Open innovation challenge seeks solutions to type 1 diabetes

first_imgThe best scientific insights, which ultimately may lead tothe solution of the world’s great puzzles, do not always come from the expertsin the fields in question. Sometimes they come from outliers who approach aproblem from an entirely new perspective — just as unknown English clockmakerJohn Harrison demonstrated that longitude could be determined by using an accuratetimepiece and not, as almost all experts predicted, by the study of astronomy.So suppose the intellectual power of the entire Harvardcommunity, more than 55,000 faculty members, students, and staff members, inall of the University’s schools and affiliated hospitals, was applied to amedical problem?That is the premise of an innovation contest launched by the Harvard Catalyst, anonline hub for cross-disciplinary scientific work. The challenge is to definenew hypotheses and unaddressed questions concerning type 1 diabetes. The bestnew ideas will receive prizes ranging from $2,500 to $10,000.TO PARTICIPATEIN THE CHALLENGE, GO HEREIn an email to the entire Harvard community, Jeffrey Flier,dean of the Harvard Medical School (HMS), and Lee Nadler, dean for Clinical andTranslational Research and director of the Harvard Catalyst, wrote:“Growing evidence shows that innovation often happens at theintersections of disciplines, frequently initiated by individuals who may nothave expertise in the exact problem at hand. Innovation contests haveincentivized cross-disciplinary knowledge sharing and solution development forscientific problems in non-academic communities. Supported by an ARRA grant,several Harvard University schools and (a global platform forinnovation contests) are launching a series of such contests in the area ofhealth-related innovation.“For our first challenge, we are asking the Harvard community to share‘out of the box questions and proposals” related to any of the many facets ofjuvenile (type 1) diabetes. We seek testable questions and ideas about type1diabetes that could help define problems or new areas requiring exploration andresearch. Type 1 diabetes was selected because it carries enormousmedical and socioeconomic consequences.  This challenge solicits yourideas but does not require that you have the expertise, laboratory or otherresources to answer the question. We are excited by the possibilities of thisexperiment, and ask you to participate by applying your insights to a problemthat may not be in your domain.  We also encourage diabetes specialists topropose their unexplored ideas.”Eva C. Guinan, director of the Harvard Catalyst LinkagesProgram and an associate professor of pediatrics at HMS, who is working closely on the project with Karim Lakhani, an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School, said, “This experimentsolicits ideas from everyone in the community, regardless of their field ofexpertise and independent of their ability to undertake the research projectthemselves. While this sort of approach has been very successful in thefor-profit world, we need to explore how to best implement it in ourcommunity.”In a cover email accompanying the Flier-Nadleremail, Harvard President Drew Faust offered the hope that “many of you willparticipate. Even more,” Faust wrote, “I hope that, in the spirit of this novelproject, we will continue to multiply the means to connect the remarkablepeople and ideas across Harvard in imaginative and powerful ways.”Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Instituteand a scientist whose research is focused on type 1 diabetes — a disease thatafflicts his son and daughter — praised the challenge, saying “It willpotentially bring hundreds of fresh sets of eyes, with radically differentperspectives, to a problem that has long stymied researchers and impacts thelives of millions.”At the most basic level, the idea is that somewhere in thevast Harvard community there may be something like a pre-doctoral candidate in thehumanities who has a child with Type 1 diabetes, and has an astute observationabout the disease that he has never been able to share with anyone in diabetesresearch. Or there may be a chemist who has made an observation that isdirectly applicable to diabetes research, but because her work has nothing todo with diabetes, that connection never occurred to her.Lee Nadler called the innovation challenge — the first ofwhat it is hoped will be many such challenges — “an exciting experiment, andunlike most conventional experiments, we know that at least one outcome will bepositive.”“I have no question,” Nadler said, “that this challenge willadvance the Harvard Catalyst’s primary goal of drawing researchers all acrossthe University out of their individual disciplines to think about problems more broadly, inmulti-disciplinary ways. We cannot predict whether this will produce ideas thatwill impact diabetes, but it will teach us whether broadcast search is a viableaddition to our approaches to solving complex problems.”Dean Flier, whose research career has been focused on theseemingly intractable challenges posed by diabetes, said he is “excited on twolevels by this exciting Harvard Catalyst challenge. As a scientist, I see thishaving the potential to bring the intellectual power of some 55,000 members ofthe greater Harvard community to bear on the puzzle of diabetes, increasingexponentially the possibility someone will come up with innovative ways tosolve some of the problems of diabetes once and for all. And as dean, Isee this experiment in open innovation and scientific social networking as yetanother innovative approach by the Harvard Catalyst to increase the power ofcollaborative science and translational research at Harvard.”last_img