Top 10 Takeaways From Seattle’s Engineering Summit: Electro-Active Wallpaper, Facebook Is Watching You, and Dendreon Detractors

5/6/10Follow @gthuang

Engineers are not salespeople. They are certainly not sound-bite machines either. If they were either of the above, there would have been a flurry of media stories coming out of Seattle this week centered around the National Academy of Engineering’s “grand challenges” summit held here on Sunday and Monday. Maybe that’s why it took me longer than usual to synthesize what I heard into a coherent wrap-up.

Alas, the meeting was probably disappointing to most journalists. But if you are a scientist or a savvy businessperson interested in the future of technology, you should have been there. Its goal was to inspire students, researchers, and entrepreneurs to solve some of society’s most important problems—and it did. But it did so in a unique way—with some very high-level, thought-provoking talks and discussions that went far beyond what I was expecting as a casual observer. (OK, I’ll admit I’m an engineer by training, and still think like an engineer in many ways.)

It’s not exaggerating to say engineers have created the world we live in, and that they hold the future of the planet in their hands. They can also make you a lot of money if you work with them in the right way. A lot of tech entrepreneurs have other ideas, but I think the gap between technology researchers and startups needs to be bridged, for the good of society. This week, local summit organizers Matt O’Donnell, Ed Lazowska, and Bonnie Dunbar took a step in that direction, and got a lot of people buzzing about the future of technology and society.

Without further ado, here is my top 10 countdown of highlights from the summit, which focused on engineering better medicines and advancing tools for scientific discovery in computing and aerospace:

10. Eat broccoli.

During the medicine panel, Buddy Ratner, a University of Washington professor of bioengineering, raised an issue from the audience. “What’s the business model for preventive medicine?” he asked. His point was that companies pour billions of dollars into new drugs, but some of the advances that have had the most impact on improving overall health in society are low-tech things like washing hands before doing surgery, providing people with clean drinking water, and eating broccoli to help prevent cancer.

9. The new drug pipeline is broken—except when it’s not.

This was a point of contention on the panel. Lonnie Edelheit, former senior vice president of R&D at General Electric, argued that “if we don’t worry about cost, it’ll stay confusing until the system breaks completely.” Nicholas Peppas, chair of biomedical engineering at University of Texas at Austin, countered, “I don’t think the system is broken. It is still an excellent system, it works relatively well. This country has produced most of the great drugs and made them available at relatively low cost.”

8. Not everyone loves Dendreon.

Seattle’s biotech darling, which just made history by winning FDA approval for a new kind of prostate cancer drug, has its share of detractors. In discussing how to fix the drug pipeline, Bruce Montgomery, senior vice president at Gilead Sciences, said, “The problem is the reward system for development of drugs.” If a company can provide a drug to extend patients’ lives for a few more months and charge about $100,000, he said, “sooner or later we’ll wake up and see that’s not sustainable.” He did not mention Dendreon by name, but it seemed to me that he was referring to the company’s $93,000 per person price it set for Provenge, a drug for patients with terminal prostate cancer. “If we establish we will pay fair price for any drug that decreases the cost of healthcare and improves the life of patients,” Montgomery said, then pharma companies will change their practices to be more “clinically and socially important.”

7. Developing countries will remain a separate market for medicine.

O’Donnell, UW’s dean of engineering, and Hugh Chang from PATH cited the statistic that the number of deaths from chronic disease has surpassed the number of deaths due to infectious disease worldwide. Does that change how biotech and medical companies view the developing-world market? “For the foreseeable future, there’s so much money to be made in healthcare in the developed world that they’ll stay there,” Edelheit said. “It will be separate. I think it’ll be an additional thing instead of a fundamental change in thinking.”

6. Get ready for “electro-active wallpaper.”

Switching gears, UC San Diego computer scientist Larry Smarr dazzled the crowd with his vision of combining super-fast, ultra-broadband networks with high-definition, wall-sized displays that could reinvent how people communicate and collaborate on things like medical imaging, research simulations, and entertainment. The project is called OptIPortal, and Smarr’s institute, Calit2 at UCSD, plays a leading role. Research-wise, the technology lets scientists do much deeper analysis of things like how galaxies formed in the early universe. “You have the universe in a box, essentially,” Smarr said. He says all of this will lead to a “new golden age of scientific discovery.” I’m wondering how businesses will take advantage of this.

5. Cosmologists make very interesting computer scientists.

Is it just me, or is it uncanny how people who study the deepest workings of the universe become successful in software? They’re not strictly “cosmologists,” but think about Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist-turned-supercomputing guru, along with Nathan Myhrvold (who studied with Stephen Hawking) from Microsoft and Intellectual Ventures, and Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha fame. An example of the reverse might be Charles Simonyi, the software whiz (and former Microsoft exec) who has become a leader by example in space tourism. There’s probably something about creating code that meshes well with the mathematics of space and time.

4. Facebook knows who’s getting drunk, with whom, and when.

I’m being flip, but so is Facebook. Jonathan Chang, a data science researcher at Facebook who’s finishing his Ph.D. at Caltech, showed what kinds of detailed information Facebook has at its disposal. By analyzing the updates of its social network users, the company sees patterns in things like where people are getting laid off, where they live relative to their friends, and correlations between when they get drunk and when they say they have a hangover (the correlation is high, not surprisingly, and the incidence rate is highest around New Year’s). “This is pretty cool,” Chang said. Questions in social science and human behavior that were traditionally very hard to get at with surveys can now be answered by mining social networks. (Facebook is opening an engineering office in Seattle this summer.)

3. “The cloud may turn out to be an interim solution.”

That was Smarr talking about the fact that the “mass market” Internet cloud that’s used for things like Gmail simply doesn’t have the high-performance capacity or speed to handle big science data. So he sees organizations and businesses using a combination of a public cloud and a “fast private cloud” to get gigabyte-per-second access speeds. The whole field of private clouds is exploding, of course, as big companies figure out issues like compliance, security, and privacy for their customers. Interestingly, Smarr said California and Washington universities are currently testing a 10 gigabit-per-second “connected commercial data cloud” through Amazon Web Services, as an “experiment for big data.” (The network is called the Pacific Northwest Gigapop.)

2. Manned spaceflight is a complicated but crucial business.

I can’t begin to do justice to the discussion by Michael Griffin, the former NASA administrator, Ed Crawley from MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics, and Bonnie Dunbar, a former astronaut and CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Suffice to say that Griffin has some spectacular insights into running a large bureaucratic organization; Crawley thinks the technical issues in space travel are not as risky as the business issues. “We are entrusting human spaceflight over the next five years to commercial providers. They happen to be Russian,” Crawley said. “The eventual goal of human spaceflight should be to move towards exploring Mars.”

Meanwhile, Dunbar focused on the human side of spaceflight, which is something she knows, because she has actually spent time above Earth in a space shuttle. She talked about life support systems, the kinds of science experiments that can be done in orbit, and studies of astronaut health and the long-term effects of being in space. Griffin and Crawley disagreed sharply over the “flexible path” plan for human spaceflight laid out by NASA earlier this year. “I think it flunks Washington [DC] 101,” Griffin said. “I don’t think ‘flexible path’ is sustainable.”

1. Grand challenges are messy—but they’re the urgent future of society.

In organizing this event, the Seattle summit leaders chose to highlight some of the region’s top strengths—computing, biotech and medical devices, and aerospace. John Markoff, science and technology correspondent with the New York Times, helped bring it all together at the end with a Q&A session. He asked whether the 14 grand challenges (meant to be tackled by 2050) are really the right problems to focus on—and how to go about solving them.

O’Donnell pointed out the need for objective measures of progress. “In the past 30 years, what we’ve seen in devices and drug-devices, is life expectancy has increased by 10 years,” he said, thanks to things like management of cardiovascular disease. “I would like to measure [progress on the grand challenges] against some goals.”

Besides measurable goals like life expectancy, there were less tangible goals, like figuring out how to inspire a new generation of engineers. “What I like about the list is, I’m in favor of having aspirational goals,” said Lazowska, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.

Smarr added, “The encapsulation of the problems that are going to be hitting us would infer some combination of the 14 grand challenges. But what bothers me is they’re open-ended.” Meaning, “40 years is nothing to deploy a completely new system,” he said. Take wind energy, for example. Smarr noted that the first U.S. offshore wind farm, off the coast of Massachusetts, took 10 years of discussion to be approved—and will be a “huge engineering challenge.” Even if it is fully operational, it will only amount to a drop in the bucket of U.S. energy needs if the country is to be competitive in renewable energy by 2050.

Ultimately, though, the message from the summit was a hopeful one. “Engineering ranges from producing the next version of Microsoft Office or Windows, which is not at all easy…to breaking revolutionary new ground,” Lazowska said. “What you really want to be doing is using prizes to incent the kinds of things that will be important 10 years from now. You don’t necessarily get to the moon by climbing a stepladder.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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