The pace of technological innovation in the last decade is staggering, as evidence by the handheld computers in a billion pockets and the explosion of money flowing into Silicon Valley (not to mention San Francisco property values). But this innovation boom has not translated to health and medicine - there are some shining stars, but there has been no earth-shattering transformation. Why not?
Moore’s law, the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, was first posited in 1965. It has since come to be considered a fundamental tenet of technological advancement and a proxy for exponential growth in computing power. This underlying force for greater productivity and efficiency has held true for 50 years.
Unfortunately Moore’s law does not apply to Life Sciences innovation - a group of authors in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery coined the term erooM’s law (Moore backwards), as the cost of R&D relative to approved drugs has increased exponentially over the last 50 years. Sad but true.
With Moore’s law as a backdrop, the advent of Amazon Web Services (cloud based computing power) was the catalyst for the boom. AWS allowed developers to get started with little capital, to forgo investment in the underlying expensive server architecture to support their products. The on-demand model gave them only what they needed, when they needed it, and flexibility to experiment.
As I discussed in a prior post, there are companies who seek to be AWS for biology. Not only could automation and the ability to run experiments remotely reduce the cost of research, if done correctly, R&D could become an extension of computing power. Instead of setting parameters for your software and running the process using AWS, set parameters for your research and run it using a cloud lab. Beside start-up costs, there are three huge advantages to this:
There are significant issues to be overcome, in particular clinical and regulatory costs - I will discuss some of these challenges in a later post. But, there is hope that these enabling technologies can begin to reverse erooM’s law and foster the growth that biotech innovators, and ultimately patients, have hoped for.
Capital equipment is a massive start-up expense for a Research and Development team. Anyone who has worked in a lab, from Materials Science to Molecular Biology, knows how maddeningly expensive equipment can be. The costs are not without merit. The average piece of lab equipment undergoes hours of validation before being shipped, and some sources estimate upwards of 50% of the cost of an instrument is related to testing and R&D.
However, the majority of these assets sit unused most of the time. As a researcher at UCLA, I was the sole user of several machines, and often wondered if these assets could be harnessed in some way to generate value for the lab. Core facilities and CROs attempt to address this issue: expert technicians run a constant stream of experiments, at the request of users. But they are only available for a sub-set of techniques, like Flow Cytometry, and often interfacing with them is inconvenient.
In the next five years we may be able to address this issue. Increased automation in the lab now allows remote running of experiments. Load your samples on Friday, monitor them, make adjustments from your laptop, and receive the results via email on Monday, wherever you may be. Furthermore, using software for matching demand with underused assets and service providers, the “sharing economy,” has become huge business - we’re all aware of Uber’s mind boggling growth.
A new wave of “shared” labs, with a wide range of equipment and skilled technicians, will allow for researcher centric service provision. With maximized active time (upwards of 80%), the lab can be both profitable and reasonably priced for users. There are significant challenges to be sure, particularly quality control and upfront costs, and of course clinical drug development will still be fairly expensive.
Nonetheless, these labs, some of which are aptly called “cloud-labs,” are gaining traction. Emerald Cloud Lab, in South San Francisco, is a great example. Automation and greater asset utilization will lead to significantly reduced costs, making the Biotech industry accessible to individual entrepreneurs. We will see an explosion that rivals the latest tech boom in the coming decade: not only can you make a billion dollar app with a MacBook at your local coffee shop, you may soon be able to make a blockbuster drug.
"Karma" is a bit of loaded term - or maybe just a misunderstood one.
When I discuss Karma, especially around my cohort of scientifically minded, anti-superstitious compatriots, there's a fair bit of eye-rolling and shrugging. I think this is primarily because of the Westernized definition of Karma: a singular deliberate action of a certain nature will be repaid, in time, against the actor, in similar kind. Karma has become some sort of “golden-rule” or euphemism for “what goes around, comes around”. This sort of linearity or direct cause-and-effect is something we hesitate to apply to emotional things like the morality of a specific deed.
The original (Hindu) definition is more along the lines of the following: it is not punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of natural acts. This broader definition of the way mindfulness or positivity in one's actions will pervade one's surroundings (including that which (seemingly) acts from outside onto the perceiver), is the idea of Karma that makes sense to me.
If I say something nasty to someone, I have no reason to believe that the universe (outside of me) is going to lash out and do something nasty to me in return. That’s the linear causality that my Western friends roll their eyes at… and I suppose I do too.
My preface is this: you are the ultimate perceiver and interpreter of your own universe, and the barrier between you and the universe is a bit of a trick (where do your eyes end and the light begin?). So, as you produce these nasties with your mind, you are in fact manifesting or channeling some nastiness in the universe and acting to continue its propagation, as a host organism for the sour pathogen. This taints your actions as well as your sensations (perceived as the actions of the universe).
Karma in this sense exists - with a little explanation of my thinking, it seems pretty clear that that which you generate, does indeed change the way the universe treats you.
A tenet of Plato's worldview was the concept that everything in the observable world was defined by the degree it partook in its 'ideal' self. Each thing owed its 'thing-ness' to some ultimate form - a statue was beautiful in that it partook to some degree in the idea of 'beauty'. This was referred to as Plato's theory of forms, and it sought to address the Problem of Universals. Does a property exist outside of the things that exhibit said property, i.e. universally? Plato argued that it did, as did other philosophers of his time.
What struck me about this theory, when I came across it, was its relation to the nature of Greek (and by extension Roman) pantheism. Here we have a pantheon of Gods, each assigned an immutable attribute or set of attributes. In the context of Plato's theory of forms, these ultimate personifications make perfect sense. The degree to which X thing partakes in Y ultimate attribute is the degree to which it partakes in some God-nature. Indeed this polytheistic tradition of gods exhibiting ultimate universal Forms springs up all over the place - it reminds me of the meso-American pantheon, and indeed the dozens of Saints that linger in modern day Catholicism.
The theory of forms is a rebuttal to monotheism - as Plato discusses these particular attributes, a singular Deity doesn't correlate well with myriad, but discrete, ultimate forms.
I can't say that I agree with much of it as a modern day relativist (aren't we all?). If all tables across the world partake in some form of an ultimate Table, how do you define that Table, and how do you distinguish it from something like it? Isn't it an assignment of meaning (in words) through connections in our own minds? It's a question of language more than anything.
The recent State of the Union address and Obama's remarks got me thinking: why do we have such trouble making the argument for funding space exploration? In speeches like this, leaders appeal to some higher "value", some non-partisan vision which is, quite literally, not of this world. But when the rubber meets the road, it's just rhetoric.
For me, the most apparent argument can be found in the products that millions of Americans use everyday. So many were used for military/industrial applications before trickling down to benefit consumers. Invisalign, space blankets, temper foam, solar cells.
America's military might goes without saying, but our success has been supported by a more subtle aspect of this fact: the vast technological development that building ever better weaponry brings. The billions upon billions spent to stay one step ahead result in all sorts of handy goods.
The same process applies to NASA and the space program - I'll bet if you looked at the return on $1 spent on NASA compared to $1 spent on defense, the public benefit, to consumers here on American soil would far greater for NASA.
So, why does it seem so hard to translate this concept into meaningful discourse? Why can't we change the dialogue from lofty (spacey) intangible things, to the actual R.O.I. of space exploration?
Or maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. We don't ask that of the defense industry, we spend out of fear. Perhaps we need an un-seen enemy in space. Perhaps Reagan really was on to something with the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Joana and I spent about 2 weeks over Christmas break in the Philippines - I suppose you could say we have a bit of a "tropics fetish", but who doesn't?? The timing was opportune as her mom was on Luzon visiting family, so we managed to make it something of a reunion, seeing both mom's side as well as dad's.
There are a mind boggling number of islands in the Philippines. We managed to visit three big ones: Luzon, Cebu, and Palawan. We started out in Manila, a huge, sprawling, metropolis. Redeeming features were a bit lacking as we bounced between slums and western style malls, without much in between, making plain the bimodal nature of income distribution... all too common in places like this. About an hour outside Manila, we visited the family home in Pampanga. It was a few days of relaxing, eating, drinking, playing cards, karaoke, and more eating. Grandma is in her late 80's - she had 8 children, several of which immigrated to the US. The money repatriated by these children now supports nearly the entirety of her extended family (dozens of grandkids and great-grandkids).
After the island of Luzon, we headed to Cebu, to see the paternal grandmother (93 years old). This was a bit of a different experience - she is ethnically Chinese, adopted by a Chinese family in the Philippines in the 1940's. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, thousands of Chinese from Fujian left for the Philippines to avoid famine and poverty. The Ques built a family business, a bakery, in Car Car Cebu, which operated for several decades and elevated them to what can be considered an upper class family. The children are Engineers, Doctors, and Nurses - most have immigrated to Europe or the US. Indeed, grandma now lives with several Filipino "helpers" who care for her, the house, and the business.
Our last destination was Palawan, an island considered to be one of the Philippines most scenic. This part of the trip was most typical of a tropical vacation - glorious white sand beaches around El Nido, jungle trekking near Puerto Princesa to an underground river. Our last few days were spent on Lagen island, at a resort with excellent snorkeling, kayaking, and even windsurfing (which is harder than it looks!).
Overall it was a great trip. I wouldn't necessarily recommend the Philippines as the top destination in SE Asia (Thailand still takes the cake for me) but the scenery was some of the best and there really is no limit to the number of different islands you can visit.
A UCLA alum friend of mine lives half-way across the world - we maintain a lengthy email back-and-forth, primarily filled with lofty philosophical musings. A good thing for the mind, I think.
He said in his latest email: "you've always struck me as someone who has a very firm and clear sense of self." I read this one evening, when the email came in. My groggy self thought "huh, I don't feel that way at all."
On further, more "sober" reflection, the statement has conjured some interesting thoughts about the nature and impression of "self". It's an interesting juxtaposition: I relish the idea of a fluid self, somehow embracing the idea that the lines drawn to define me are blurry and forever blending, permeating with my environment. With that ego-less flow (a feeling that I think is addressed by the wonder of traveling... a story that bears further explanation in another post) comes proximity to that thing/idea/space that sages have so long sought, that sparkling unknowable satori/nirvana/one-ness/nothingness... right?? And in such a way we become all things.
This permeability is a concept that I think is closer to the "truth" than any other perception of Ego that I've conjured.
So in this NO self space, comes the exterior semblance of solid self? Indeed this is the case - there is some sort of aura of self-confidence. Perhaps it's a lack of pre-occupation about what will or won't be.
Maybe my friend is right - perhaps a defining factor of "knowing who I am" is acceptance and excitement at that forever relative universal flow. Thus, creating this apparent paradox.
Let's step away from ME and talk more conceptually. Image an every-man observing the workings of a transcendent being. As he sees the clarity and calmness of the being, he sees what he seeks to become - as he still operates in the world of the Ego, this being must "have a very strong sense of self" to not let anything bother him in the slightest. The being wouldn't put it this way, but certainly the ultimate result is the same: a calm and clear meditative gaze.
In 2008 my dad and I bought a piece of property in Playa del Sur, on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. It was surfing, and mutual friend from Big Sur, that brought us to central America. Our friend Tyler had bought a substantial piece of jungle overlooking the ocean, and was slowly developing it into a small community. We traipsed through the underbrush and chose a prime parcel for a bargain price.
We've gone back down several times over the past 6 years and have seen Nicaragua slowly transforming. Playa del Sur was already something of a destination for the more hardcore backpackers, but it was still well off the beaten path in 2008. Then they paved the main road from Managua, not to mention hosted the Survivor TV series.
There was talk of building a house, but we hadn't managed to get any plans off the ground. Building at a distance would be difficult even in the US, so imagine the challenges in the 3rd world... we couldn't take a season off to live in Nicaragua. However, we do have the community to fall back on - Tyler now has substantial experience acting as designer, contractor, and manager of several large projects (a hotel on the property is opening this Spring). So at last, thanks to some fantastic architectural work by Solishi Design Lab, we're planning on launching the project when we visit in early December.
Once the budget and timeline are laid out, construction should take 2 - 3 months, so we may have a fully functional space by April 2015. It will be the first in a community of smaller structures, to be rented out as surf-shack / vacation rentals when we are out of the country.
Even more than an investment or vacation home, this has been a great way to work together with my father on a project with lots of moving pieces... not to mention an excellent excuse for yearly travel to the tropics.
I was ruminating on capitalistic thoughts of growth and revenue, and fundamental structures in the make-up of companies. My role at Aketa Foods forces a whole new class of "brain stretching", and out of this came my idea for 3 core aspects required for a successful business:
What do you think? Have I left anything out?
I was thinking about Schrodinger's cat - I hadn't really thought too hard about the metaphor before.
The concept was a revolution in Scientific thinking. The old thought process was: this unknown is actually one way or another, it's just that we don't know yet. There is a presupposition inherent within it, that all knowledge is attainable (it's just around the bend, really!)
So in his 'metaphor' or whatever you want to call it (epistemological theory?) there are two important revelations: The first is that an observer effects a system, so simply by knowing something you change the something itself (see Heisenberg). The second is the one I'm getting at: If there is an unknown (is it A or B?) then this unknown is neither A nor B. Simple as that. We cannot assume that the unknown is one or the other (and we just don't know it yet). It really is neither A nor B (the cat is not alive or dead).
I was thinking about this in the context of quantum theory and the nature of reality and the whole "we are surrounded by probability clouds" vision.
His metaphor is genius, in that it ties the outcome to a truly random and chaotic event (the decay of a radioactive element).