There is something wrong with a situation in which some 95% of innovations never find an application. This is the case for academic research, in which the vast majority of inventions end up getting shelved, says Dan Perez, PhD student and CEO of the internet start-up Marblar.com. With his company, he hopes to change that by crowdsourcing the tech transfer effort. Set to launch in mid-September, Marblar will tap into the creativity of the crowd, gamifying the advancement of science.
Scientific research has reached a point where we know so much that, often, what we don't know is what to do with it all. Our knowledge has surpassed us, in a way, becoming so abundant, so specialized, often so bleeding edge, that it can be hard to see the best way to apply it. With increasing understanding of the world we live in, bridges between fields are crossed more and more often, meaning discoveries in one field should find applications in another. But how can you force the kind of fortuitous encounter that will reveal to a physicist the utility of his or her invention in an unrelated branch of biology? Dan Perez, an entrepreneur and student pursuing his PhD in antibody engineering jointly at the University of Oxford and The Scripps Research Institute, thinks he knows a way. Which is why, via the internet start-up Marblar, Dan intends to harness serendipity.
“In the university setting, what we’re doing is developing solutions – a new laser, a new piece of molecular biology or chemistry research – and looking for a problem to solve. Maybe you thought of two or three problems initially, but it looks like the gold standard is better, so you tossed your solution aside.” This is one reason why 95 to 99% of the products of research end up sitting on the shelf, the 27-year-old CEO says. There's a good chance, though, that these innovations would have practical applications in other fields, if the relevant context could be identified.
To find that perfect match, connections need to be made. “There's this paradox of too much knowledge, it's too specialized. Nobody reads journals cover to cover – maybe Science and Nature, but not the specialty ones. But they have information that might be relevant to you in your field. You see this when you go to a conference, or run into a professor in the canteen or the bathroom. You find out he’s doing something cool and you have this serendipitous interaction.” With Marblar, Perez and co-founders Gabriel Mecklenburg and Mehmet Fidanboylu hope to seize the power of the providential bathroom chat. “You, as the life scientist, talking to the chemist, you don't understand his research, you understand the abstraction of his research. But it's from that abstraction that you're able to bounce off and see the big picture and see where it's relevant in a different setting. This serendipity matters. We're trying to build it on a large scale. We're going to optimize it, make it a little more potent, concentrate it a bit more.”
"“There's all this technology out there that’s only had one or two people take a look at it. Why don't we have thousands take a look? Because we only need to find that one good application, that one good problem that this solution solves.”"
Gamification to Accelerate Science
What Marblar plans to do is drag out these unused inventions, languishing on the shelves of academia, dust them off, and present them to the world. Innovations, distilled to their key features in a way that non-experts can understand, will be posted on the site in the form of a competition. Players, or Marblars, “can come take a gander at them,” Dan Perez explains, and propose practical applications for the highly specialized innovations on display. “Currently, all the tech we're posting has been patented and often published several times. It's already in the public domain, but still hasn't gone anywhere. What we're trying to do is get someone from a different discipline to look at it in a fresh light, from a new perspective.”
The competition format provides an incentive for someone outside the original field to examine an invention. All entries are published openly on the site. “Our hypothesis in the beta version was that people would be very much competing with each other. What we found is that they weren’t really competing, they were building upon each other’s answers. They were very collaborative, which is what happens in science, too.” The overall winner of a Marblar competition is chosen by the original inventor of the tech in question, and in some cases a cash prize will be awarded. More importantly to the Marblar philosophy, participants earn points, and thus bragging rights, in various categories. Virtual marbles are handed out for receiving the most votes from the crowd, for becoming a finalist, and for making a contribution to an idea that helps it become the winner.
The prize money is not, in fact, the most important element for participants, according to Dan Perez. “Research into what motivates people shows that cash is not really the motivating factor. Prestige is powerful. Demonstrating your mastery, showing that you're good at something, is a powerful motivator. In science, the currency right now is prestige: you do your research, you work hard, and then we ask you to put it out there in public domain in the form of a publication. And in return we give you recognition. What we're trying to do is rebuild that into Marblar. If we think your idea is trenchant, we’ll ‘cite’ you, in that we’ll vote it up.”
“We're very up-front about what's in it for the inventors and our Marblars. We hope our Marblars are in it from the fun, the opportunity to be creative, and the chance to add momentum to science. If they're doing it for the money, then Marblar isn't for them!”
Fulfilling Innovation Potential
Researchers, Marblars, science, and society stand to benefit from the creative community forming around the site. In the company's test run, the innovation in need of rescue was a method to bind strands of DNA chemically, without the use of an enzyme. Developed by Tom Brown, a chemist at the University of Southampton, the tool was saved from tech purgatory by a PhD student at Cambridge University studying DNA drug delivery. He recognized its potential for solving a major problem in his field: the high throughput screening of millions of candidate molecules.
“The guy who won was so happy they liked his idea. And it’s not about the prize – the money wasn’t life changing. He met with the inventor for four hours, they planned out the exact 15 experiments that they’d have to do for the proof of concept. What’s neat for the tech holder is that he immediately taps into that expert knowledge, and you get new relationships, new collaborations forming.”
As Dan Perez sees it, the consequences of “Marblarizing” unfulfilled tech potential could include licensing products that contribute something to our lives; forming start-ups around the new ideas (the case for Marblar’s beta test example); and putting researchers in a position to start new collaborations, move into new fields, and apply for further funding. “They might find early stage ideas that will still need more R&D, but the crowd helps guide the direction of the research. These new ideas are really exciting for the inventor.”
“I wouldn’t pretend to say that Marblar will make 100% of science go somewhere – some ideas never should have been patented,” Perez concedes. “But if we say, optimistically, that 95% of innovations don’t go anywhere, that’s 19 out of 20 inventions. If we put these on our site, and even one goes somewhere, we’ve doubled the world’s efficiency!”
We might be in a recession, Perez notes, there aren't a lot of jobs, “but we haven't stopped thinking. The ideas are there for tomorrow's jobs. There's this combustible pile of unrealized potential. With Marblar, we want to build a giant match and light it on fire!”
Ignition date: September 17, 2012.
Find out more: Connect with Marblar on Twitter: @play_marblar How Marblar Works: Crowdsourcing Applications for Dormant Technologyhttp://marblar.tumblr.com/post/25148503129/how-marblar-works-crowdsourcing-applications-for