There’s no such thing as failure, as long as you view it in the proper light.
That’s the philosophy of scientist-entrepreneurs Darrick Carter, vice president of adjuvant technology at Seattle-based IDRI (Infectious Disease Research Institute) and biotech company founder, and Aaron Feaver, co-founder and chief technology officer of energy-storage materials company EnerG2, who shared their views of the trial-and-error process of scientific discovery in a new feature we’re calling The Xconversation.
This occasional series pairs top practitioners and leaders in the innovation community for wide-ranging discussions over lunch, facilitated by Xconomy.
In yesterday’s installment (Part I), Carter, a biochemist and biophysicist, and Feaver, an engineer and materials scientist, probed the similarities in the molecular manipulations they undertake to develop new vaccines and improve batteries with engineered carbon materials, respectively. They discussed their early interests in science, the challenge of balancing scientific openness with a business’ need to protect intellectual property, and whether there’s a Moore’s Law for batteries, among many other topics.
As their conversation continues, Carter and Feaver, both fathers, talk about how their work as scientists focused on the molecular scale shapes their world views, the added urgency they feel from climate change, how computing technology is accelerating their research, and the difficulty of knowing when to take the leap and build a company based on your science.
The following excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity:
Orders of Magnitude, Avoiding Kale
X: As researchers, entrepreneurs, who focus on the very small, has how you view the world at the human, macro scale, changed over time? I have the same question when I talk to an astronomer researching things that are orders of magnitude larger and farther away.
AF: In some ways it has for me. I like to garden at home. I go out and look at beads of dew on a kale plant, and kale is extraordinarily hydrophobic. I’d kind of like to get a kale plant under an [scanning electron microscope] and look at what’s going on in there. It’s just amazing how water beads up on the surface of a kale leaf. It’s probably partly a nano-scale interaction, or maybe micro-scale fibers or something like that on the surface of the it. You probably could tell me more about it—
DC: I try to stay away from kale.
AF: But anyway. You do see this stuff in everyday interactions, and because you know something about it, for me, I wonder. I think about that kind of stuff here and there. I tell my kids about it. They’re taking science classes, so that’s kind of fun.
DC: I see it more fractally. I think the nano scales or micro scales that we look at, if you zoom away to the International Space Station, the rest of the world looks like that. If you zoom away to the galaxy, the whole galaxy looks like that.
X: Do you have kids, too, Darrick?
DC: Oh yeah. Three.
X: I have two kids. They’re pretty young. Just yesterday, my eldest daughter, who is 3 and a half asked me, ‘What’s an interview?’ I was curious about how and at what age you explained to your kids what you do, and at what age did they start to get a realistic understanding of it?
AF: My daughter is 6, and my son is 8 going on 9. I think they already get it to some extent. Just yesterday, my son asked me if I knew what an aerogel was. And I said, yeah, Caleb, actually all the materials we make are kind of like aerogels. They’re carbon aerogels. And he thought that was really cool. Unfortunately, a carbon aerogel looks more like a lump of coal, whereas a silica aerogel is this amazing glass cloudy thing that I’m sure is what he saw on TV. So we had a conversation about what an aerogel is and why it’s different from other forms of material and stuff like that. We’ll play with the dishwashing sponge and talk about this concept of pore volume and stuff like that. He totally gets it. It’s not that foreign of a concept. He can’t dive into all of this crazy detail, but they get the basics.
DC (whose kids are 12, 8, and 3): The 8-year-old, they just had a verbal test, and the teacher said, ‘I have to tell you this because I asked him if he knew what a vaccine was, and he was really offended. He said, “Of course I know what a vaccine is. My Dad’s a biochemist!”‘
I don’t think the 3-year-old knows yet. At around 5 or so, they start getting what field you’re working in, if not exactly what you do. The 12-year-old, whenever he gets angry at school, he says, ‘Can you bring some Ebola in?’ No, no, they don’t like that.
AF: We just made liquid nitrogen ice cream. That’s a fun thing to do, even when the kids are three.
DC: That’s all they think you do at work is play with liquid nitrogen.
His school invites me often to talk about biology. Just now I was talking about Zika virus at the middle school. Before, when the Ebola outbreak happened, I brought some Ebola DNA because we were working on an Ebola vaccine. I got so many complaints later through the teacher. The parents were like, ‘You let somebody come in who’s going to bring in stuff like that?’
Climate Change as Motivator
X: Another connection between your respective areas of focus that occurred to me is climate change. Darrick, as you put it in your op-ed for Xconomy last fall, climate change is spurring faster and broader spread of infectious diseases spread by insects—
DC: Zika was a good example of that, in hindsight.
X: And Aaron, I would put EnerG2’s efforts at improving energy storage in the category of clean technology. But how much does climate change as an issue factor into your day-to-day efforts and motivation?
AF: It definitely is for me. That’s one of the primary motivating factors for trying to do what we’re doing. And I think, really, for a good chunk of the team at EnerG2. You’ve got a bunch of people over there that are motivated to come to work at least, not on a daily basis maybe, but that’s part of the reason they came to EnerG2 in the first place. The fact that we’re doing something that matters.
DC: For us, we’re not really into environmental engineering or making bacteria that are going to fix carbon or something. Really it’s more of how do you deal with what climate change is going to do to the disease profile. I have no idea. It is really scary.
X: I imagine it lends an additional sense of urgency though?
DC: You’ve got to find a solution, and I don’t think anybody has one. If there’s constantly new diseases…
What we did with AIDS, basically turning it into a chronic disease—no matter what Charlie Sheen thinks—but that took, what, 30 years? If we start seeing new AIDS-type things emerging every two years, it’s going to overwhelm the system.
X: Another aspect of that that I was thinking of as I just re-read your essay is, What impact might the spread of these diseases to developed countries have on the urgency with which people work on them? There’s the ongoing lament about how much financial resource goes after erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer versus mosquito borne illness, broadly speaking.
DC: I think the government can do better. The NIH budget has been pretty stagnant because nobody seems to really care. Compare that to the military budget. In some senses maybe it’s good that there’s some scary stuff coming up.
AF: In some ways, this is a doomsday-type scenario. The tropics are where everything is at. The tropics are expanding, basically, right. You can’t say that’s happened now, but it’s gradually starting. You see insects that you haven’t seen before, right?
DC: And we see Chagas disease. It’s caused by a parasite that’s borne by certain pigs. They’re finding them in Texas now. You never had the disease in the U.S. before.
AF: I’m from northern Illinois originally. My grandparents lived in Tennessee. Ticks in Tennessee. Big problem. You go hiking and you’re going to have ticks. I would have tick inspections when I was a kid. Now there’s ticks in northern Illinois.
DC: The same thing with these mosquito vectors. All these flaviviruses—chickungunya, Zika—the carriers, they’re migrating farther north.
X: All the reports have talked about how the Aedes aegypti mosquito doesn’t live here. Thinking about all that you’ve said, it’s sort of cold comfort. It doesn’t live here now…
DC: It doesn’t live here now.
Tools of the Trade: Big Data the Accelerator
[After lunch arrived—Coho salmon, rockfish tacos at Ivar’s Salmon House—discussion turned to the impact various computational advances, big data, and artificial intelligence are having on their day-to-day work.]
AF: In the biotech sector, companies do a lot of parallel sequencing work. That was something that was interestingly copied in the battery sector a few years back by a company called Wildcat Discovery Technologies. And they basically just said, OK, we’re going to massively parallel process material synthesis testing in batteries.
What we’re stuck with right now is, you put material into kilns and it takes a whole day to produce enough material to process—actually it takes multiple days to produce it. And then it takes multiple days after that to put it into an actual functioning battery and see what works, and it takes days after that to process it. The iteration loop is long and hard.
What Wildcat did is … Next Page »