Solving the Big Problems of the World

Science, by nature, is something you do without knowing for sure that it will work. By doing an experiment, testing a theory, or tabulating large data sets to find statistical significance, researchers make small discoveries or incremental improvements on technologies. It is easy for any researcher to get buried under the enormous amount of experimental details while trying to complete a project that lasts for months and years. For a team or an organization, however, it is critical to create a level of alertness of the big questions we try to answer – why are we doing this line of research? Is the technology or theory being developed going to be disruptive in terms of changing the ways of thinking in its field or solving a big challenge that faces the world?

The world does not lack for challenges: there may not be any ice left at the North Pole as early as 2015, there are still a billion people who need reliable electric energy while the carbon fuels may run out on all of us in just a few decades, during which time usable land may not be able to provide enough food for the growing population, cancer or dementia will strike almost everybody if we all live long enough. Well, we have sent humans to the moon; we have completely eradicated smallpox and almost done with polio, can technologies once again enable us to do big things if we all aim high and pull together?

The success stories of future technology companies should not be only the types of Facebook or Twitter, which are nice stories on their own values, but success stories should also include those that deal with big, material, and imminent challenges, provide tools that help people in desperate need. Examples in our biomedical field could include diagnostic kits based on genomic information that will one day be put into each household, so that everybody will be able to decide and receive the most suitable treatment when having an ailment. New businesses will merge because of the technology advancements of deep sequencing, information storage and analysis, biosensors, and stem cell-derived assays and delivery vehicles.

Technologies will continue to develop at a faster pace than most people’s imagination as long as there is a culture that encourages it and a system that allows those with the extraordinary ambition and brains to take their risks. As an example in one of our specific fields, the barriers to making induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have been dramatically lowered through several generations of method revolution only 6 years after the Nobel Prize-winning discovery was first published in 2006 because researchers believe that there will be new opportunities if reprogramming can be done more efficiently and “cleanly”. We have contributed our share of innovation in 2012 and our ambition is to provide everybody with his or her own pluripotent stem cells ready for medical use and to find a solution to most diseases with each individual’s own tissue-derived cells, in another term, point-of-care autologous treatment. It’s unproven, it’s futuristic, but it’s exciting and feasible and we will put every effort to make it happen. Theodore Roosevelt once said that “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” We are the lucky few.

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Saturday, December 29th, 2012 Open Forum

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