seems the last decade of the US—along with parts of Europe and Asia—pouring money into nanotechnology research, which led to a few fledgling nanotechnology-based businesses, is finally paying off…for Russia.

In the case of these two companies, I really don’t know to what extent their initial technology was funded or supported by the US government and I wouldn’t begrudge them a bit if it was significant. Businesses need capital just to get to production and then later to expand. It hardly matters where it comes from as long as they can survive another day.

Dexter goes on to note that RUSNANO is not the only organization investing major money to bring nanotechnology-enabled products to the next stage of commercialization; this is happening internationally.

Meanwhile, Justin Varilek posts this (Nanotech Enthusiasm Peaks) for the Moscow Times on Oct. 28, 2011,

In nanotechnology, size matters. But federal funding for the high-tech field has tapered off in Russia, flattening out at $1.88 billion per year through 2015 and losing ground in the race against the United States and Germany.

If this were a horse race, nanotechnology-enabled products are in the final stretches toward the finish line (commercialization) and it’s still anyone’s horse race.

Note: I didn’t want to interrupt the flow earlier to include this link to the EmTech conference in Spain. And, I did post a review (Oct. 26, 2011) of More than Human, which did not mention Farokhzad by name, the second episode in a special three-part series being broadcast as part of the Nature of Things series on CBC.

UK’s David Willetts discusses the importance of science writing

I’m impressed that the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science is busy talking and writing about the importance of science writing. Here’s an excerpt from Willetts’ Oct. 27, 2011 posting on the Guardian science blogs website,

Meeting the finalists of the Medical Research Council’s [MRC] Max Perutz Science Writing Award recently, I was reminded of the important role of science writing. The ability of science and evidence to transcend tribal loyalties – meeting John Rawls’s test of public reason – make them vital elements of rational discourse in a modern society.

The MRC’s prize and others like the Wellcome Trust’s science writing prize demonstrate that research funders agree. Science writing is all about making information and evidence available and accessible.

Historically, we have relied on a small number of journalists and editors to decide what is important, what is true. Now we have a much greater choice. Each of us is able to choose only the sources we want to hear from. If that means people with whom we already agree, do we risk losing the important function that traditional media have played in challenging our views or preconceptions?

People will differentiate between the many voices, in part on the basis of whom they consider authoritative, who is easy to find and who has been recommended by peers. Both authority and presence can be imparted to an author by the name of the host under whose banner the article is published, a job title, or an excellent track record. That is as true online as anywhere else and, of course, trust is earned slowly and lost quickly.

Independent scientists are consistently rated as well trusted sources of information. But will that hold true throughout a crisis if the major source of reporting is from within a community under scrutiny? Is merely checking copy a threat to “the sort of science journalism that everyone claims they want to see”?

With the trend for more and more online, self-generated material, organisations do have much more control over some of the information available about them. But how is this material produced and by whom? How does a research institute manage its messages if all of its researchers are potential mouthpieces? And what is the interaction between different types of coverage? Is a tweet or blog written for peers, the public, journalists, or all of the above?

I wonder if Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology) could be persuaded to post here as a guest? I suspect not.

In any event, David Willetts has spoken previously on the importance of science writing at May 24, 2011 event. From the article by George Wigmore for the Association of British Science Writers on the events page,

Speaking at City University on Tuesday (24 May), David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, talked about the importance of science writing and public engagement.

Describing science journalists as “custodians of empiricism”, and science writers as “more GPs than hospital consultants”. The minister also described parallels between the jobs of science journalist and politician. He went on to describe the pressures that science journalists are under, including “the sheer pressure of time” and the tension “between the scientists doing the primary research, and the newsroom with its demands for a useable story with a vivid headline.”

Touching on a range of issues, including balance and open-access, Willetts stressed the government’s contributions to science writing and engagement. In particular, he mentioned libel reform, transparency, and financial support for institutions such as Science Media Centre.

“Science writing matters,” said Willetts. “It’s about making information and evidence available and accessible. It’s crucial in the public discourse.”

The article page hosts a video of the speech (approximately 55 mins.) and, of course, you can read the rest of the article.

In his posting on the Guardian Science blogs website, Willetts mentions a government initiative, the Online Media Group for Science (from their About page),

Over the next few months we’ll be posing a series of case studies on this site for discussion. They will explore how different people and organisations use online media as they communicate science to a range of audiences. The case studies are intended to be honest and interesting examples of how people and organisations have used online media; what has or hasn’t worked and why. We’re really grateful to the contributors for writing them so honestly.

We’re not intending to create a comprehensive list of what’s out there but the case studies will draw on the experiences of journalists, press officers, science communicators and many others. Rather than defining these familiar roles in an online context, or providing hard and fast rules about how you should use online media, we hope discussions here will help you think about the tools that exist and how they can be used to achieve your aims – whatever they are.

So please take part in the discussion, nominate someone else who you’d like to hear from, share stuff with colleagues or even submit your own case study!

I spotted four case studies from Research Councils UK (RCUK), Guardian News and Media, Wellcome Trust, and Ideas Lab, respectively.  Here’s a paragraph from each,

Research Councils UK:

The website has origins in another age, when it was OK to use it as one big electronic document store.  Even this, if done well, would perhaps have been fine, but now it is so huge that it is just unwieldy.

Guardian News and Media:

What *don’t* we use? We publish things to our website using a homegrown CMS, which also includes our blogging platform. But we use a variety of other sites and services, too. Twitter is an important way for staff to engage with (and contribute to) communities of interest – we have about 50 official accounts (like  @guardiannews, @guardianfilm etc) and well over 500 individual staff members with Twitter accounts. We also use Flickr to publish photos by staff photographers and engage with photography-loving communities, and have a number of fan pages on Facebook. You can also find us at guardian.tumblr.com, where we curate interesting snippets from the day’s news.

Wellcome Trust:

I can’t comment on how much we spend, but we have a communications team of about 40 people that encompasses Editorial, Media Office, Web, Design and Marketing. Together we produce our print and online communications. We have to support the infrastructure to run our websites but beyond this our channels, such as the blog, are run on free services and the main resource is employee time.

Ideas Lab:

We don’t have a written strategy for their [website, Twitter, Facebook, podcasting, & online video) use, but we do work to some unwritten rules:

  • Lo- to-no budget for online (excluding staff time).
  • Having a limited amount of publicly available information. Our online materials are there to encourage communication with us on the phone or face to face.
  • Keeping podcasts and tweets frequent and regular.
  • Keeping all communication very targeted – having a fixed maximum length for podcasts, and no off-topic/general Tweets.
  • Sharing content with third party sites where possible – letting others post our video and podcasts on their sites if they would like to.
  • Cross-promoting everything (such as having our Twitter name on our email signatures).
  • Keeping at it – even if something isn’t fantastic, just doing it regularly and building up a catalogue can pay off. It’s sometimes about quantity as well as quality.

One of these days I’ll have to go back for a longer look.

Trip down memory lane courtesy of the Royal Society

It’s a long trip down memory lane, courtesy of the Royal Society, all the way back to 1665 when they first started published their Philosophical Transactions. In her Oct. 26, 2011 posting in Punctuated Equilibrium on the Guardian science blogs site, GrrlScientist writes,

Beginning today, the historical archives of the peer-reviewed journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, are permanently free to online access from anywhere in the world, according to an announcement by The Royal Society.

The Royal Society, established in 1660, began publishing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society — world’s first scientific journal — in March 1665. In 1886, it was divided into two journals, Philosophical Transactions A (mathematics, physics and engineering) and Philosophical Transactions B (biological sciences), both of which are published to this day. Its historical archives are defined as all scientific papers published 70 years or longer ago. These historical archives include more than 60,000 scientific papers.

I took a peek at the 1865-1866 issue and it is quite the experience to see what was being published. Here’s an excerpt from the Table of Contents for the 1st issue (Note: I have removed links to the documents),

Epistle Dedicatory

Phil. Trans. 1665 1: doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0001

  • ·  The Introduction

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:1-2; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0002

  • ·  An Accompt of the Improvement of Optick Glasses

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:2-3; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0003

  • ·  A Spot in One of the Belts of Jupiter

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:3; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0005

  • ·  The Motion of the Late Comet Praedicted

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:3-8; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0004

  • ·  An Experimental History of Cold

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:8-9; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0006

An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:10; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0007

  • ·  Of a Peculiar Lead-Ore of Germany, and the Use Thereof

Phil. Trans. 1665 1:10-11; doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0008

I did take a look at one of the articles and found it easy to read, other than the spelling. Here’s a little more about the Philosophical Transactions from the Royal Society publishing website,

In 1662, the newly formed ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ was granted a charter to publish by King Charles II and on 6 March 1665, the first issue of Philosophical Transactions was published under the visionary editorship of Henry Oldenburg, who was also the Secretary of the Society. … In 1886, the breadth and scope of scientific discovery had increased to such an extent that it became necessary to divide the journal into two, Philosophical Transactions A and B, covering the physical sciences and the life sciences respectively.

This initiative is part of a larger commitment to open access publishing (more from GrrlScientist’s Oct. 26, 2011 posting),

Opening its historical archive is part of the Royal Society’s ongoing commitment to open access in scientific publishing. It coincides with The Royal Society’s 5th annual Open Access Week, and also comes soon after the launch of its first ever fully open access journal, Open Biology. All of the Royal Society’s journals provide free access to selected papers, hot-off-the-presses.

There are more details about when and which journals give full open access in GrrlScientist’s post.

Entrepreneurial scientists: there’s a new fund for you

The San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation announced today that it will be offering funds to entrepreneurial-minded scientists for early stage science and technology research via Breakout Labs. From the Oct. 25, 2011 article by Anya Kamenetz for Fast Company,

Last seen paying kids to drop out of college and starting his own private island nation, PayPal founder Peter Thiel has announced a new philanthropic venture that sounds a little more reasonable. Breakout Labs, Thiel said at a speech at Stanford, would grant $50,000 to $350,000 in funding to “entrepreneurial” scientists–those completely independent of typical research institutions–for very early projects that may even be pre-proof of concept. Some of the money must be paid forward through revenue-sharing agreements with Breakout Labs, and the scientists must pursue patents or publish their findings in open-access journals like PLoS [Public Library of Science], Creative Commons-style.

There’s more information in the Oct. 25, 2011 media release on the Thiel Foundation website,

Calling for more rapid innovation in science and technology, Peter Thiel today launched a new program of the Thiel Foundation, Breakout Labs. Speaking at Stanford to an event organized by the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students, Thiel announced that Breakout Labs will use a revolving fund to improve the way early-stage science and technology research is funded by helping independent scientists and early-stage companies develop their most radical ideas.

“Some of the world’s most important technologies were created by independent minds working long nights in garage labs,” said Thiel. “But when their ideas are too new, unproven, or unpopular, these visionaries can find it difficult to obtain support. Through Breakout Labs, we’re going to create opportunities for revolutionary science by cultivating an entrepreneurial research model that prizes extreme creativity and bold thinking.”

With venture capital shifting to later and later stages of development and commercialization, and with ever shorter investment time horizons, there are few available means of support for independent early-stage development of science and technology. But many of these technologies are ripe for the same kind of innovations that began in computing during the 1970s, when small, visionary start-ups began to take on industry giants who wielded much bigger research and development budgets. Breakout Labs will accelerate this trend.

“Venture capital firms look for research that can be brought to market within five to seven years, and major funders like the National Institutes of Health have a low tolerance for radical ideas,” said Breakout Labs founder and executive director Lindy Fishburne. “At Breakout Labs, we’re looking for ideas that are too ahead of their time for traditional funding sources, but represent the first step toward something that, if successful, would be groundbreaking.”

Then there’s the Programs page of the Breakout Lab’s website,

Breakout Labs is a bold re-envisioning of the way early-stage science gets funded, allowing independent researchers and early-stage companies to test their most radical ideas. We invite individuals, teams of individuals, and early stage companies from around the world to apply for funding of a specific project that would push the limits of science and technology.

It’s unusual to see a funding program that isn’t constrained by nationality or country of residence. Another unusual feature is that  revenue sharing is being built into relationship,

Breakout Labs offers two types of revenue sharing agreements:

  • Funded companies retain IP that arises from the project and commit a modest royalty stream and an option for a small investment in their company to Breakout Labs.
  • Funded researchers assign project IP to Breakout Labs in exchange for a substantial royalty stream from any future revenue generated by successful commercialization of the IP.

Key to support from Breakout Labs is an agreement that maximizes the dissemination of the resulting innovations, either through publication or intellectual property development.

Good luck to all the entrepeneurial scientists out there!

Nature of Things’ The Nano Revolution part 2: More than Human

More than Human (the episode can be seen here), part of 2 of a special Nature of Things series, The Nano Revolution, was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 20, 2011; one might be forgiven for thinking this episode concerned robots but that wasn’t the case.  The focus was on nanomedicine, specifically cancer and aging, along with a few scenarios hinting at social impacts of the ‘new’ medicine.

This episode, like the last one (Welcome to Nano City), presents the science in an understandable fashion without overexplaining basic concepts. A skill I much appreciate since watching a video of an engineer explain at length that the eye has a cornea and a retina to an audience of adults who were attending a talk about retinal implants.

More coherent than the first one, (Welcome to Nano City reviewed in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting), which featured three topics (one was totally unrelated to any city) both episodes,  convey excitement about the possibilities being suggested by nanotechnology.

As for this episode, More than human, it certainly told a compelling story of a future where there will be no cancer (or it will be easily treated if it does occur) and we won’t age as we can make perfect tissues to replace whatever has been broken. There were also hints of a few social issues as illustrated by future oriented vignettes interspersed through the programme.

I want to c0mmend the script writer for pulling together a story using disparate materials and videos (which I’m guessing are being repurposed, i.e., created for broadcast elsewhere and reused here). Given the broad range of nanomedicine research worldwide, this was a very difficult job.

Featured at some length was Dr. Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University. Here’s a description from Mirkin’s profile page on the Mirkin Group webspace,

Professor Mirkin is a chemist and a world renowned nanoscience expert, who is known for his development of nanoparticle-based biodetection schemes, the invention of Dip-Pen Nanolithography, and contributions to supramolecular chemistry, nanoelectronics, and nanooptics. [emphasis mine] He is the author of over 430 manuscripts and over 370 patents and applications, and the founder of three companies, Nanosphere, NanoInk, and Aurasense which are commercializing nanotechnology applications in the life science and semiconductor industries. Currently, he is listed as the most cited (based on total citations) chemist in the world with the second highest impact factor and the top most cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. At present, he is a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.

Mirkin talked extensively about his work on biomarker sensing and its applications for diagnostic procedures that cut laboratory testing down from weeks to hours. This new equipment arising from Mirkin’s work is installed in some US hospital laboratories.

Dr. Silvano Dragonieri of Leiden University in The Netherlands discussed his e-nose technology which offers another approach to diagnostics. Here’s a description of Dragonieri’s (and another team’s) work in this area from an April 27, 2009 news item on physorg.com,

In 2006 researchers established that dogs could detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients. Now, using nanoscale arrays of detectors, two groups of investigators have shown that a compact mechanical device also can sniff out lung cancer in humans.

Hossam Haick, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, used a network of 10 sets of chemically modified carbon nanotubes to create a multicomponent sensor capable of discriminating between a healthy breath and one characteristic of lung cancer patients. This work appears in the journal Nano News. Meanwhile, Silvano Dragonieri, M.D., University of Bari, Italy, and his colleagues used a commercial nanoarray-based electronic “nose” to discriminate between the breath of patients with non-small cell lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These results appear in the journal Lung Cancer. [emphasis mine]

Nanomedicine is fascinating, which is why it’s easy to lose perspective. Thankfully there was Dr. Philip Kantoff  (also very enthused and a major figure in this area) to provide the voice of reason. Here’s more are about Kantoff from the profile page on the WEBMD website,

Dr. Kantoff has published more than 100 research articles on a variety of topics, including the molecular basis of genitourinary cancers and improved treatments for patients afflicted with prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and testicular cancer. His laboratory research involves understanding the genetics of prostate cancer. His clinical research involves clinical trials of novel therapeutic treatments for the genitourinary cancers. He teaches at Harvard Medical School, and lectures internationally to both medical and lay audiences. Dr. Kantoff has written nearly 100 reviews and monographs on cancer and has edited numerous books, including Prostate Cancer, A Multi-Disciplinary Guide published by Blackwell, and Prostate Cancer: Principles and Practice, a definitive text on prostate cancer, published in December 2001 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. He has also written a popular book, Prostate Cancer, a Family Consultation, published by Houghton Mifflin.

As Kantoff counsels against over-hyping he notes that much of the work in the area of nanomedicine is in the laboratory; there are still animal trials and human clinical trials to be convened for further testing.

Building on Kantoff’s observations: let’s consider the difference between research and clinical practice. Even after the human clinical trials have taken place, there’s still uncertainty about how this new procedure or medication, no matter how personalized, will affect an individual. Would aspirin be available over-the-counter today if we’d known all of the side effects which many people suffer from? No, not a chance. How long did it take to find out that aspirin was a problem? Several years.

The idea that this new ‘personalized’ medicine that Mirkin refers to will provide a perfect solution to any disease is based on the belief that we understand disease processes. We do not. Yes, we’ve catalogued any number of genomes, etc. but at least one question remains. Why do some people who have one or more biomarker for a disease never experience it while others with fewer biomarkers do?

While that question wasn’t raised in the episode I was impressed with the fact that they did mention patent issues (innovation and, in this care, care can be stifled by patents and this seems to be increasingly the case); some larger philosophical issues, just how long do you want to live?, and who gets to enjoy these new benefits (if  such they be)?

I do have a few quibbles, there was no Canadian content other than David Suzuki reading a script as narration for the episode (this was true of the first episode too). The title, More than human, suggests not just robots but human enhancement too and that topic was barely discussed.

In future, I’d like to suggest a little more humility in programmes about nanotechnology. I found the constant references to ‘controlling’ atoms, matter, disease, etc. to be disconcerting. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t control an atom, we try to understand it and based on that understanding find better ways to exist in this universe.