Upgrade 2023: Basic Research, Innovation and GTM

Does fundamental research drive innovation? And how do you move from innovation to market? Those were questions that drove two panel discussions on Day 2 (March 16) of Upgrade 2023. Moderated by Paul Rand, VP for Communications for the University of Chicago (U of C) and host of its Big Brains podcast, these sessions featured panelists whose roles ranged from scientist to venture capitalist to administrator. The first session focused on basic research; the second, on how to go to market. 

Part 1 – Basic Research

Panelists on the first session included Joe Alexander, Jr., Director of the NTT Research Medical and Health Informatics (MEI) Lab; Juan de Pablo, EVP for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories and Global Initiatives at U of C; and Al Emondi, former Program Manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). One of the first tasks Rand gave this panel was to define basic research given their roles and backgrounds.

Basic research is “taking things apart,” and applied science is “putting things together” said Alexander, who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. With respect to the MEI Lab’s biodigital twin (BioDT) project, “we are practicing more engineering,” he said. Emondi referred to U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) nomenclature in defining the “grey area” between basic and applied research. “Once your story gets strong enough, then you go for the next pot of money,” he said. “Are you at a point where you can make an argument for moving from what we call 6.1 to 6.2?” (In DoD funding codes, 6.1 is basic research, 6.2 is applied research and 6.3 is advanced technology deployment.)

“We undertake basic research just for the sheer interest of it,” said De Pablo, who is also a chaired professor of molecular engineering. “But we have to think about the implications.” Why so? Expectations for practical results are rising – from society at large, government officials and scientists themselves, he explained. Also, he said that the time between making a discovery and converting it into a product is shortening. 

Probed further on the link between research and innovation, Alexander noted that research environments differ. He compared the so-so level of vibrancy of his previous academic and industry work with the MEI Lab’s thrilling “moonshot” goal of building a cardiovascular (CV)BioDT. While geared toward engineering, the project also leans on basic research, such as the “organ-on-a-chip” work being pursued by MEI Lab joint research partner Kit Parker at Harvard. 

De Pablo and Emondi said that innovation requires the right mix of people and resources. De Pablo said tenure allows professors to pursue new ideas (“the bedrock of innovation”) and diverse partnerships can accelerate discoveries, but often lead to products derivative of initial goals. Emondi, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and serves as NTT Research Head of Partner Strategy, said it takes an inspiring goal and conducive environment to create an effective team. “Once that’s built, my experience has been just get out of the way,” he said. “If everyone is on that path, then to me the management’s role is to stand back, buffer where you need to and let the (team) do what it needs to do to be successful.”

You can watch the first panel here

Part 2 – Go to Market (GTM)

The follow-up session tapped representatives from the business world, venture capital and academia to examine the journey of ideas into the post-basic-research world. The panelists included Dan Boneh, Professor at Stanford University; Vab Goel, Founding Partner, NTTVC; Shahid Ahmed, EVP, New Ventures & Innovation, NTT; and Giorgio Scarpelli, Chief Technology & Innovation Officer, NTT DATA, Italia. Several comments echoed themes from the earlier session.

“What was a cool technology even just months ago…is [now] a pervasive technology,” Ahmed said, responding to a question about how to find new opportunities. “Those cycles used to take about a year or two years, now it’s taking months.” One reason for the increasingly rapid lifecycle is declining costs, especially in chips and storage, which has created an environment where new technologies can be recycled very quickly.

There’s also a longer-range view. Reiterating that basic research has its own dynamics, Boneh said that it is hard to tell what will become practical: “Repeatedly, what has happened in my life is that things that looked like theory today, you roll the clock two, three, ten years forward, then all of a sudden it finds a commercial application.” As one example, he pointed to zero-knowledge proofs, once purely theoretical cryptographic proof systems invented in the 1980s that are now a “buzzword in Silicon Valley,” in part because they are enabling the future of blockchains. 

“If you want to win the car race, the driver (alone) can’t,” Goel said, underscoring the role of teamwork. Just as it also takes automotive designers, mechanics and analysts to succeed on the racetrack, Goel said bringing ideas to life takes a combination of skills, especially those that foster productive business relationships. He said Stanford and NTT Research both offer good examples of this productive mix.

Scarpelli said the right environment matters, as did Emondi, but emphasized location. Consider the six Innovation Centers that NTT has created throughout the world, each one focusing on a specific topic. “It is not just a place where researchers and maybe innovators can [bring] their vision to ground,” he said, “but also a real physical space, surrounded by technologies, where we invite clients in order to be inspired by the technology.”

How do you spot new ideas or trends? Goel said it’s more art than science, but a network of advisors can increase your odds. Ahmed also said luck plays a role, as innovators may be aiming for markets that don’t yet exist. Boneh again took the long-range view. “The key point is not to be shackled by the constraints of the current world, but what will life look like in ten years, in twenty years,” he said. Scarpelli said the best ideas come from “cross pollination.” The attitude of team members can also be decisive, he said, with courage and curiosity being two key qualities. 

You can watch the second panel here.