This is an invited guest post by Gabriel Mecklenburg and Daniel Perez of Marblar.com.
Transferring bench-based discoveries into real-world solutions has been a hallmark of 20th century progress. From penicillin, to lasers and semiconductors (and innumerable others!) Apollonian investigations have radically reshaped our lives for the better. But are we doing enough? Are we really wringing out what we can from our science?
You may not necessarily know this, but currently 95-99% of patents filed by universities never leave the cabinet they were filed in. We felt that this is a stunning waste of resources and people’s hard work, and leaves so much potential unfulfilled. We asked why this is so and what can be done to change it. One thing we’ve come to appreciate is that (and this is going to sound obvious!) university research is often fantastically bleeding edge – these discoveries (and the professors/postdocs/students working on them) are at the leading edge of their field, often years ahead of their time. So it’s no wonder that so often there’s a great new invention coming out of a physics department (say, a nifty new laser) and the tech transfer office is scratching their head wondering what to do with it. In what setting would this laser be relevant? What problem would this newly developed reaction solve? Or who would use this new method of putting nucleotides together? These can be tough questions that require a lot of creative minds. Unfortunately this brainstorming process is too often closed to just a few minds (usually just 2-3!). But what if that laser is relevant in traffic signals? What if that new discovery out of chemistry plays a role in cancer? We want to open up the process of technology transfer (moving scientific discoveries to the market) to you – scientists and non-scientists from all around the world who want to see discoveries make a real difference.
So, how exactly are we going to go about this? We believe that by drawing from a diverse network of talent from across disciplines we can deliver more novel ideas on how technology and innovation can be exploited. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Scientists as a whole have become fantastically specialized over time, and so it’s sometimes hard to see the real-world relevance of a discovery made in a niche-field of quantum chemistry. At Marblar we think that welcoming fresh perspectives and complementary skill sets is just what’s needed to advance science and overcome the hurdles This kind of crowdsourcing approach has shown some amazing successes through organizations like InnoCentive (who have distributed almost $35m in prize money to people finding solutions for problems posted on their site) or through the famous X-Prize competitions.
However, rather than asking for the solution to a problem, we are asking our users to look at existing inventions and tell us which problem they are actually solving. The process will work like this: We source dormant patents and technology from universities or companies. We use our network of bright minds (scientists or simply science enthusiasts) to find new ways these inventions could be used, or new directions to take the science. Our thinkers are then rewarded with points, badges (marbles), cash and even the possibility of joining start-ups arising from their ideas or joining the lab to push their ideas forward.
Starting from the hypothesis that scientists love chewing on a good intellectual challenge together with a diverse group of like-minded folks, we put our assumptions to the test in our initial beta: We ran a challenge with a piece of very niche molecular biology technology, DNA Click Ligation. Basically, the inventor (Prof Tom Brown of Southampton) developed a way to put DNA strands together chemically, without the use of an enzyme. Now, even as biologists we were genuinely stumped as to what we could do with this. Is it just a cool lab trick or was there any real world relevance to putting DNA together without an enzyme? So we posted the invention online and simply asked: “what would you do with this discovery?” We then received a bunch of incredibly insightful thoughts from people in all sorts of disciplines. The winner was a PhD student doing research of nucleotide drug delivery, and felt this was a perfect solution to a huge problem in his field. Now the inventor (a chemist) would never have known that in RNA-based drug delivery/discovery there was this big pressing problem to which he potentially had a solution. They’re now exploring the possibility of forming a start-up around this application and working furiously to build a prototype to make this a reality. (By the way, they’re moving forward on the second-place idea as well!)
We were thrilled that our beta was so successful, though we weren’t too surprised at seeing clever minds add their trenchant thoughts towards advancing science – that’s why we all joined the scientific field after all. We’re now in the stages of building a superb platform for Marblar, one that will foster collaboration across disciplines and rewards Marblars for thinking creatively about science. We want Marblar to be a place for science enthusiasts from around the world to work together, get creative, solve puzzles and help some forgotten science take its deserved place in the spotlight – we hope you will join us in this.
We hope you sign up to our beta - we’ll be launching near September. There’s some more information about us on our blog and find us elsewhere @play_marblar or facebook.com/marblar.
About the team: We're three UK-based PhD students (one American, one German and one British), and we simply love science. We also love seeing science make it to the real world. Hear more about us online at facebook.com/Marblar, @play_marblar or on our blog marblar.tumblr.com
Previously in this series: