Want to catalyze innovation? Look to the gamers.

February 23, 2012

I would say, don’t be afraid of failure. Really go for it. I have a bar on my desk that is engraved with the following question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? It’s an amazingly powerful question. When you ask it, you begin to understand how the fear of failure limits you — not failure itself, but the fear of it.

We have a number of things that we’re investigating and advancing, such as the ability to make vaccines in tobacco plants — perhaps the first healthy use of tobacco plants ever in the history of the world.

In tobacco plants, we can make vaccines in weeks and months instead of nearly a year. So, in the event of a pandemic or a biological warfare attack, we can make vaccines much more quickly.

The agency’s historical success in breakthrough innovation is based on the focus: big-reach science together with a driving application. We have to break what is now a long-standing impression that big breakthrough innovation happens in a linear fashion. It doesn’t. And it isn’t some ethereal thing. Innovation is a discipline.

We use a variety of strategies for catalyzing innovation, and one of them is prize-based competitions. These type of challenges can dramatically increase the number and diversity of people who contribute ideas. When you can do that, you often get breakthroughs that you don’t expect.

We have a program — a game — called Foldit. It was originally sponsored at DARPA, and it is essentially the Tetris of protein folding. Understanding the three-dimensional folded structure of a protein is very important for understanding disease and for developing treatments for diseases. A gamer said, “Oh, look, lots of small manipulations, lots of detailed interactions — that’s a game.” And so they built Foldit. Just last September, the three-dimensional protein structure for the retroviral protease that contributes [to] AIDS in rhesus monkeys was solved.

For 15 years that problem was unsolved in the scientific community. The gamers solved it in days.

I think we have not yet completely harnessed that which we can from large numbers of people contributing to [solving] big problems.

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