Podcast: Covid-19 has exposed a US innovation system that is badly out of date

Ilan Gur always wished to build things. But after finishing his PhD in material science at UC Berkeley, that he says that 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 solution 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 that 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 We sat down with him for more information about why the current system of R&D funding is out of date, and how a new one could help the US better address its current needs in addition to prepare for the long run. 

Show Notes and Links

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

Why venture capital doesn’t build the items we actually need, June 17, 2020

Cyclotron Road


Full Episode Transcript

Ilan Gur: Who would definitely spend the amount of money on developing solutions to a pandemic that didn’t yet exist? 

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

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

Wade Roush: In Ilan’s view, America’s whole system for moving research to industry is sorely outdated, and also this disconnect helps explain why the country was caught unprepared when the pandemic hit. He wrote in regards to the problem for the latest issue of Technology Review. And we’ll consult with him in regards to the three big steps that he thinks we ought to 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 TELEVISION.

National Science Foundation public service announcement:

To know the world from the 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 how a federal government has funded basic science from the time World War II. Meaning, the money has mostly gone toward accumulating fundamental disciplines like astronomy, biology, chemistry, and zoology, on the idea that a stream of new medical knowledge would certainly eventually switch the tires of exclusive enterprise. 

Ilan Gur thinks that was the proper philosophy if the National Science Foundation has been getting the start back 1950, whenever most basic study was limited to universities and large industrial amenities. But it might not work so well these days, when innovation can appear in all kinds of areas, including online companies, and when it looks like we can’t always rely on the marketplace to prompt innovation towards our many pressing requirements.   

Ilan  is a PhD substance scientist located in Berkeley, California, and the creator of a fellowship plan for scientist-entrepreneurs called Cyclotron Road. He’s also typically the CEO of a charitable called Activate that’s trying to replicate typically the Cyclotron Road model consist of locations. His essay  “How the US Lost Its Way on Innovation” is within the July problem of Technology Review.

Ilan Gur: We’ve obtained such a rich facilities for innovation in the United States yet there’s a lot holding us all back through realizing the of that infrastructure. The essay is really regarding the idea that because of the way the analysis innovation system in the US has already been organized, and since we have not had several opportunities to get a new look at that organization—those arranging principles—we end up having a great deal of stuck opportunities to complete value regarding from each of the great expertise and suggestions that we now have in the country, each to advance technology, but also to be sure that typically the scientific underpinnings we have may be powerful equipment to respond towards the needs of society. With covid-19 becoming a genuinely prime research study and illustration.

Wade Roush: Ilan states he’s already been inspired to determine how many experts are mobilizing in the outbreak to try brand new ideas inside areas such as testing plus vaccines plus medical products. But this individual also believes they’re trying to make on with a extremely late begin.

Ilan Gur: As researchers, when traditionally we have looked over what are the finest threats in order to society, which include some of the greatest existential threats, pandemics, global pandemics are always towards the top of that list. And it’s in no way been a question of if, it certainly is a issue of whenever. Why, mainly because it did occur, did we all not have the equipment to address that ready? You know, that’s certainly not merely a issue for technology. It’s a question with regard to government plus a issue for plan and a question of where our own priorities usually are and how we all invest. But for me, it can an sign that there is something absent in the way that we’re arranged, in the way that we’re ready to have technology and executive really make impact we would like.

Wade Roush: I’m really interested in Cyclotron Road, which is an actual highway in Berkeley, right? But it’s also title of a company that a person created back 2014. So what is it? And what’s typically the mission?

Ilan Gur: You realize, my own personal knowledge, feeling such as a little of a misfit, browsing through these various institutions through academia to go to government money where I actually ended up has been with this sturdy sense that each of these establishments had a really sturdy role inside how we enhance science. You know, educational institutions are really nicely set up to perform typically the ideation and do the investment inside talent. Corporations are really nicely set up to consider technology plus drive that to services distribute that. My strong interest is at how perform you do that stage of converting what’s arriving out of the research labrador into anything that eventually ends up at the front door of the market industry as a product. And what was absent for me is, who owns that part of the trip institutionally? I actually couldn’t get the place that owned that part of the trip. Because of that, there is a great deal of stuck talent plus ideas in the nation coming out of our own scientific establishments. And that seemed like a really large missed chance. And what exactly I asked yourself was, nicely, what if a person built a home especially for these folks who received become innovative experts inside science plus engineering who have been motivated, who else wanted to get that analysis to the next stage and lead to a merchandise, but they did not feel like that they had the right help mechanism to perform that. And we essentially designed Cyclotron Road since what will be the perfect atmosphere to support folks in that transition.

Wade Roush: Ilan says Lawrence Berkeley National Lab consented to host this program. The labrador is given its name physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, the developer of typically the cyclotron, and so the name.

Ilan Gur: The basic create of that program is we operate a opposition once a year. We say if you are a best of your current class man of science or professional and you wish to take the next step inside moving your thinking out of the research labrador. But if you’re caught among these two sides, right? What you’re taking care of is also applied for escuela or a traditional analysis lab. But too assuming for exclusive investment. Come here plus we’ll give you support for two yrs with a fellowship that allows you to concentrate on that changeover. And that’s proved to be a really strong model within the early information that we have gotten plus the organization These days run, Activate, is a nonprofit that’s basically create to take that experiment that we leaped at Cyclotron Road inside Berkeley plus figure out how to broaden that and gives that chance to more researchers and technical engineers around the nation. 

Wade Roush: So in a way, if you’re trying to change applied analysis. But 1 of typically the points you choose in your part is that we in fact kind of used to understand how to do this plus that there is, in effect, a wonderful, nearly golden age group of co-operation between authorities and company after World War 2. At a few point, might be starting within the 70s plus 80s, that all broken. And I desired to get your medical diagnosis of exactly what went incorrect. I think how you put it within the article has been we chop down asleep in the wheel.

Ilan Gur: The very first thing to realize is pre-World War II, typically the US authorities did almost no when it comes to money science education and learning and medical research. And that’s essential, right? University work has been basically within the domain of philanthropy, so far as I understand that. And the actual powerhouse with regard to scientific analysis, including more basic research, has been within major brands, if you think of the Duponts, the Bell Labs. So that is the kind of pre-World War II express. All of that transformed in World War 2. And the easiest way to think about that is in order to fast toward the end, which usually is, you already know, you could claim that the results of typically the war genuinely turned on technology and technological innovation and executive. We produced radar. We developed typically the bomb. The outcome has been clear that that has been an investment that paid off for your country. After the conflict, there was a big issue, OK? Now what? We just broken up all this money, but we all never considered like, exactly what should that role end up being outside of the World War?

Wade Roush: Ilan points out that 1 of the best voices with this debate has been Vannevar Bush, a past dean of MIT’s School of Engineering who had assisted to create both radar job and the atomic bomb job. Bush asserted in a report to President Truman that it was at last the time for a massive authorities investment inside basic research.

Ilan Gur: What come from that is fundamentally the entire technology policy plus research facilities that we now have in typically the US today, NSF, NIH, the national labrador system, etc. That has been a genuinely thoughtful place and a really innovative argument for your time. But if you look at that, we’ve leveraged that similar policy construction and point of view since the 1950s through these days with almost no deviance, although the world has changed a lot. The reason I prefer the words “fall asleep at the wheel” in the article is since no one ceased to recognize that the presumptions from post-World War 2 no longer keep. We proceeded to go from medical talent plus ideas becoming a key bottleneck that the government needed to support in order to now, wherever I’d claim that we now have at least a healthy source, if not a good oversupply of scientific expertise and suggestions. And exactly what we’re absent is the capability to change those suggestions into services businesses.

Wade Roush: You summarize three important steps that the nation can take to rejuvenate research and development. I’m curious about the type of globe you think may possibly emerge in case people got these about three pieces of advice critically. So the first is, “Don’t just fund research, fund solutions.” Can a person say a little more by what you suggest by that? What really does that suggest to you once you say “funding solutions?”

Ilan Gur: The illustration I cave in the article is it’s really an easy task to look up simply how much funding has been spent on resource sciences analysis in the country. It’s very hard to search for how much money was invested in pandemic readiness and reaction. And the explanation for that is because the complete system is organized close to, if we consider back to a history, right, earlier government money went toward universities plus government amenities, it proceeded to go towards basic research. So it was almost all built across the disciplines plus the incentives of those businesses. You have got a physics department, you could have a mathematics department, you could have a personal computer science section. The National Science Foundation lets you search for data upon where the authorities spends cash on analysis. If anyone looks it up, you may sort that data simply by field of science. You can’t type that information by what issues were we all actually seeking to solve together with any of those analysis dollars.

Ilan Gur: The bonuses are also usually around understanding creation, proper? They’re close to publishing documents. They remain advancing technology. What easily want to be a cutting-edge man of science and benefit an organization that cares about the way to drive that science directly into applications. Who’s going to compose me a paycheck to perform that assuming work? Right. And thus that’s I believe that’s portion of typically the dislocation. We would never advise that we all shouldn’t be money fundamental plus disciplinary analysis. We require that. That’s where the type of seed products for every thing we’re speaking about in terms of value plus impact arises from. But it will be nice to possess a stability.

Wade Roush: Your second plan recommendation is that we have to get over our own aversion in order to funding market. And I assume what you suggest is that government has to be more available to sending analysis dollars in order to startups in order to tech firms. Right?  What will be some of the key procedure for actually enactment that suggestion?

Ilan Gur: One of points I’ve discovered government is, you know, correctly there’s a stewardship aspect there, which usually is in case I’m gonna spend taxpayer dollars, I ought to make sure that I’m not necessarily wasting all of them. And 1 of the potential risks in throwing away taxpayer bucks in analysis is that you spend cash on anything that typically the private field would have completed otherwise. And so there is a actual concern with this idea of let’s not get redundant with all the private field and a few make sure that research costs are dealing with a marketplace failure, anything that more than likely otherwise occur. I think 1 of the key things we have to recognize is that you can find a great deal of marketplace failures. And covid-19 is a excellent example of this. Who was going to your time money upon developing methods to a outbreak that did not yet are present? You realize, that’s a market failing that market just isn’t gonna solve on its own, but where you exactly need industry’s involvement to build up those functional solutions. And so then a question gets, how perform we do that? How do we conquer our repulsion to money industry and just how do we finance it reliably?

Ilan Gur: Is it as easy as merely taking the government’s funding plus having the authorities fund even more research inside industry just like what it utilized to or just even more research? I had developed an interesting discussion with the CTO of a major commercial company within the US. And he mentioned, “Well, here’s a problem. If the government started putting more money into the company that I was the CTO of”—he’s the previous CTO—”to perform like genuinely speculative type of analysis and earlier translation, our company more than likely know what related to that cash.” We don’t have the capability within these types of big commercial companies to perform that sort of innovation anymore. And what your husband said to myself was, you already know, right now that type of innovation is really occurring from online companies, right? Big companies are getting innovation simply by gobbling upward startups. And there’s this kind of a richness in science-based startups plus the early phase, innovative analysis that’s occurring there. I believe one of the important training and takeaways for me is the government is really inadequately positioned to finance research inside startups and it is a large missed chance.

Wade Roush: So your 3rd recommendation is “focus on what matters for the future.” What I’m interested in here is who will get to decide what is important. Funding is such an innately political procedure, right? So how do we choose that?

Ilan Gur: The easy answer to this specific is, you already know, we have a government system to think about do you know the priorities in order to serve our own society. And so eventually, you know, we require that authorities system to work and determine out exactly what those focal points are. This is in fact a excellent opportunity for me personally to mention type of 1 of our heroes plus mentors with this space. Arati Prabhakar is the former movie director of DARPA, but she is also 1 of these people who inside her job has transcended and surpassed between various worlds. She spent period as a venture capitalist, as the BOSS of a company, inside government each at NIST and then since the head of DARPA. And she details out anything really interesting—and this pertains to the history i was talking about—which is in case you go to all those founding files around the way we should state. The technology and innovation infrastructure of the country right after World War Two. You read Vannevar Bush’s well-known essay…

Wade Roush: The Endless Frontier.

Ilan Gur: The Endless Frontier. You do a keyword research in that essay. Guess what? You won’t get the word Internet. You is just not find the phrase privacy. You won’t get the word weather change. You won’t locate anything about gene engineering. There’s always problem of exactly what is the concern right now. But certainly on the course of decades, we could agree that major focus for exactly how science has to serve organizations have moved. And you can find new classes of focus. And you can find new techniques that have got emerged. And there are brand new institutional frames. Startups. Right? You realize, entrepreneurship. And so the issue becomes, how do those adjustments be shown in the arranging principles plus the way we all fund plus support analysis in the country? You know, there were an Atomic Energy Commission and money. Right. Should there end up being one of those upon climate modify, given what we should know? I actually don’t know the solution. But undoubtedly there should be a conversation regarding it.

Wade Roush: Right. Right. So you’re expressing we need to manage to be more adaptable, both in phrases of our own sort of shift through discipline in order to discipline to satisfy whatever the present needs usually are, and maybe prepared to invent brand new institutions, totally new organizational buildings around technology funding, rather than be swept up in no matter what model has been invented 50 years ago.

Ilan Gur: Yeah, and people are not simple changes to help to make. I think a few in the plan world would certainly say all those are almost impossible changes to help to make. I think it can one of the reasons why it can so important to become having this specific dialogue right this moment in light of covid-19, since I think presently there is a good openness right this moment to considering, well, you already know, how need to we develop the research innovation infrastructure in the future to be much better? Right. So, you know that leaves me personally optimistic. Regardless of your emotions about the reaction to covid-19 or perhaps, you know, basically what’s excellent about employed in science is that it can about confidence. Right? It’s about the long term. It’s regarding hope. And so I would certainly just state, you know, we ought to be inspired simply by all the work that scientists plus engineers performing right now to have ahead of covid-19. We should commemorate that and that we should be excited by what we could accomplish together with science, in case we’ve got typically the motivation plus the support to obtain.

Wade Roush: That’s that for this release of Deep Tech. This is a podcast we’re making solely for members of DURCH Technology Review, to help deliver alive typically the ideas our own journalists usually are writing plus thinking about.

You will find Ilan Gur’s full article in the July issue of Technology Review, which likewise features typically the TR35. It’s a listing of 35 innovators underneath the age of 35 who will be working to enhance technology inside areas like  photovoltaics, battery packs, and equipment vision. For more than 20 years visitors have been seeking to our listing to find out who’s becoming more popular in technology, engineering, plus entrepreneurship, plus whose innovations are going to replace the world. Check out the complete list in technologyreview.possuindo.

Deep Tech is written plus produced by me personally and modified by Jennifer Strong plus Michael Reilly. Our concept is simply by Titlecard Music and Sound in Boston. I’m Wade Roush. Thanks for listening, and that we hope to help you back within two weeks for the next show.