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What Fuels Innovation? Houston’s MEST Conference Says Diversity

Xconomy Texas — 

Sometimes, the best way to fuel the spark of innovation is to spend some time with people who are very different from yourself.

That’s the idea behind the second annual MEST conference—that’s Medicine, Energy, Space, and Technology—a gathering that aims to leverage the expertise of seemingly different industries to help solve problems across those businesses. The gathering took place Tuesday at TMCx, the Texas Medical Center’s startup accelerator.

“One of the biggest strengths of Houston that we truly have substance in these fields,” says Simrit Parmar, an oncolgoist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and founder of co-working space Platform Houston. “But one of the biggest challenges is that these four silos don’t really talk to each other.”

Yes, CEOs and other executive types do meet, she adds, but that’s not where the real collaboration happens. “The dialog doesn’t cross over into actual action,” she says. “It needs to be at the granular level: an intern connecting with an engineer in energy or at NASA.”

The conference featured keynotes by startup founders, as well as doctors, scientists, and engineers from MD Anderson, The University of Texas at Austin, South By Southwest, and Shell.

There were also speakers from other parts of the country including John Adler, a Stanford University professor who has founded Cureus, which is what he calls a “next-generation” medical journal. He says Cureus uses tech-world concepts like crowdsourcing to better highlight a more diverse portfolio of research than traditional medical journals.

“There’s so much knowledge that never gets documented,” he says. “Harvard and UT Southwestern and MD Anderson have a voice, but there are physicians in India who have treated sometimes ten times as many patients as the big experts in America. We’re removing the barriers of publication that we have today.”

This year, the MEST conference also featured two “collision sessions” in which audience members tackled challenges in the energy industry presented by Shell engineers. Small groups of physicians, engineers, and software programmers talked through ideas on the best way to adapt wearables, such as Google glass for potentially hazardous energy work environments, and chemical and biological ways to reduce or eliminate deposits that can line on pumps, valves, and other parts of oilfield equipment.

For Henk Mooiweer with Shell Game Changer, these events can make the difference between evolutionary innovation and disruptive innovation. Evolutional innovation is incremental; innovators should strive for technologies that have the capability of transforming industries, he says.

“The more different your group is, the more disruptive you can get,” he says. “The chances are lower, but if you find something, it can be way more spectacular.”