Engineering Innovation

Entrepreneurship is booming: we can see it in all the startup accelerators, incubators, and hackathons filling up and expanding around the world.  But for every success story there are hundreds of failures. So as the trails of attempts pile up, academics have been looking into the process to identify some of the key differences between those that make it and those that don’t. What they’ve found has little to do with what college you went to or how well you score on an IQ test, and more to do with the team, environment, and executing strategy behind the venture. So as Singularity University’s GSP class enters its 10^9 Team Project phase, what we’ve learned about innovation is embedded within the process at hand. The lessons learned about what separates the cream of the crop from the rest are all played out here at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley, and in this brief post you’ll get a feel for how it all goes down.

Researchers have found that for team chemistry, there is a certain threshold of familiarity in which communication thrives. Brian Uzzi is a sociologist at Northwestern University and has studied these dynamics in Broadway musicals. Uzzi found the relationships among collaborators to be a vital factor for the success of a show, and that team members with too little experience working together were unable to communicate effectively, while team members with too much experience working together tended to stifle fresh thinking. The balance of the two, where teams are connected by the idea without being accustomed to each other's company, facilitates a healthy relationship for entrepreneurial success. And after just 4 weeks of getting to know each other, the GSP participants have their teams chosen primarily based off the Global Grand Challenge they wish to solve.

Additionally, the environment that brings the idea into fruition also plays a pivotal role in the venture’s outcome. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson examined the spaces that have produced abnormally high levels of creativity and innovation, and found recurring patterns throughout history. From the British coffee houses in the Age of Enlightenment to the Parisian salons of Modernism, great ideas tend to arise from a collision of minds. Johnson likes to say “chance favors the connected mind” - and at Singularity U all of these trends come into play. We have over 80 highly educated thinkers and do-ers representing over 36 countries dorming here on base - with good food, coffee, and wine for late evenings, the environment is primed for connection and collaboration.

As the students now have their teams, and a range of ideas about what their projects might look like, it’s time for the execution phase of the summer - where the make-or-break magic is set to kick off. We have Eric Ries as our Entrepreneurship Track Chair and his Lean Startup Methodology will definitely be utilized to its fullest extent. With 3D Printers and some other toys in the Innovation Lab, we have the ability to create a Minimum Viable Product and start iterating its way forward to success. But the ideas we’re talking about are big, really big. From disruptive mobile platforms for the developing world to launching something into space, these teams were taught to dream boldly. The best technique for combining this sort of ambition with the pragmatism needed to get a business off the ground is a mindset referred to as Design Thinking. IDEO tailored the approach, and CEO Tim Brown describes it nicely as: “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” It is this type of thinking, within the context of the environment at Singularity U and the amazing teams that have formed around the Global Grand Challenges, that has me optimistic something brilliant could arise out of this summer.

At the end of the day, however, entrepreneurship requires a bit of luck. You can have an amazing idea, a killer team, and the best strategy in the world - but maybe the market isn’t receptive or the technology is too advanced. When engineering innovation, there is only so much you can do. By providing all of the ingredients for success, the hope is that minds will meld and the sum of ideas will end up greater than its parts. We shall see if that is the case in the coming weeks, as Singularity University goes from futurist think tank to high-tech incubator, entrepreneurial magic could be brewing.

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  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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