Lab to Impact: Scientists and Entrepreneurs Building Deep Tech Ventures

Lab to Impact: Scientists and Entrepreneurs Building Deep Tech Ventures

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LIVIO VALENTI: Thanks for joining this session, the perspective on public purpose. Real excited to have you, all of you joining us from different parts of the world and the United States. So this is very, very exciting. I am very happy to be here with a very good friend of mine, and great professor, Fiorenzo Omenetto, that is going to be our guest. We are going to have—offer an interactive discussion today, to talk about how this unusual [00:02:25] of entrepreneurs and scientists can sometimes work together, and try to create something new in the field of what now we call deep tech. Some people call it tough tech.

Some people call it technology that takes very, very long time to develop. Because most of the time, they are originally invented in some laboratories, either a university or another center of research and development. And then sometimes, they can actually spin off into the real world. And they actually can have an impact on everyone's life. [00:02:58] So I'm very excited to share some of the learnings from this project that a team of researchers here at the Belfer Center has undertaken. And I'm also very, very excited to have Fior's perspective to give us his thoughts on how we can actually get more of those technologies out in the world, and transform some of the early stage research concept, intuition, and maybe ideas that might seem too big to be true, too far to be fetched.

But maybe there is a way to try to get there. So let me introduce you, Fior, very, very quickly. And then we can move on to some of the learnings. So Professor Omenetto is the Dean of Research at Tufts School of Engineering, and is also the Scientific co-founder of a company that I co-founded with him, Vaxess Technologies. He's also the co-founder of other innovative biotech companies that are having a lot of impact from his research.

[00:04:00] Interestingly enough, Professor Omenetto was also a researcher at one of the most prominent national labs, or the federally funded R&D Centers in Los Alamos, in New Mexico, before transferring to Tufts University. So I think he has a unique perspective that is very relevant to this research, having seen both of the worlds. As I said before, Fior has been very forward on translating his research from the lab to the world, and has done it with a very, very interdisciplinary approach. And I think he's going to tell us a little bit about that experience. What works? What doesn't work? How can we do it? Or shall we even do it, even more? Or should research just be research, right? And I think that's a leaning question, because we really believe that we can have a big impact working with teams across these [00:04:51].

[00:04:52] So before we start the conversation, I don't want to bore everyone too much on this. But we still have some academic standards to follow, even though we are entrepreneurs. So we did actually do a very in depth research in the past few months with the help of a team.

So I'm going to just start by sharing some of those high level learnings and findings. And the key question for us was, where does technology come from? We are surrounded by technology. We have been advancing as a society thanks to technology. But where does it come from? So we asked that question.

And we tried to ask, I guess, the most difficult question, how can we translate scientific innovation that is born out of some of the most fascinating R&D centers in the world, and is not some very under-studied field? Those are the national labs. Academic spinoff has been researched for many years. We have a lot of examples across disciplines, a lot of success cases, from how STEM [?] was able to spin off companies like Google, to MIT spinning off about 30,000 companies since when is born. [00:05:58] But there is another category of research centers, which is incredible, from a [00:06:05] perspective. And there is about $16 billion dollars being spent of our taxpayer money to fund these R&D centers. And those are the national labs.

So I'm going to just go very, very quickly, and I'm going to show you some of the high level findings that the team is going to present. And there's going to be a report that we're going to publish. It's going to be a Harvard publication in the next few weeks. So I will share with you all the final report, which is a long and more elaborated products.

But we wanted to just give you a sense here. I'm going to go really, really quick. So here's the team. Happy to have worked with Heather and Philipp.

They were my research assistants for this project. And, you know, I couldn't have done the work without them. So thank you Heather and Philipp for your contribution. [00:06:55] So the main question that we asked, going back to what I said before, is, where does technology come from? And we had this key hypothesis before we started the project.

The first one was that there's a lot of innovative technology that have a lot of potential to have an impact in society that have been developed today in national labs. At the same time, we feel that national lab have a mission to develop those technology in the world, and spin them off. But they're not doing it in great numbers.

Like, you know, what MIT or other schools would be doing. So if it was zero, you would think that they're not interested in doing it. If it was a lot, we would think that they're doing a lot of work in that area. But at the same time, there is a few number of them. So there is an interest.

But there is not a system that is well developed. That was a hypothesis that we tried to validate. [00:07:44] And the third thing is that, you know, we believe that, because of different reasons, because of the nature of the national labs, and there are obviously a history, there are very need of an upgrade. Universities originally were not meant to spin off companies, but now they are. And every university around the country is trying to do that, right. So national lab also are now meant to spin off company.

But maybe there is room to propose some policy changes that can actually influence them and making those labs a sort of innovative spinoff. [00:08:17] So, why do we look at national lab, is because you know, again, as I said before, universities have been over-studied. There has been a lot of research on the impact of academic spinoff. And here, you know, we feel we have an example of few spin offs coming off from this lab. But we felt that there was a field that was very, very well studied. So Secretary Carter was very, very keen in trying to push the research into the areas that are not studied and that were not very clear, in terms of how do we build company? Can we even do it? So that was the initial question And, in terms of sorts of innovation, we have national labs.

There is university. Companies actually are doing a lot of research now. And then, there is private organization, like foundations and philanthropies.

So we decided to focus on the national lab for this group of the research. Very, very quickly, I mean there is 42 national labs that are scattered around the US. They're funded by different agencies. And, you know, 13 agencies are funding them with taxpayer money. And they have been built around the '30s, and then in the '40s and the '50, post cold war.

I mean those labs have been instrumental to maintain and sustain US global prominence in science and technology. [00:09:27] So people may say, their role is not to spin off companies. And we agree with that. That's not the primary role. But we still believe there's room to address that.

And just take a look here at some of the things that we would not have if the national lab didn't do this research I mean they discovered 22 elements, right, of the Periodic Table, 22 elements wouldn't be here without the work of researchers there. And obviously, we tried to emphasize the need of policy, also, to use some of those scientific discoveries in the most responsible and public purpose way. [00:10:00] I mean the DVD, for anyone that still remembers the DVD, I mean you know, has been created in some of those national labs.

I mean we don't have the DVD anymore, because more innovation is coming. So this is a refresh, continuous refresh from some of the technologies that they were seeing. DNA was decoded. National labs made airplanes more resilient. And, to just give an example of something that was very useful in the Fukushima disaster, some of the technologies developed in the national lab were actually used to clean some of that water. So this is a very good example, I think, of all the good use of those discoveries.

Also, national labs really continue to advance some of the most critical areas that are highlighted by the US government as the most important area to continue to fund, from biotechnology, advanced computing, machine interfaces. Here we put some list of those capabilities that the government is prioritizing. This is from the Office of Science and Technology Policy from the US government. [00:11:05] So here just to map, very, very quickly again, 42 labs. Look at the spread, right. Some of them by design, in fact, are in some of the most remote areas.

And it's quite fascinating to see that there is a potential to build local ecosystem around some of those scientific labs. And [00:11:22] was touching on that before here, just we break down some of the appropriation and funding that are located to the national labs. And you can see that each agency has different approach to this. But Department of Energy, National Department of Defense, are locating billions of dollars every year to keep their lights on in the national lab. They continue to advance some of the most interesting research that they fund.

At the same time, they also are able to get different sponsor, and work with industry, and have collaboration. So I think the national labs are really advancing a lot of this research that historically has been funded, again, by the different agencies, but also by different companies. If you look at the numbers of people, that's why I was interested in this concept of local economic development in some of those remote—if I can call it like that—areas. Los Alamos National Labs, 11,300 scientists, right. So you look at some of the national labs, you look at some of the labs that are even in Idaho. You have 4,000 scientists, 4,000 people working in the area.

[00:12:25] So the impact is huge on the local community and in the local areas where those places are located. And our hypothesis was that, if you can enable a portion of those technologies to be spun out from those labs, create companies, people can create more jobs, they can attract more funding. And then, you can create ecosystems around those research centers. Similar to what MIT has done with Kendall Square. We look at what they're working on, and those national labs are really mapping well in what we call the deep tech ecosystem. So we think about biotechnology, advanced material, advanced engineering, photonics, electronics, nuclear physics, space, you name it, artificial intelligence.

So those are all the things that those labs are working on. So we feel that there is a very large potential here for deep tech entrepreneur to leverage some of those discoveries in advance and to the point that they can be commercializable. [00:13:17] Here, I think I wanted to spend a little bit of time here, because this is, I guess, one of the most interesting parts that I consider of this research, that Philipp, Heather, and I have been working on.

So here, what we tried to do, we tried to provide a map for people like me, that were interested in studying company with science. And there is a lot of people that realize that, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to look a little bit beyond what is the problem in front of you. I was born in a small town in Italy. And I didn't see some of those big problems that I was trying to address, like how do we make vaccines more accessible, right? I mean I didn't think about that problem.

Like those are not the thing that they were in front of us. And entrepreneurs tend to try to solve problems that they face in front of them. So if you want to try to solve bigger problems, that have an impact on human health, [00:14:04] culture, climate, talk about like making industrial products more resilient and more green, I mean even defense and security, you have to think about how do you work with scientists and science to leverage some of this innovation that has been developed in those labs. [00:14:18] And sometimes, as research, like in the case of the work that we've done with Fior, has been research that was years in the making, before we were able to spin off a company. There was a lot of government funding going into this university to try to understand some fundamental and cutting-edge technological potential of, in our case, silk. So here, what we did in this map, we tried to provide the map.

And it's going to be in the report. So please check it out when it comes out. That is trying to map different functional areas.

And by functional area, I'm talking about the deep tech, I guess, areas, like biotech, advanced material, nuclear physics. And then we took a slice of that, because we felt that we were more, I guess, experts around the biotech advanced engineering. And so we tried to map it out against different use cases.

[00:15:10] So, for example, if you think about using a new material for food and agriculture, you can look at Pacific Northwest National Lab in Washington State, that has a very, very strong expertise in that area. If you're thinking about, you know, advanced engineering and industrial goods, so this map provides a very high level map to orient yourself to try to figure out how you can advance some of those technologies to market. And then, you know, we spent some time to put a little bit of a blueprint of a guide on how do we actually do it. And it's naturally based on our experience as entrepreneurs working with scientists. And so we provide that in the report, trying to really encourage scientists and entrepreneurs to work together.

And we tried to identify some of the best practices. So then we analyzed why a spinoff is important. And there's a lot of research around that. So I don't want to spend too much time on that. And then the gaps, right.

We spent some time figuring out what are the main gaps that—you know, why there is not a lot of technological technology transfer from those national labs. [00:16:11] And there is a lot of things that we don't have a lot of control on. But we still wanted to provide some policy advice for policymakers to try to figure out how to address some of those. We look at some case studies. I mean the Lincoln Lab is a great, I guess, not really apple to apple, but is an interesting comparison, because it's in Boston is quite—you know, the ecosystem of MIT.

So we look at that as a case study. We try to map out the different technologies and different companies that come out from the Lincoln Lab. So, at the same time we look at the other coast, we look at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, very strong [00:16:46] and chemistry as a—as, you know, a heritage, I guess, from that lab. They have really a lot of effort in the commercialization. So we talked to the different directors and to—after we talked to the director of the technology licensing office. And we discovered that they're really putting a lot of emphasis and trying to spin off companies.

So this is part of their mission. [00:17:06] We also looked at some of the success cases. This one is my favorite one. It's a company in California that is harnessing the power of waves. And they have a lot of success leveraging funding from Department of Energy and collaborating with Oak Ridge National Lab and with other labs. And yeah.

So this is kind of the high level perspective. And I wanted to highlight, before we move on, one initiative that we identified as one of the most high potential that we suggest to be scaled up greatly. So it's called Activate, is a Fellowship that has been—is a not-for-profit organization that supports scientists to transition toward entrepreneurship. So they would support you for two years, to work on a specific technology, whether it is a national lab or not, doesn't matter. But there's been a lot of work done with the Berkeley Lab in California.

And now they're doing a lot of work with the Lincoln Lab. So we spent a little bit of time trying to understand their model. And we think it would be a very good model to have scientists/entrepreneurs to be embedded into the labs. And so that's one thing that we wanted to highlight.

[00:18:17] Also, we figured out that there was a big lack of private funding and venture capital funding to go specifically into the national lab technology. So we suggest and recommend that there will be a fund that will fund some of those research, and early stage fund that would put some money into early stage company, trying to address some of those big problems. So I'm going to stop here. Again, I will make sure that the report is shared with people if interested.

Please do let me know. [00:18:49] And now we're going to move onto I think the more interesting part. And I think this is going to be an interesting discussion. So first of all, Fior, thanks for joining us today. And thanks for working with me for all these years.

I think that has been a great pleasure. It's been more than 10 years now. But maybe, to get us started, can you give us—You've been in national labs.

You work at Los Alamos. Now you are leading the research at Tufts University, one of the leading research institutions in the country. And you have done a lot of spinoffs. So maybe can you give us a little bit of flavor, in terms of the main differences that you see between your work at one of the national labs, and then the transition to more traditional academia, and then just maybe even for the group here, give us a little bit of sense of your research.

Obviously, it's spanning different areas. And I think it would be interesting for the group to learn from you. [00:19:43] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Well, thank you Livio. Thank you for having me. That's many, many questions.

That's many questions. I think, so for those of you that don't know me, I've been at Los Alamos—I worked at Los Alamos for almost a decade, for eight years, before coming to Boston. Then I think that the comparison is somewhat unfair, in a way, because comparing the environment of a national lab with a university in Boston, is already a bit of a skewed playing field, because Boston is unusual and is very rich in technology and entrepreneurship. So there is a vibe here that I think you find in only a few places in the country, if not in the world. [00:20:38] But, I mean, by broad strokes, I would say that the environment of a national lab, especially Los Alamos, as you pointed out, was probably the one that had the highest density of scientists, is a very, very—very, very deeply rooted scientific core, and very, very high technical expertise. What happens, because of the mission of national labs, is I think that the inertia is a little bit higher.

So it's not that people don't want to be—don't want to innovate, it's more that there are different steps and different, maybe for compliance, even for selection of intellectual property filing, or assignment of rights, that just the procedure is a little bit longer than what you experienced, for example, in a university, where these things happen very fast, and there is a technology transfer office. And then these things are becoming more part and parcel of academic life, is to try to take some of the technologies that the university has, and develop them. I mean there might be also a revenue model that is different from the university than there is from the national labs.

[00:21:55] But I can tell you that we were—that I did go through the process of filing intellectual property while I was at Los Alamos. And we did go through the process of thinking of starting a company, even companies back then. And it was just a longer procedure.

And you kind of lost a little bit of the, if you will, of the immediacy and of the momentum. And then you were in an environment where certainly, maybe attracting investment funds was a little bit more challenging. And you had to go—you had to maybe go a little bit further to find your seed.

So I think overall, overall, there is this disparity. And certainly—But certainly, I agree that there are a lot of very, very impressive technologies that come out of the national labs, for sure. The talent is immense. [00:23:01] LIVIO VALENTI: And then, so your transition from there to Boston, I mean how did your research evolve? What are the learning that—You know, we talked to a bunch of professors that are involved, for example Lincoln Lab, and then at MIT.

And of the learnings from them was that they have much more creative freedom in their academic side. You can play around with more creative ideas, while the national labs, there is much more kind of like a mission-driven project that needs to be executed. So, do you have any thoughts on that? FIORENZO OMENETTO: I mean, yes, plenty, in fact. But, I mean, but maybe, again, it depends on the context of the circumstance. And certainly, the idea, you know, the idea of the turns, which is certainly one of the—you could argue that this is something that—Los Alamos, at least, was stewarding for the nation. So there is clearly a very, very deep nuclear root in Los Alamos's history.

[00:24:14] So the mission is driven historically by that. But also, you know, in parallel to the deterrents that you may have from something as very, very socially impactful and sort of globally impactful, like the nuclear arsenal and related things, there is also a scientific deterrent. And having like the capital of very, very capable scientists that are able to address very complex problems at the drop of a hat, is a very important thing that I think that national labs have fostered for quite some time. And so there is a mission-driven part. But there is also a more open investigation that is based on scientific quality, and that is not necessarily as tied to the mission. This is something that was called the—I don't know, maybe it's still called the laboratory directed research mechanism, which is a portion of the budget that is allotted to the lab, that is dedicated, instead, to free-form research.

And it goes to—it goes really to efforts in biomedical imaging, versus in the linear optics and communications, and things like that. So these LDRD funds were really sort of like the free form research, if you will, in a national lab environment, that I would argue would give a lot of intellectual freedom to do research. It certainly—I certainly thought that I had a lot of very interesting avenues to pursue while I was there. [00:26:09] Then of course, you know, in general, you are more—you're mission-free, when you are in academia.

But I think that there is a balance, also, in national—or at least in certain national labs, there is. And I don't know that it applies to every single national lab. I would say that, in general, the statement is true. But I would not underestimate, also, the power of very broad thought within the national labs. I mean some of the best kind of like traffic management algorithms, and kind of like nonlinear dynamics—kind of like nonlinear management of flow, of transport optimization came from Los Alamos, for example. LIVIO VALENTI: And I think, yeah, that kind of reinforces the concept of like how can we accelerate some of that transition? And people talk about deep tech, and deep technology.

So my argument is that, if you really want to uncover deep tech, we should look at some of those places more. And we should have more mechanisms to have those technologies translated into lab. But for you, it was more like, only until you came to academia, that you actually started to operationalize some of those spinoff concepts, right? So how did that happen? I mean can you tell us more? How did you start? Because you were doing physics. And then you transitioned to this more like interdisciplinary approach, which I think some of those universities really encourage, right.

So you were in a biomedical engineering department, with a physics background. And what happened there? What did you stumble upon, I guess? [00:27:51] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Well, I think, you know, to be completely honest, I mean I don't have many, many deep explanations about this. You kind of are always driven, you know, in the world of physics, applied physics and engineering, to think about application and optimization of the things that you do for systems. And in a way, these were the things that we were doing when we were doing optics and materials and things like that. When I came to Tufts, I guess that really, my interpretation of what was happening in a biomedical engineering department, where I kind of didn't really belong, was really with a technology eye, a technology eye that was driven by what I had done beforehand at Los Alamos and previously.

And so I think, you know, when you kind of are looking for materials and applications of materials, then it's the step to actually imagine the future of an application and materials in different fields is not too far away. [00:29:00] The thing that made it very, very, very exciting, and still to this day, exciting to me, is that the materials that now I'm using are not any more materials that are developed, you know, in a crystal growing chamber, or in a furnace, or whatever it may be, or under high pressure. But now they're materials that are grown by nature, and that are edible, and that are implantable, and that still have a lot of the technological attributes that the other materials do have. LIVIO VALENTI: And to get to that point, it was like a lot of years. I mean we're talking about like some fundamental intuition that some of those materials could have in application across fields, that maybe no one really thought was possible, was feasible.

And how did you—Who was funding you for that? I mean was the university? How did you convince people to bet on some of those approaches? [00:29:53] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Well, I have to say, I mean since this is a context about national labs, I mean Los Alamos was amazing for me. And they were—And I will always have an infinite depth of gratitude to Los Alamos, besides for when I was there. But also, because when I moved to Tufts, they donated my lab. They donated my lab, so that I could take it with me to Boston, which was incredible, because it gave me tremendous runway to sort of be independent for funding for a couple of years, and really explore what was next from my area to trying to see what the bridges were with the biomedical sciences.

And, you know, when you join a university, you always have some sort of startup funds. [00:30:48] And so the beginning was really very, very free form. And then we did get funding. We got a very big grant, a very big grant from DARPA at the time, to look at some of the silk technologies. And so that sort of accelerated a lot of these things. But really, I think that was what made it, is just the freedom to try to connect things, and try to imagine how one domain would translate onto the other.

And maybe sort of a little bit of—I don't know, a little bit of serendipity. You know, if they come and tell you—If you realize that suddenly, every piece of technology that you can make can be implanted, or you can eat it, then you start thinking about the things that you've done and that you've studied for the past decade a little bit differently. And maybe that inspires different thoughts.

LIVIO VALENTI: And I think, Fior, one other thing that I think distinguished your approach, that I was able to witness, is your capacity to kind of disseminate some of those long-term ideas to the public, right. So in fact, for the benefit of everyone, I met Fior not because both of us are originally from Italy, but because actually, we met online, because I saw his TED talk. And now he has more than millions of views. And it's really fascinating.

And that was around 2007-2008 or 2009, around that time, 2010. And Fior was talking about how you could use silk for a bunch of applications So your capacity to disseminate those things, I think, was crucial to enable people like me to learn about technology when I don't have a degree in advanced nuclear physics or optical or biomedical engineering. So I think that capacity to do it is very important, that it can help to attract some of the other people that can complement your work. So maybe this could be an advice for other scientists on [00:32:44]. But do you have any thoughts? I mean that was deliberate, right? I mean TED talk is not very common then, you know, professors do that. How did you decide that that was something that you wanted to do? [00:32:57] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Well, I didn't.

[laughter] I think they invited me, and I thought that it was a bit weird. LIVIO VALENTI: You didn't seem nervous at all in the video. [00:33:10] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Oh, I was.

I was. No, I completely was. It's very hard to take the stage after people from Hollywood, that know how to take a stage in front of so many people, especially when you're talking about your little world of light and stuff. But no, but I think it's important.

I think it's always important to be able to disseminate. And again, I mean I think trying to—It's very important to be able to answer the question, who cares? And this is something that many—that a very, very particular set of very, very good professors ask you in multiple contexts. Sometimes in front of an audience, after you're done explaining all a year's worth of work, they will stand up and say, “Okay, who cares?” And I think that it's very important to be able to know how to answer, to answer these questions, because generally, generally, that is the driver behind purpose.

And purpose can take a lot of—I think a lot of directions. And certainly, one of the purposes can be to develop something that is good, that is good as a product, that generates innovation Another one can be just a pure question of scientific interest. [00:34:45] But I think, you know, I think that communicating why you do things, and why you like doing things, is incredibly essential. And then, if these things become technologies, and become technologies that can be developed, and that can have societal impact at some level, then I think that it becomes a very powerful message.

Because then, it builds. It builds a lot of value, not only in what you're developing, but it builds value in an ecosystem. It builds value in appreciation of technology, of science, of discovery.

And so it actually does, as I think a very long-tail effect on building human capital, and on building a generation of contextually aware people that then will do very, very good. I saw a question, actually, in the chat, about retaining public purpose. And I think that I have thoughts on this.

But I think that this is one of the public purposes that you want to retain, I think. I think maintaining technological excellence and, you know, and bringing things forward, has a lot of beneficial effect to the immediate surroundings, and perhaps statewide, and then nationwide, and global. And so I think that that, you know, the public [00:36:17] of generating revenue, of creating jobs, of industrialization and services, become very, very important. [00:36:25] LIVIO VALENTI: And I think I have a next question. But I think I have an answer for myself that I think is worth sharing. Why your research matters? I mean how did you answer that question when people asked you? You look at all these crystal structures, of these new materials, and this solution? I mean you went so deep into the years of research, trying to understand something that probably like only a few people in the world you can count in one hand, right, probably they understand it to their level.

Why did that matter? And when did you realize those things that were fundamental research were actually getting to the point that they were becoming more translatable? Was that like a specific one? Was it the process? Maybe, was it too early when you did it? Was it too late? Any thoughts on this? [00:37:10] FIORENZO OMENETTO: I don't know that there is an answer. I think you tend to be very, I don't know, it's a mixture of purposefulness that comes from maybe experience, and then day-to-day reactivity, so to speak, to recognize maybe an opportunity that shapes. So, you know, maybe—I mean in my specific case, I suppose, I suppose a lot of studies of linear optics, and materials, and communications, and then fibers, and semiconductors, have very, very beautiful, beautiful physics behind it, that is still quite, quite beautiful.

I didn't do very much. I don't get to do very much with it these days. But they also have generated a tremendous amount of technologies that are so deeply impactful across our world. I mean we are staring at screens right now. We have ultra high bandwidth communications that are arguably generated by being able to control very, very short impulses of light that are carried through strands of fiber. So, you know, these are some things that there's always—there was always a tangible application that was attached to some of the fundamental research.

[00:38:30] So now, if you—again, if you have these vectors of, you know, “I can implant it. I can eat it. I can make it dissolve,” and you know, and you know that you can replicate some of the devices that have been already used, say for example, in photonics, or in semiconductors, science, and take that approach, then you are looking at technology in a very, very different way.

But you're seeing kind of different types of applications through the lens of new materials. And so it's really a question of, what if you were able to—you were able to embed—I'm just going to say something a little bit hyperbolic. But what if you could incorporate life in a semiconductor, and what could you do if you mixed these things? And then, along the way, you kind of see what this new approach enables. I don't know.

I think it's a little bit of the fundamental needs supply, needs a bit of pragmatism, of trying to do something practical and meaningful, and that can scale also, as well. LIVIO VALENTI: And so having these platforms, I mean that's what everyone talks about, is like large technological pool of different technologies coming at the same time, at the same place. I mean your case, maybe we haven't spoke too much about it. But can you give us like the super high level about your research specifically, on silk and how the convergence of different fields came to kind of clash? I mean from physics, to optics, to—you talk about implanting. So we talk about the human body. We're talking about physics.

So I think that's very fascinating. And we see a lot of successful research effort that really now becoming to the [00:40:20] nature. And they build these large platforms. And then you can slice it up and translate it into the different application.

I mean you've done to your four startups that are slicing up the same kind of technological area. But obviously, with different applicability. So a little bit similar to our map, when we think about, how do you use advanced material for—in the case of agriculture, in the case of healthcare, and vaccines, and all of that? [00:40:46] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Yeah. Well, I mean, the three-minute version is that basically, from textile material, you can go backwards and get—you get a bio-compatible liquid that, for all intents and purposes, is a—well, it is a biopolymer.

And so it's your starting material to generate, that could be comparable to what you use as a starting material for plastics. And so if you imagine that the technological uses of something like that, but with a material that preserves whatever you mix, preserves the life of biological matter that you mix in it, that you can eat, that you can implant, but that, at the same time, you can reshape into plastic-like[?] materials, into ceramic-like materials, into hard materials, then you really open up—you open up a world of material science applications that is very big. [00:42:02] And so basically, I think that through silk, and through biopolymers in general, my research is about making materials that bring the technological worlds and the biological worlds and the life sciences world as close as humanly possible. So really, really putting, you know, putting them together in materials that have extraordinary functions, biological functions, while maintaining like a very large library of shapes, where the shapes can be large, that go from the nano scale to the meter scale. [00:42:52] So, I mean, you know, edible electronics, implantable sensors, distributable sensors that can be thrown in the environment and being—and send data, and then melt away when it rains, to coral reefs saved sunscreen, to preservation of vaccines, to preservation of food, to alternative to volatile organic compounds, and strong underwater glues that are made only with worm spit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. LIVIO VALENTI: So the technologies can get all this kind of permutation I mean the same, as we said, the technology base is there, right? And then, how do you get to think about the [00:43:51] application? You know, some of them it looks like you were thinking about the fly [?]. Some of them you've

been working for years. I mean the case of vaxes has been there, right. I mean the fundamental discovery that you could combine vaccines and biologics with silk, it was maybe not expected. But there is other things that maybe you haven't found, you know, you haven't thought about yet. [00:44:14] And so this platform is not exhausted yet. Where do you feel you are in that applicability of this platform? And do you feel that you have scratched the surface? Do you feel like you are at the mature point? And where does the creativity meet the technological need? I mean that's like the science and creativity.

And one of the things that you've been doing really well, that I really love all your research, is that you have been working a lot of interdisciplinary people. I mean I'm talking, not like you are physicist, and you work with a biomedical engineer. I'm talking about you're a physicist and you're working with musicians, right.

I mean that's like, is that your sort of inspiration, to get kind of people across the table that maybe they speak a different language or they play an instrument, and artists, and designers? And you have a lab. You have some of the most interesting group of people that are walking around the hallways. Is that a strategy? [simultaneous conversation] [00:45:14] FIORENZO OMENETTO: I don't know—I don't know if it's a strategy.

I think it might be interesting. And I think that I'm lucky enough to have, again, this is somewhat easier to do in Boston than it would be to do maybe in New Mexico, to a certain extent, because just of the abundance of people from all walks of life that come through here. But I think—I mean there is two aspects of this. One is really the arts and the sciences. And I think the way of looking at a problem that one—even though left brain and right brain is the wrong way to describe these things.

But just say more method-driven person rather than more artistic-driven person approach a problem. And so, I think that there is a sense of aesthetics in the way that you formulate a question, where having people that come from different walks of life, and talk to each other, helps both sides. But I think even more importantly, I really do think, maybe I'm a little bit of a universalist. And I think that people that really want to solve a problem, and people that want to make an impact, generally do speak the same language. There are these things.

There are these things that are common traits among certain classes of people that really want to be—to either make an impact, or be the best that they can be, or whatever you may—whatever metrics you want to use. [00:46:47] But there is a distinctive characteristic among these people, and sort of like a convergence of thought, where you can put them in the same room, and they speak the same language. And generally, after a conversation, you find that the metrics are very shared. So the conversation is easy. I don't think that it – I really—I don't like the word interdisciplinary. I think that interdisciplinarity, as we talk about it, really is generated by people, and not by putting close to—physically close to different departments.

It is-- And there's many interpretations of this. And it was the cafeteria at Bell Lab, it's always people conversing that find a way, find a way to do something interesting together, because they really want to do something interesting in the end. LIVIO VALENTI: So maybe the Zoom format will [00:47:45] think about that soon. So hopefully, next year, we'll have – [00:47:50] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Slightly, slightly dehumanized. Yes.

LIVIO VALENTI: I completely agree. In fact, one fun fact about Fior and I, and going back to a team of like these unusual scientists/entrepreneur duo here, is that like, you know, one of the first things that we did, I pitched this idea to Fior that was, what about you come to Cambodia to see some of the silk farms? Because I used to work there. And you didn't think it was weird, my request. I mean I asked him to join.

And it was great, because we went to see some of those farmers that were in these remote areas. And they were supported by the United Nations to grow silk. [00:48:29] And obviously, like my naivete was the idea of like, this farmer can supply a lot of silk to Fior and these technologies. And then we realized that, the first company we started together, they only—we probably only need about 10 kilos of silk, you know, per year. So it's not a lot.

So it was very naive. So we went back to that. And we thought, maybe there's other application in the food sector. And now there is another company that Fior co-founded, that is using silk in very large scale to make food be more resilient. It is a coating that goes on top of the food to extend the shelf life.

And now we're talking about [00:49:04] right. So that type of local impact, that you could have on the suppliers, I think that's something that was always important to you and to me, obviously, because we thought that we could extend some of those benefit of how we use some of those technologies developed here in the developed world, and some of the best academic research institutions, where they can have an impact, I think, globally. So I think that resonate a lot. [00:49:28] So I see there is 10 minutes left. So I wanted to make sure we give some audience questions. And so why don't we open it up for questions in the Q and A tool.

And then, we're going to try to address it. So I'm sure people have a lot of questions. So I think one you already kind of touched on, on the impact. I can just, as we wait for more questions to come in, I can give my take on that actually. I think that's exactly the reason why we've been working on this project, right? I mean I spent 10 years being an entrepreneur, and building companies based on scientific innovation I think one of the things that's very important is that, how do we define some boundaries around the public purpose, that this technology can have, and the shape that they can take? Because, you know, they've been generated with a lot of public funding, right, if you think about it.

As Fior said, DARPA gave him his first—you know, Los Alamos gave him the lab to bring it to Boston. And they gave him the funding from DARPA to advance some of the scientific discoveries. And, at the same time, this is quite interesting. [00:50:39] Okay. So I see some questions. Okay, Francella.

Hi Francella, my friend. How are you? Yeah. Are there any questions in your research project that you would like to revisit? Yes. There is a few questions.

I think this research was really stress-testing what it means to commercialize and spin off a company. Because, you know, lots of the technology actually, you know, they are classified, and they are very, very sensitive from a national security perspective. So obviously, there are certain areas that are not up for spinoff, if I can relay that. So I think that's very important point.

And so trying to figure out what area of research are more commercializable versus other, I think that's interesting. We have some anecdotal evidence around that, that in some lab, you know, up to 40 percent of the research is actually nothing to do with the military or defense or national security. It is really chemistry. It's really biology. It's really sensors and other things.

So that's one answer to that. [00:51:50] Any other questions? Otherwise, I have a few more for Fior. But maybe I ask you, as we wait for other questions, Fior, maybe there is another one here.

Okay. Steven. Why do you think that there isn't a [00:52:05] fund community focus on national labs? Did you get an [00:52:09]? Okay, good question There has been a lot of new [00:52:13] born around the concept of deep tech. The engine is one. In fact, they invested in vaxes, and invested in a couple of other, Fior's efforts as well.

I mean I think there is more understanding that those technologies take a long time to develop. So I think the main issue for [00:52:32] is really the timeline, right. I mean some of those technologies can take 10, 15 years to develop. And [00:52:39] usually there are shorter timeframe. But I think there is a lot of changes in this, because [00:52:44] are starting to understand that, if you want to address some of those big societal challenges, like transitioning to a clean economy, and fighting the next pandemic, you might have to invest in scientific technologies. And I think scientific companies could address those things.

And if they're willing to wait—and we heard it from various [00:53:05], like the engine, we have [00:53:07] that was here with us in the panel. And she was saying something like, we're willing to wait, but we want to have a huge impact, right. So they have been catering to different investors themselves. They have a longer timespan.

So that's one. [00:53:27] Okay, I see another question Do we need to move away from a national—Do we need to move away from a national lab model to establishing government business corporation space by default? Or is there a value[?] in maintaining government all these spaces, especially for early fundamental research and [00:53:44] challenges? I'll give you my take. I think there's going to be—there is a point in which we need to make a clean break between the academic research and the funded research by the government, and the transition to a private entity.

And there's a process for that. And my feeling is that it's important that that break is put in there, and pretty clear. And I think venture capital money can really help you to formalize a lot of the processes and put a structure in place that I think can help you to scale. And the same time, I feel like that you can continue to collaborate with the public sector. There is a lot of potential grants that the government is willing to give to companies trying to address, for example, energy or health challenges. Especially, there is technology that are early stage, that they can get to the point that now they can be ready.

[00:54:42] And now, Leisel is asking about the policymakers. So I think what the [00:54:47] can do to facilitate the commercialization of deep tech, I think we put a lot of effort in answering this question And then we realized that obviously, those are recommendations that we don't have a direct impact in. But I think we wanted to highlight them in the report. So thanks for asking that question I think there's a lot that can be made. And there is a lot of efforts on the way they're – [00:55:09] pilots. I think a lot of people like to do pilots, which is nice in a sense, because you can test, and iterate, and see what work, what doesn't work.

There is couple of things that, you know, are very interesting, which the national labs are opening up themselves to entrepreneur, especially Los Alamos is doing that, Oak Ridge is doing that, Sandia Lab is doing that. So really, they're allowing external people with an expiration date on their back. [00:55:34] Because one of the main things we learned is that scientists in national labs want to stay in national labs, right.

There is not a lot of flow from national labs to industry, from industry to national labs. It's very much like a career that is pretty set, pretty stable. And you don't see a lot of flows. While university, you know, Fior correct me if I'm wrong, but you want to get your PhD and your post-doc out in the world as soon as they can, right? As soon as they are ready.

So there is a cycle. There is an expiration date that you put on those people, quote/unquote, so they can actually go out in the world and bring some of this technology forward. So I think those are some of the things that I would say. [00:56:18] And I think, yeah, Fior, you were able to answer some of those. Maybe in the last three or four minutes that we have, I'm going to maybe one last question for you, Fior, that I think—I don't know if you have an answer for them. But what was your biggest challenge in working with entrepreneurs? And I don't take it personally.

But obviously, there is different incentives, and there is, you're judged in a different way. You have your papers to write. You have your grants to get. I mean, how did you—And we didn't rehearse this. So you might say something new here. But I'm just wondering about, like, how do you see that tension sometimes? And how those things can be facilitated? And maybe there is some policy idea that we can come out with based on that.

[00:57:12] FIORENZO OMENETTO: Well, I don't know. I mean I think there needs to be sort of like an awareness. I think things work well when both sides are very aware of what the other side does.

And that means that, you know, that the scientist doesn't have to expect that, because it works in a lab, it's automatically a product. Or, because it's the fruit of a lot of years of work, that that's going to lead to revenue. And vice-versa. [00:57:48] I think that the entrepreneur, the entrepreneur has to have a—they have to be very savvy about the limits of science and research and technology. You know, it's kind of like not expected. All the answers, the technical answers will be solved in the lab because the lab is there to solve them.

I mean I think that that's the main—You know, those are the main disconnects in these things. So there has to be a healthy dose of, you know, of pragmatism and of ability to recognize the other context from both sides. And I think that usually, the difficulties that one has, are when there are unrealistic expectations, from either of the two, whether it's on development times, funding, I don't know, the whole litany of things that are typical of developing these things.

[00:58:50] So, I don't know. I mean I think it's—there are two worlds that have to talk to each other. And generally, when they are able to talk to each other, and the two expectations are met, they work well.

And when they don't, they usually—that's where you don't even get past the seed, if you even get to the seed, right? LIVIO VALENTI: Yeah, and that's why we wanted to have the discussion. I hope it was beneficial for the group, mostly because of what you just said. I mean to show that this is possible. Those are two different worlds. But they actually can collide, and can build on each other's expectations.

So I think that was the message here for this session, if there was one takeaway, I think is that working with scientific innovation is possible, even for people that, you know, I didn't have a scientific background. So I think that's an important lesson to learn here. And the work on national lab is really trying to encourage people to look at the boundaries of where does technology come from. And those are the places where you should look at. You should look at the sorts of innovation And then you find [00:59:53] to have a big impact.

So I think that's a main takeaway. So Fior, thank you so much for being here with us, with the group. [01:00:01] FIORENZO OMENETTO: My pleasure. LIVIO VALENTI: And we want to thank all of the participants from all the different countries. I see a lot of new faces and names. And I want to thank the TAPP and the Belfer Center and Rita and Karen—and secretary Karen, and Philipp, and Heather for helping me to get to this point.

And hopefully, it was helpful. And we will share the report with you guys and everybody. So hopefully, we can go a little bit more in depth if you're interested to learn more about this. So it's three PM. We're right on time.

So appreciate everyone's presence. And thanks again for joining us.

2022-05-09 16:31

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