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 … Next Page »