How do we ensure fast and effective commercialisation of cleantech or waste minimisation technologies or Health IT technology adoption for that matter? These questions regularly play on my mind..and this weekend I came up with some new possible answers..
First some background though. Although I had never met the guy before, I ended up having a fascinating discussion with a visiting Professor / cosmologist / philosopher / computer science / maths whiz on the weekend…in Starbucks of all places!. That conversation (thanks John, I hope we meet again!) reminded me of a great lecture that I attended recently, given by an MIT professor. The subject: “From the Moon to Mars – implications for Space Suit design”.
The main discussion was around the challenges that astronauts face in travelling to and from Mars over maybe 3 or 4 years! Although in theory the journey can be done in 130 days, Earth and Mars are only well aligned and near each other once every 26 months. So to go and return to Mars – with a little exploring thrown in – is a major trip. No popping into the BP gas station for a coffee either!!. Astronauts face challenges in terms of radiation exposure, changes in muscle tone and bone density, nutrition and mental health.
Although the speaker talked a little about all of these challenges, the main thrust of the lecture was on the design considerations for space suits in the future, given that astronauts will operate in much lower g for much of their journey, but then will be expected to explore, lift objects, and work in about 3/8th Earth’s gravity (on Mars) and vice versa on the return trip. That lead to an interesting discussion about how the brain learns how to adapt in zero g – throwing objects, use of muscles etc is all different. Lots of neck and upper body movement, more like a lizard or snake, much less use of the torso and legs. Intelligent exoskeleton type suits were discussed…and it was here that some of the technology transfer ideas came to light.
For example, the speaker highlighted how the same technology that was being used to simulate the learning expriences of astronauts in zero g, and the ways that their motor-coordination could be trained and assisted, could also be used to help people suffering from the effects of celebral palsy here on Earth. And how examination of how our skin is layered and built up at a molecular level helps us to understand how to build spacesuits that can cope with the flexing and wear that our skin copes with so easily….
…and how changes in bone density and shape in lower gravity has learning implications for bone fractures amongst people here on Earth…
..and how novel engineering designs to create lightweight transport vehicles for use on the surface of Mars using (mainly) upper body strength and arms had direct implications for high performance tricycles that partially disabled people were using to compete in marathons here on Earth.
Great stuff – and not something that immediately comes to mind perhaps. I’m already a fan of space exploration, but suddenly some of the spin-off benefits became clearer.
Which leads on to one other point that stuck in my mind that the speaker made: innovation (and I suggest, the type of technology transfer that has really significant impact) only happens in great leaps and bounds when creative minds that are prepared to challenge the status quo are allowed to play and try new things out. Imitation or step by step incremental improvement rarely leads to ‘a great leap forward’.
Back to the MIT speaker: himself an academic, he went on to say how important it is to maintain that creative, playful dimension in research – and I agree – even though this perhaps goes against the grain of research programmes that often take someone elses work a little step further.
I was reminded of all of this during a conversation with someone from an economical development agency on an earlier occasion. What can these agencies do to encourage investment, R&D and technology transfer?. A logical approach might be to develop databases of common research topics, build labs, and commercialisation teams. Hmmm. Maybe. But perhaps what we really need is a few artists, and some creative types too?. I think it would be interesting to give a disparate group of individuals from a range of different backgrounds some pointy research problems to solve, give them a time limit, the freedom to play, and see what happens….after all, Penicillin, X-rays, the principal of vaccination, the atomic nucleus, and Teflon were all discovered ‘by accident’ in some way or another…so why not give some creatives a shot? Maybe thats what we need for effective Health IT technology adoption, or the commercialisation of cleantech or waste minimisation technologies.
A further question..for another post..might be around the attributes of an ideal team to commercialise these newly discovered items of technical wizardry….?!