Idea Machines is a deep dive into the systems and people that bring innovations from glimmers in someone's eye all the way to tools, processes, and ideas that can shift paradigms.
We see the outputs of innovation systems everywhere but rarely dig into how they work. Idea Machines digs below the surface into crucial but often unspoken questions to explore themes of how we enable innovations today and how we could do it better tomorrow.
Idea Machines is hosted by Benjamin Reinhardt.
Venture Research with Donald Braben [Idea Machines #34]
In this conversation I talk to Donald Braben about his venture research initiative, peer review, and enabling the 21st century equivalents of Max Planck.
Donald has been a staunch advocate of reforming how we fund and evaluate research for decades. From 1980 to 1990 he ran BP’s venture research program, where he had a chance to put his ideas into practice. Considering the fact that the program cost two million pounds per year and enabled research that both led to at least one Nobel prize and a centi-million dollar company, I would say the program was a success. Despite that, it was shut down in 1990.
Most of our conversation centers heavily around his book “Scientific Freedom” which I suspect you would enjoy if you’re listening to this podcast.
This conversation. I talked to Donald breathing about his venture research initiative, peer review, and enabling the 21st century equivalent of max Planck.
Donald has been a staunch advocate for forming how we fund and evaluate research for decades. From 1980 to 1990, he ran BP's venture research program. Where he had a chance to put his ideas into practice. [00:01:00] Considering the fact that the program costs about 2 million pounds per year and enabled research, that book led to at least one Nobel prize and to send a million dollar company.
I would say the program was success, despite that it was shut down in 1990. Most of our conversations centers heavily around his book, scientific freedom, which just came out from straight press. And I suspect that you would enjoy if you're listening to this podcast. So here's my conversation with Donald Raven.
would you explain, in your own words, the concept of a punk club and why it's really well, it's just my name for the, for the, outstanding scientists of the 20th century, you know, starting with max blank, who looked at thermodynamics, and it took him 20 years to reach his conclusions, that, that matter was, was quantized.
You know, and that, and, he developed quantum mechanics, that was followed by Einstein and Rutherford and, and, and a [00:02:00] whole host of scientists. And I've called, in order to be, succinct Coley's they, these 500 or so scientists who dominated the 20th century, the plank club. So I don't have to keep saying Einstein rather for that second.
I said, and it's, it's an easy shorthand. Right. And so, do you think that like, well, there's a raging debate about whether the existence of the plank club was due to sort of like the time and place and the, the things that could be discovered in physics in the first half of the 20th century versus.
Sort of a more or more structural argument. Do you, where do you really come down on that? The existence of the plank club? [00:03:00] W well, like, yeah, so like, I guess, I guess it's, tied to sort of like this, but the question of like, like almost like, yeah. Are you asking, will there be a 20th century, 21st century playing club?
Do you think, do you think it's possible? Like, it's sort of like now right now. No, it's not. because, peer review forbids it, in the early parts of the 20th century, then scientists did not have to deal with, did not necessarily have to deal with peer review. that is the opinions of the, of the expert of the few expert colleagues.
they just got on, on, Edgar to university and had a university position, which was as difficult then as it is now to get. But once you got a university position in the first part up to about 1970, then you could do then providing your requirements were modest, Varney. You didn't [00:04:00] need, you know, huge amounts of money.
Say. You could do anything you wanted and, you didn't have to worry about your, your peers opinions. I mean, you did in your department when people were saying, Oh, he's mad. You know, and he's looking a
Focusing on Research with Adam Marblestone [Idea Machines #33]
A conversation with Adam Marblestone about his new project - Focused Research Organizations.
Focused Research Organizations (FROs) are a new initiative that Adam is working on to address gaps in current institutional structures. You can read more about them in this white paper that Adam released with Sam Rodriques.
Adam on Twitter
In this conversation, I talked to Adam marble stone about focused research organizations. What are focused research organizations you may ask. It's a good question. Because as of this recording, they don't exist yet. There are new initiatives that Adam is working on to address gaps. In current institutional structures, you can read more about them in the white paper that Adam released recently with San Brad regens.
I'll put them in the show notes. Uh, [00:01:00] just a housekeeping note. We talk about F borrows a lot, and that's just the abbreviation for focus, research organizations.
just to start off, in case listeners have created a grave error and not yet read the white paper to explain what an fro is. Sure. so an fro is stands for focus research organization. the idea is, is really fundamentally, very simple and maybe we'll get into it. On this chat of why, why it sounds so trivial.
And yet isn't completely trivial in our current, system of research structures, but an fro is simply a special purpose organization to pursue a problem defined problem over us over a finite period of time. Irrespective of, any financial gain, like in a startup and, and separate from any existing, academic structure or existing national lab or things [00:02:00] like that.
It's just a special purpose organization to solve, a research and development problem. Got it. And so the, you go much more depth in the paper, so I encourage everybody to go read that. I'm actually also really interested in what's what's sort of the backstory that led to this initiative. Yeah. it's kind of, there's kind of a long story, I think for each of us.
And I would be curious your, a backstory of how, how you got involved in, in thinking about this as well. And, but I can tell you in my personal experience, I had been spending a number of years, working on neuroscience and technologies related to neuroscience. And the brain is sort of a particularly hard a technology problem in a number of ways.
where I think I ran up against our existing research structures. in addition to just my own abilities and [00:03:00] everything, but, but I think, I think I ran up against some structural issues too, in, in dealing with, the brain. So, so basically one thing we want to do, is to map is make a map of the brain.
and to do that in a, in a scalable high-speed. Way w what does it mean to have a map of the brain? Like what, what would, what would I see if I was looking at this map? Yeah, well, we could, we could take this example of a mouse brain, for example. just, just, just for instance, so that there's a few things you want to know.
You want to know how the individual neurons are connected to each other often through synopsis, but also through some other types of connections called gap junctions. And there are many different kinds of synopsis. and there are many different kinds of neurons and, There's also this incredibly multi-scale nature of this problem where a neuron, you know, it's, it's axon, it's wire that it sends out can shrink down to like a hundred nanometers in [00:04:00] thickness or less.
but it can also go over maybe centimeter long, or, you know, if you're talking about, you know, the neurons that go down your spinal cord could be meter long, neurons. so this incredibly multi-scale it poses. Even if irrespective of other problems like brain, computer interfacing or real time communication or so on, it just poses really severe technological challenges, to
Hanging Out in the Valley of Death with Michael Filler and Matthew Realff
Michael Filler and Matthew Realff discuss Fundamental Manufacturing Process innovations. We explore what they are, dig into historical examples, and consider how we might enable more of them to happen. Michael and Matthew are both professors at Georgia Tech and Michael also hosts an excellent podcast about nanotechnology called Nanovation.
Our conversation centers around their paper Fundamental Manufacturing Process Innovation Changes the World.
The Decline of Unfettered Research with Andrew Odlyzko [Idea Machines #31]
A conversation with Professor Andrew Odlyzko about the forces that have driven the paradigm changes we’ve seen across the research world in the past several decades. Andrew is a professor at the University of Minnesota and worked at Bell Labs before that. The conversation centers around his paper “The Decline of Unfettered Research” which was written in 1995 but feels even more timely today.
The decline of unfettered research is part of a complex web of causes - from incentives, to expectations, to specialization and demographic trends. The sobering consequence is that any single explanation is probably wrong and any single intervention probably won’t be able to shift the system.
The Decline of Unfettered Research
A Twitter thread of my thoughts before this podcast
(Automated, and thus mistake-filled) Transcript
[00:00:00] In this conversation. I talked to professor Andrew Odlyzko about the forces that have driven the paradigm changes we've seen across the research world. In the past several decades. Andrew is a professor at the university of Minnesota and worked at bell labs for that our conversation centers around in his paper, the decline of unfettered research, which was written in 1995, but feels even more timely today.
I've linked to it in the show notes and [00:01:00] also a Twitter thread that I wrote to get down my own thoughts. I highly recommend that you check out one of them either now or after listening to this conversation. I realized that it might be a little weird to be talking about a paper that you wrote 25 years ago, but it, it seemed when I read it, it sort of blew my mind because it seemed so like all of it just seemed so true today.
Um, and so I was, I was wondering, uh, like first do you, do you, do you sort of think that the, the core thesis of that paper still holds up? Like how would you amend it if you had to write it again today? Oh, absolutely. I'm convinced that the base thesis is correct. And as the last quarter century has provided much more evidence to support it.
And basically if I were writing it today, I would just simply draw on this experience all those 25 years. Yeah. Yeah. Cause, okay, cool. So, so like, um, I sort of wanted to [00:02:00] establish the baseline of like asking questions about it is still, is still super relevant. Um, So, uh, just, uh, for, for the, for the listeners, um, would you sort of go through how you think of what unfettered research meets?
Because, uh, I think many people have heard of, of sort of like, like basic or, or curiosity driven research, but I think that the distinction is actually really important. Mmm. Well, yes. So basically unfettered researchers, emotional curiosity, driven research, very closely related to maybe some shades of difference with the idea here is that you kind of find the best people.
You can most promising researchers and give them essentially practically complete freedom. Give them resources, making them complete freedom to pursue the most interesting problems that they see. Um, and that was something which, uh, kind of many people still think of this as being the main mode of operations.
And that's still thought [00:03:00] the best type of research in that case, but it's definitely been fading. Yeah. So, uh, would you, would you make the art? So what, like, what is the, is the most powerful argument that unfettered research is actually not the best kind of research. Well, so why is it not the best kind of research?
So again, this is not so much an issue of world's best in some global optimization sense. And so on my essay. It wasn't really addressed to the forces that were influencing conduct of science technology research. Um, and, uh, I'm not quite saying that it's kind of ideal that it was happening. I said, well, here are the reasons.
And given t
On the Cusp of Commerciality with Eleonora Vella
A conversation with Eleonora Vella about getting the right people in the room, finding research on the cusp of commercializability, and generally how TandemLaunch’s unique system works.
Eleonora is a Program director at TandemLaunch. Tandemlaunch is a startup foundry that builds companies from scratch around university research. This is not an easy task. Given the challenges, TandemLaunch’s successes suggest there’s a lot to learn from their processes.
Innovating Through Time with Anton Howes
A conversation with Dr Anton Howes about The Royal Society of Arts, cultural factors that drive innovation, and many aspects of historical innovation. Anton is a historian of innovation whose work focuses especially on 18th and 19th century England as a hotbed of creativity. He recently released an excellent book that details the history of the Royal Society of Arts called “Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation” and he publishes an excellent newsletter at Age of Invention.
Customer ReviewsSee All
So excited for more!
Really sharp podcast -- I replaced a depressing politics podcast to make room for this inspiring one
Excellent - lead edge tech with people you can’t find in any other forum.