Comments on the Golden Triangle workshop for PCAST’s PITAC

I didn’t catch the entire webcast as it was live streaming but what I caught was fascinating to observe. For those who don’t know, PCAST is the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and PITAC is the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee. This morning they held a workshop mentioned in yesterday’s posting here that was focused on innovation in the US regarding information technology, nanotechnology, and biotechnology (the Golden Triangle). You can go to the PCAST website for information about this morning’s workshop and hopefully find a copy of the webcast once they’ve posted it.

A few items from the webcast caught my attention such as a comment by Judith Estrin (invitee and business woman). She talked about a laboratory gap (aka valley of death) while referencing the loss of large industrial labs such as the Bell Labs where as of Aug. 2008 the focus shifted from basic science to more easily commercialized applications.

I think there’s a significant difference between doing basic research in an academic environment and doing it in an industrial environment. I believe what Estrin is referencing is the support an industrial laboratory can offer a scientist who wants to pursue an avenue of basic research which might not find initial support within the academic structure and/or ongoing support as it makes its arduous way to commercialization.

With the loss of a number of large laboratories, start-up companies are under pressure to fill the gap but they have a big problem trying to support that interstitial space between basic research and applied research as they don’t have sufficient capitalization.

The similarity to the Canadian situation with its lack of industrial laboratories really caught my attention.

Franco Vitiliano, President and CEO of ExQor Technologies Inc., reiterated a point made earlier and afterwards about the interdisciplinary nature of the work and difficulty of operating in a business environment that is suspicious and/or fails to understand that kind of work. I was captivated by his story about bio-nanolasers and how these were developed from an observations made about water drops.

Anita Goel, Chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym Inc., noted that another problem with financing lies with the current financial models which are increasingly focused on the short-term and are risk-averse. As well, the current venture capital model is designed to support one technology application for one market. This presents a problem with the interdisciplinary nature of the work in the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology fields currently taking place with its applications being considered for multiple markets.

There were many astute and interesting speakers. I can’t always remember who said what and sometimes I couldn’t see the person’s placard so I apologize if I’ve wrongly attributed some of the comments. If someone could correct me, I’d be more than happy to edit the changes in.

I was suprised that there were no individuals from the venture capital  community or representatives from some of the large companies such as HP Labs, IBM, etc. Most of the start-ups represented at the meeting came from the biomedical sector. I did not hear anyone discuss energy, clean water, site remediation, or other such applications. As far as I could tell there weren’t any nongovernmental agencies present either. Nonetheless, it was a very crowded table and I imagine that more people would have necessitated a much longer session.

I found the webcast was stimulating but the acid test for this meeting and others of its type is always whether or not action is taken.

As for the Canadian situation with it’s ‘innovation gap’, there’s more in Rob Annan’s posting, Research policy odds and sods, where he highlights a number of recent articles  about Canadian innovation laced with some of his observations. It’s a good roundup of the latest and I encourage you to check it out.

ETA June 23 2010: Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast offers his thoughts on the webcast and notes that while the promotional material suggested a discussion about public engagement, the workshop itself was focused on the ‘innovation gap’. He highlights comments from speakers I did not mention, as well as some of the questions received via Facebook and Twitter. For someone who doesn’t have the time to sit through the webcast, I strongly suggest that you check out Dexter’s posting as he adds insight borne of more intimate knowledge than mine of the US situation.

3 thoughts on “Comments on the Golden Triangle workshop for PCAST’s PITAC

  1. Rob

    Hi Maryse, thanks for the summary! Indeed, I hope governments both here and in the US make a better effort at bridging the so-called “valley of death” between invention and commercial success. Early-stage commercialization is highly risky and very expensive, and represents the biggest obstacle to innovation. The problem is particularly acute in the biomedical sector (which is maybe why this sector was overrepresented at the forum), where clinical trials cost a fortune despite their low success rates. Indeed, I know a number of academic researchers who have created spin-off companies designed to commercialize their work, but have seen them die due to lack of funding opportunities. Programs such as NRC’s IRAP could help address this, but these government programs are often even more conservative than the private sector in allocating funding (look at their funded projects and note how many are for marginal improvements in equipment and process for well-established companies rather than risky game-changing innovation from start-ups…). As you say, panel discussions can be important, but only if they inform action.

  2. admin

    Hi Rob! Thanks for the insight into why there were so many biomedical interests represented. I was surprised by one participant who was quite content with the ‘valley of death’ as he took the ‘strongest and the best will survive’ approach to innovation. Glad to see you drop by again. Cheers, Maryse

  3. Pingback: Over 2000 nanotechnology businesses? « FrogHeart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *