Podcast: Covid-19 has exposed a US innovation system that is badly out of date

Podcast: Covid-19 has exposed a US innovation system that is badly out of date

Ilan Gur always wanted to build things. But after finishing his PhD in material science at UC Berkeley, he says he “bounced around, feeling like a misfit.” He left the publish-or-perish world of academia, and burned through a few million dollars before realizing that venture capital isn’t the right way to fund applied research, either.

If solving a problem like pandemic preparedness isn’t immediately profitable, the market won’t solve it, Gur, who founded the fellowship programs Cyclotron Road and Activate, now argues. That’s why he thinks the US needs a new way to allot R&D funds based on impact, not profits, and in an  essay for the July issue of Technology Review, he calls for a new playbook for government funding of applied research. We sat down with him to learn more about why the current system of R&D funding is out of date, and how a new one could help the US better address its current needs as well as prepare for the future. 

Show Notes and Links

How the US lost its way on innovation, June 17, 2020

Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need, June 17, 2020

Cyclotron Road

Activate

Full Episode Transcript

Ilan Gur: Who was going to spend the money on developing solutions to a pandemic that didn’t yet exist? 

Wade Roush: Ilan Gur runs a fellowship program designed to help more scientists and engineers turn their ideas into products.

Ilan Gur: That’s a market failure that industry just isn’t going to solve by itself, but where you need industry’s involvement to develop those practical solutions. And so then the question becomes, how do we do that?

Wade Roush: In Ilan’s view, America’s whole system for moving basic research to the marketplace is sorely outdated, and this disconnect helps explain why the country was caught unprepared when the pandemic hit. He wrote about the problem for the latest issue of Technology Review. And we’ll talk with him about the three big steps he thinks we should take to get R&D back in sync with our practical needs. I’m Wade Roush, and this is Deep Tech.

[Deep Tech theme]

Wade Roush: If you were a kid in the 1980s you might remember this public service announcement from cartoons on Saturday morning TV.

National Science Foundation public service announcement:

To know the world from A to Z

Discovery science and technology

Astronomy, biology, chemistry, zoology

Science and technology—it’s fun, you’ll see!

A public service message from the National Science Foundation

Wade Roush:  For all its cuteness, that old PSA is a pretty good reflection of the way the federal government has funded basic science ever since World War II. Meaning, the money has mostly gone toward building up fundamental disciplines like astronomy, biology, chemistry, and zoology, on the theory that a stream of new scientific knowledge would eventually turn the wheels of private enterprise. 

Ilan Gur thinks that was the right philosophy when the National Science Foundation was getting its start back in 1950, when most basic research was confined to universities and big industrial labs. But it may not work so well today, when innovation can bubble up in all sorts of places, including startups, and when it seems like we can’t always trust the marketplace to guide innovation toward our most pressing needs.   

Ilan  is a PhD material scientist based in Berkeley, California, and the founder of a fellowship program for scientist-entrepreneurs called Cyclotron Road. He’s also the CEO of a nonprofit called Activate that’s working to replicate the Cyclotron Road model in other locations. His essay  “How the US Lost Its Way on Innovation” is in the July issue of Technology Review.

Ilan Gur: We’ve got such a rich infrastructure for innovation in the United States and yet there’s so much holding us back from realizing the potential of that infrastructure. The essay is really about the idea that because of the way the research innovation system in the US has been organized, and because we haven’t had many opportunities to take a fresh look at that organization—those organizing principles—we end up with a lot of stranded opportunities to get the most value about from all the great talent and ideas that we have in the country, both to advance science, but also to make sure that the scientific underpinnings we have can be powerful tools to respond to the needs of society. With covid-19 being a really prime case study and example.

Wade Roush: Ilan says he’s been inspired to see how many researchers are mobilizing in the pandemic to try new ideas in areas like testing and vaccines and medical equipment. But he also thinks they’re scrambling to make up for a very late start.

Ilan Gur: As scientists, when historically we have looked at what are the greatest threats to society, including some of the greatest existential threats, pandemics, global pandemics are always at the top of that list. And it’s never been a question of if, it’s always a question of when. Why, when it did happen, did we not have the tools to address it ready? You know, that’s certainly not just a question for science. It’s a question for government and a question for policy and a question of where our priorities are and how we invest. But for me, it’s an indicator that there’s something missing in the way that we’re organized, in the way that we’re prepared to have science and engineering really make the impact we want.

Wade Roush: I’m really curious about Cyclotron Road, which is an actual road in Berkeley, right? But it’s also the name of an organization that you created back in 2014. So what is it? And what’s the mission?

Ilan Gur: You know, my own personal experience, feeling like a bit of a misfit, navigating these different institutions from academia to venture to government funding where I ended up was with this strong sense that each of these institutions had a really strong role in how we advance science. You know, universities are really well set up to do the ideation and do the investment in talent. Corporations are really well set up to take technology and drive it to products and distribute it. My deep interest was in how do you do that step of translating what’s coming out of the research lab into something that ends up at the doorstep of the market as a product. And what was missing for me is, who owns that part of the journey institutionally? I couldn’t find the place that owned that part of the journey. Because of that, there was a lot of stranded talent and ideas in the country coming out of our scientific institutions. And that seemed like a really big missed opportunity. And so what I wondered was, well, what if you built a home specifically for these folks who had become cutting edge experts in science and engineering who were motivated, who wanted to take that research to the next step and translate into a product, but they didn’t feel like they had the right support mechanism to do that. And we basically designed Cyclotron Road as what would be the perfect environment to support people in that transition.

Wade Roush: Ilan says Lawrence Berkeley National Lab agreed to host the program. The lab is named after physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron, hence the name.

Ilan Gur: The basic construct of that program is we run a competition once a year. We say if you’re a top of your class scientist or engineer and you want to take the next step in moving your ideas out of the research lab. But you’re caught between these two worlds, right? What you’re working on is too applied for academia or a traditional research lab. But too speculative for private investment. Come here and we’ll support you for two years with a fellowship that allows you to focus on that transition. And that’s proved to be a really powerful model in the early data that we’ve gotten and the organization I now run, Activate, is a nonprofit that’s basically set up to take that experiment that we ran at Cyclotron Road in Berkeley and figure out how to expand that and offer that opportunity to more scientists and engineers around the country. 

Wade Roush: So in a way, you’re trying to reinvent applied research. But one of the points you make in your piece is that we actually kind of used to know how to do this and that there was, in effect, a wonderful, almost golden age of cooperation between government and business after World War II. At some point, maybe starting in the 70s and 80s, that all fell apart. And I wanted to get your diagnosis of what went wrong. I think the way you put it in the article was we fell asleep at the wheel.

Ilan Gur: The first thing to realize is pre-World War II, the US government did very little when it comes to funding science education and scientific research. And that’s important, right? University work was basically in the domain of philanthropy, as far as I understand it. And the real powerhouse for scientific research, including more fundamental research, was within big companies, if you think of the Duponts, the Bell Labs. So that was the kind of pre-World War II state. All of that changed in World War II. And the simple way to think about that is to just fast forward to the end, which is, you know, you could argue that the outcome of the war really turned on science and technology and engineering. We developed radar. We developed the bomb. The outcome was clear that that was an investment that paid off for the country. After the war, there was a big question, OK? Now what? We just mobilized all this funding, but we never thought about like, what should that role be outside of the World War?

Wade Roush: Ilan points out that one of the leading voices in this debate was Vannevar Bush, a former dean of MIT’s School of Engineering who had helped to create both the radar project and the atomic bomb project. Bush argued in a report to President Truman that it was now time for a massive government investment in basic research.

Ilan Gur: What resulted from that is essentially the entire science policy and research infrastructure that we have in the US today, NSF, NIH, the national lab system, et cetera. That was a really thoughtful position and a really thoughtful argument for the time. But if you look at it, we’ve leveraged that same policy framework and perspective since the 1950s through today with very little deviance, even though the world has changed a lot. The reason I use the words “fall asleep at the wheel” in the essay is because no one stopped to recognize that the assumptions from post-World War II no longer hold. We went from scientific talent and ideas being a core bottleneck that the government had to support to now, where I’d argue that we have at least a healthy supply, if not an oversupply of scientific talent and ideas. And what we’re missing is the capacity to translate those ideas into products and businesses.

Wade Roush: You outline three key steps that the nation could take to revitalize research and development. I’m curious about what kind of world you think might emerge if people took these three pieces of advice seriously. So the first one is, “Don’t just fund research, fund solutions.” Can you say a little more about what you mean by that? What does that mean to you when you say “funding solutions?”

Ilan Gur: The example I give in the article is it’s really easy to look up how much funding was spent on bio sciences research in the country. It’s very hard to look up how much funding was spent on pandemic preparedness and response. And the reason for that is because the entire system is organized around, if we think back to the history, right, early government funding went towards universities and government labs, it went towards fundamental research. So it was all built around the disciplines and the incentives of those organizations. You have a physics department, you have a math department, you have a computer science department. The National Science Foundation lets you look up data on where the government spends money on research. If you look it up, you can sort that data by field of science. You can’t sort that data by what problems were we actually trying to solve with any of those research dollars.

Ilan Gur: The incentives are also generally around knowledge creation, right? They’re around publishing papers. They are around advancing science. What if I want to be a cutting-edge scientist and work for an organization that cares about how to drive that science into applications. Who’s going to write me a paycheck to do that speculative work? Right. And so that’s I think that’s part of the dislocation. I would never suggest that we shouldn’t be funding fundamental and disciplinary research. We need that. That’s where the sort of seeds for everything we’re talking about in terms of value and impact comes from. But it would be nice to have a balance.

Wade Roush: Your second policy recommendation is that we need to get over our aversion to funding industry. And I guess what you mean is that government needs to be more open to sending research dollars to startups or to tech companies. Right?  What would be some of the key steps to actually enacting that recommendation?

Ilan Gur: One of things I’ve learned about government is, you know, rightfully there’s a stewardship element there, which is if I’m going to spend taxpayer dollars, I should make sure that I’m not wasting them. And one of the risks in wasting taxpayer dollars in research is that you spend money on something that the private sector would have done otherwise. And so there’s a real concern around this idea of let’s not be redundant with the private sector and let’s make sure that research expenditures are addressing a market failure, something that wouldn’t otherwise happen. I think one of the important things we need to recognize is that there are a lot of market failures. And covid-19 is a great example of this. Who was going to spend the money on developing solutions to a pandemic that didn’t yet exist? You know, that’s a market failure that industry just isn’t going to solve by itself, but where you need industry’s involvement to develop those practical solutions. And so then the question becomes, how do we do that? How do we get over our aversion to funding industry and how do we fund it responsibly?

Ilan Gur: Is it as simple as just taking the government’s funding and having the government fund more research in industry similar to what it used to or just more research? I had an interesting conversation with the CTO of a major industrial company in the US. And he said, “Well, here’s a problem. If the government started putting more money into the company that I was the CTO of”—he’s the former CTO—”to do like really speculative kind of research and early translation, my company wouldn’t know what to do with that money.” We don’t have the capacity within these big industrial companies to do that type of innovation anymore. And what this person said to me was, you know, right now that type of innovation is really happening from startups, right? Big companies are pulling in innovation by gobbling up startups. And there’s such a richness in science-based startups and the early stage, innovative research that’s happening there. I think one of the important lessons and takeaways for me is the government is really poorly positioned to fund research within startups and it’s a huge missed opportunity.

Wade Roush: So your third recommendation is “focus on what matters for the future.” What I’m curious about here is who should get to decide what matters. Funding is such an inherently political process, right? So how do we decide that?

Ilan Gur: The simple answer to this is, you know, we have a government system to think about what are the priorities to serve our society. And so ultimately, you know, we need that government system to operate and figure out what those priorities are. This is actually a great opportunity for me to mention sort of one of my heroes and mentors in this space. Arati Prabhakar is the former director of DARPA, but she’s also one of these folks who in her career has transcended and crossed between different worlds. She spent time as a venture capitalist, as the CEO of a company, in government both at NIST and then as the head of DARPA. And she points out something really interesting—and this relates to the history we were talking about—which is if you go to those founding documents around how we should say. The science and innovation infrastructure of the country after World War Two. You read Vannevar Bush’s famous essay…

Wade Roush: The Endless Frontier.

Ilan Gur: The Endless Frontier. You do a keyword search in that essay. Guess what? You won’t find the word Internet. You won’t find the word privacy. You won’t find the word climate change. You won’t find anything about gene engineering. There’s always the question of what’s the priority right now. But certainly over the course of decades, we can agree that major priorities for how science needs to serve societies have shifted. And there are new categories of priorities. And there are new approaches that have emerged. And there are new institutional frameworks. Startups. Right? You know, entrepreneurship. And so the question becomes, how can those changes be reflected in the organizing principles and the way we fund and support research in the country? You know, we had an Atomic Energy Commission and funding. Right. Should there be one of those on climate change, given what we know? I don’t know the answer. But certainly there should be a conversation about it.

Wade Roush: Right. Right. So you’re saying we need to be able to be more flexible, both in terms of our sort of shift from discipline to discipline to meet whatever the current needs are, and maybe willing to invent new institutions, whole new organizational structures around science funding, and not be caught up in whatever model was invented 50 years ago.

Ilan Gur: Yeah, and those are not easy changes to make. I think some in the policy world would say those are nearly impossible changes to make. I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to be having this dialogue right now in light of covid-19, because I think there is an openness right now to thinking about, well, you know, how should we build the research innovation infrastructure for the future to be better? Right. So, you know that leaves me optimistic. Regardless of how you feel about the response to covid-19 or otherwise, you know, fundamentally what’s great about working in science is that it’s about optimism. Right? It’s about the future. It’s about hope. And so I would just say, you know, we should be inspired by all the work that scientists and engineers are doing right now to get ahead of covid-19. We should celebrate that and we should be amazed by what we can accomplish with science, if we’ve got the motivation and the support to do it.

Wade Roush: That’s it for this edition of Deep Tech. This is a podcast we’re making exclusively for subscribers of MIT Technology Review, to help bring alive the ideas our journalists are writing and thinking about.

You can find Ilan Gur’s full essay in the July issue of Technology Review, which also features the TR35. It’s a list of 35 innovators under the age of 35 who are working to advance technology in areas like  photovoltaics, batteries, and machine vision. For more than 20 years readers have been looking to our list to find out who’s up and coming in science, engineering, and entrepreneurship, and whose inventions are going to change the world. Check out the whole list at technologyreview.com.

Deep Tech is written and produced by me and edited by Jennifer Strong and Michael Reilly. Our theme is by Titlecard Music and Sound in Boston. I’m Wade Roush. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you back here in two weeks for our next episode. 

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