Sunday, March 5, 2017

Vision and Academia

Background: I interviewed for Rice University's graduate program in Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology (SSPB) on Friday. This post presents an initial reaction; I may flesh it out more in a later post.

I just got back from grad school interviews at Rice. Walking between interviews, I noticed that something felt… off. It took a while to put my finger on it, but I realized what was missing: vision.

In the silicon valley start-up scene, everyone wants to take over the world. Every company either wants to revolutionize their industry, or invent an entirely new gazillion-dollar industry, or completely rewire society. At Carlypso, the goal was to radically reduce the overhead of dealing in used cars by building a zero-inventory online dealership. At my current company, the goal is to radically reduce the time and cost of issuing mortgages by a factor of five. In both cases, we explicitly built everything with global market domination in mind.

Whatever the objective may be, a startup is organized around achieving that objective. Whatever the biggest bottleneck is, that’s the biggest business priority. In established industries (like mortgages and used cars), the bottlenecks for your business are usually the same bottlenecks faced by the whole industry. If you’ve chosen the right industry, then the bottlenecks are the sort of things which can be solved by throwing technology and smarts at the problem, and then you’ve got a formula for a viable tech startup.

In industry, you focus on the main bottleneck because you have to. If you don’t, then the business will flounder. But in academia, that impetus isn’t really present.

You can ask a professor what the big vision is, what they’re working toward, and usually they’ll have something to say about it. Maybe it’s understanding how cells process information, or curing cancer, or kicking off the bioengineering revolution. But then you look at their actual projects, and… well, maybe their projects are sort of tangentially related, but they’re usually not the major bottleneck on the path to their supposed goal.

Look at synthetic biology, for instance. What are the major bottlenecks to the field as a whole? Reduction of cycle time would be the number one item on my list (i.e. reduce time required to design gene drive, fabricate a plasmid, introduce it into cells, grow the cells, observe their behavior, and use the observations to inform design of a new gene drive). Another major item would be better chasses, i.e. cell lines which are simple, predictable and grow quickly. How many researchers are working on these problems? Not many, and even then it’s often a side project.

In fact, a lot of the work on these bottlenecks happens at private companies - they know that a better chassis cell line or new machine which accelerates cycle time will make lots of money. But academics don’t really have a motive to focus on the bottlenecks. Bottlenecks are usually not in areas where many professors have existing expertise - that’s partly why they’re bottlenecked in the first place. Funding boards don’t seem to focus much on addressing bottlenecks. In practice, inventing a new method which becomes widely adopted is a great way to make a name in a field, but I don’t think most academics realize there’s an easy way to do that - look at what the major blockers are, and then address those directly.

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