Monday, November 26, 2007

Fomenting Collaborative Science

FasterCures co-hosted with Esquire magazine what has become an annual intellectual smorgasbord focused on how to foster more innovation in the conduct of medical research. The theme running throughout our afternoon’s discussion was new tools for fostering collaboration in science, and I was struck by how the medium matched the message. Once again we gathered people from all across – and outside – the disease research and therapy development spectrum; heads of nonprofit disease research foundations mixed with business innovators mixed with Internet gurus etc. The energy and synergy in these gatherings is always palpable, as people are exposed to new people and ideas that they don’t necessarily encounter in their everyday work.

The place itself encourages you to switch off your left brain for a few hours and let the right brain take over. This latest incarnation of Esquire’s “Signature Spaces” was a three-level penthouse with awe-inspiring views across New York from Central Park North. Two participants began a side meeting they’d scheduled by going head-to-head on the Indy car racing video game in the game room. Over lunch in the media room, I got an impromptu demonstration of how nonprofits are networking in Second Life by Susan Tenby (a.k.a. “Glitteractica Cookie”), the creator of the Nonprofit Commons in SL; she introduced me to several of her colleagues online, who talked persuasively and passionately about the support and resources they’ve tapped into in this online world. (The American Cancer Society raised more than $120,000 in a virtual walk-a-thon this year!)

Our conversation during the afternoon was, as usual, artfully orchestrated by Greg Simon, President of FasterCures, whose right brain is fully engaged in his work on a normal day. I found most thought-provoking our forays into two topics: how new frontiers in information technology, such as the Semantic Web and virtual worlds like Second Life, create new platforms for participation in the life sciences and the nonprofit sector; and how different models of prize philanthropy can bring the wisdom of the crowd to bear on medical research challenges, small and large.

John Wilbanks, Executive Director of Science Commons, talked about how the Semantic Web gives us the tools to create an “open source knowledge management platform for biological research” that will allow researchers to make connections between what they observe, what is known, and what data and materials are available for research much more quickly. Susan Tenby challenged us (many of whom have barely mastered instant messaging) to imagine the possibilities that a virtual world like Second Life holds for creating meaningful interactions not only among people but between people and data.

Tom Vander Ark, President of the X PRIZE Foundation, and Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of Innocentive, educated us about the power of their prize models (each very different – the former top-down, the latter bottom-up) to “crowd-source innovation” by defining a problem and then opening up the solution to the widest possible audience. In one of the most fascinating data points of the afternoon, Spradlin said that “solvers” in their system come on average from “six disciplines away” from the “seekers” who post challenges. Innocentive has posted several challenges by nonprofit groups, including a prize for ALS biomarkers, and is very excited about the promise that its model holds for nonprofits across the spectrum. X PRIZE is working with the Robert Wood Johnson and Lance Armstrong Foundations to define “grand challenges” in healthcare and in cancer that would be appropriate for prizes.

We at FasterCures believe that the scarce resources in the search for cures are neither money nor places to invest it; the scarce resources are time and information. We're thinking about how all these new technology tools and management strategies to leverage resources, promote innovation, and build collaborations can be used to shrink information gaps and the scientific research cycle.

But despite our belief in the collaborative power of information technology, it’s nice to be able to get together in a penthouse in New York every once in a while, too.

Kristin Schneeman, Project Director, FasterCures

Kristin Schneeman joined FasterCures in April 2005. She brings to the team more than fifteen years' experience in public policy, politics, academia, and the media. Kristin served for three years as a senior adviser and policy director to a gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, as a policy aide to a U.S. Congressman, and for four years as the front-line manager and chief-of-staff for a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore. At Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government she directed a research project – the top priority of the Dean of the School – on future challenges facing governments, and at Harvard Business School she worked with a noted professor who specializes in analyzing and advising on complex negotiations in business, politics, and international relations. Kristin began her career as a producer of documentary films on political and social issues, for which she was the recipient of an Emmy Award in 1990.