July meeting summary: Collaboration is key to innovation

Our record crowd engages our panelists.

Our July meeting featured a panel discussion on the process of innovation in tech, moderated by our Board President Eileen Krepkovich. This event was generously sponsored and organized by U.Va. Innovation. Thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Chiara Canzi, we had a record turnout!

First, let’s meet our panelists:

Jann Balmer was appointed as the first full-time Director for Continuing Medical Education of the University of Virginia School of Medicine in December 1990. Trained first as an nurse and then as an educator, she has served as the Past President and Board Member of the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions. She also serves as Chair of the Commission for Accreditation for the American Nurses Credentialing Center. 

Laura Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering at the University of Virginia. Her research is broadly in the area of distributed, intelligent systems, specifically at the junction of health information technology, machine learning, and robotics. 

Shayn Peirce-Cottler is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia. She teaches undergraduate and graduate engineering students at UVa and runs a research lab that develops technologies for regenerating tissues and therapies for ameliorating disease (e.g. diabetes and cardiovascular disease) by targeting the microvasculature—the smallest blood vessels in the body.

The discussion focused on definitions and processes of innovation, focusing in particular on the necessity of collaboration. Here are some highlights.

What is Innovation?

Could you give us a definition?

Shayn started us off with a succinct definition of innovation as making something new that is valuable to someone else. To reach that bar, innovators have to have vision and embrace risk. And at the risk of provoking controversy (although it didn’t seem to in this crowd), she added that she believes that collaboration is “essential most of the time.”

Jann elaborated on what it means to make something new, and how you do it. Newness is as much reformulation as it is invention: you don’t invent the mousetrap, you build a better one. This is particularly true in her discipline. As someone who doesn’t do research, innovation in the context of continuing medical education is often about figuring out how to get someone (a doctor or nurse for example) to look beyond what they already feel comfortable doing. Innovation, to be effectively implemented, cannot be a total break from the familiar. She suggested the image of a kaleidoscope: the colors remain the same though the picture changes.

If collaboration is key, what happens to the familiar trope of the mad inventor holed up in his (her?) basement, eventually to emerge with the next best thing? 

Shayn believes that stereotype is losing some credibility. Based on her service on funding review panels, she told us that the enthusiasm of grant-giving institutions (read: the federal government) is shifting away from one-man-kingdom projects in favor of multi-investigator, team-focused projects. Collaboration is not an afterthought: it is being built in at the earliest stages.

Laura emphasized the multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational tendencies of collaboration, tendencies which (not coincidentally) dovetail with the idea that a shift in—or combination of— perspectives is essential for innovators. “Collaboration,” she said, “is intra- and inter-organizational.”

Making and Measuring Impact

Institutions (notably the federal government) are increasing fixated on finding proposals with the greatest ‘impact’. At the same time, they are reducing funding for basic research. What does this mean for innovation?

Shayn affirmed that there is a definite risk in not making investments in basic research: the use of impact as a criterion for funding often tilts the scales toward projects where such impact is predictable or measurable. But that is almost by definition, Laura observed, what basic research is: research whose impact is unknowable and unpredictable, both in terms of its size and its date of arrival.

Jann gave us a glass-half-full response: yes, although less money is being spent, collaboration gives you “more bang for your buck,” and can improve an innovation’s overall impact. Not only do you have more buy-in, your geographic reach is also less limited when multiple partners are spread around the country—or around the world.

Often, innovators may find it easier to find collaborators at outside institutions—but no passport required. In the quote of the evening, she quipped: “You’re an expect if you drive 30 miles and carry your own slides.” In other words, someone from just beyond a familiar territory may be better equipped to convince people to reconsider their own ideas than someone inside that institution.

Chicken or the Egg

Technology changes almost constantly. Do you think technological changes drives innovation, or vice versa?

Eileen graciously let on that she believes that the cycle works both ways. She and our panelists provided interesting examples of both scenarios.

For tech driving innovation, Laura gave the example of wearables: the ability to collect data from individuals’ activity in daily life has prompted researchers to rethink what they might do with and learn from that data.

Eileen completed the circle: as scientists find new uses for data from their small sensors, a new tech problem emerges: how are we going to power these tiny devices? So the quest for super-tiny batteries begins.

Shayn argued that the canonical view in her field is that innovation drives technology, in the sense that researchers develop instruments based on their new ideas. But there is one instrument in her lab that she is sure will drive innovation in her lab: a 3D bioprinter. (UVa apparently is one of the first labs anywhere to have one right now.)

Jann gave us some examples from her own field. The use of 3D printers has revolutionized the world of pediatric prosthetics (children grow so fast that the cost of personalized manufacture by traditional methods is prohibitive). But a lot of the response to technology is dealing with what it means on the level of human interaction: for example, in the wake of the Internet, doctors had to relearn how to mediate between medical literature and their patients—some of whom would show up with a pile of studies and articles the doctor herself had not read.

These were just a few of the many topics touched on during this stimulating evening. Hope you can join us for our next event.

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