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12.07.12 - Crossing Disciplines, Creating Innovation

Stokols: "We're realizing the only way to make headway
and create innovation ... is to have a pooling of
intelligence and specialization from different fields."

Faculty research on university campuses traditionally occurs within the silos of individual academic departments.
Last week’s Igniting Technology event, however, promoted a new model. Six presenters at “Venture Science: Crossing Disciplines, Creating Innovation” shared with 125 attendees the benefits and rewards of interdisciplinary collaboration for academic research as well as corporate product development.

Sponsored by intellectual law firm Knobbe, Martens Olson and Bear, and moderated by KMOB partner Michael Guiliana, the presentation was kicked off by UC Irvine Chancellor’s Professor Dan Stokols. The social ecology professor is an expert in cross-disciplinary collaboration and a pioneer in the science of team science, a field that evaluates, offers assistance and designs benchmarks to measure accomplishment in interdisciplinary teams.

“Over the last five decades there has been a tremendous wave of collaboration and a trend toward larger and larger collaborative teams – this is seen across many different areas of science,” Stokols said, adding that papers published by multiple authors tend to have more scientific impact than those by single authors.

“We’re realizing the only way to make headway and create innovation in some of the most complex problem areas is to have a pooling of intelligence and specialization from across many different fields.”

Stokols explained the distinctions among multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research partnerships, saying they form a continuum with transdisciplinarity at the apex, where new conceptual frameworks are developed.
Because partnerships that cross disciplines sometimes fail, however, it is important to understand the metrics that lead to success. “There are two sides to the coin and I think we need to understand the circumstances where it works well and where it doesn’t work so well,” he said.

Presenters, from left: Pahl, George, Cramer and Rowe laud the benefits of diversity and working across disciplines.

Factors contributing to success include strong institutional support, effective leadership, reliable connectivity and similarity of world views. “If people bring these readiness factors to the collaboration when the grant begins then presumably they can move toward developing a collaborative capacity where they are able to leverage their effective integration into more productivity over time,” Stokols said.

Working across disciplines also engenders challenges, including training, instilling of values and behavioral styles, and staying focused on the big picture. Stokols believes training future cross-disciplinary collaborators must begin during their undergraduate education. “These skills are not something people can learn on the fly; they have to cultivate this over a longer period.”

Stokols was followed by Dr. Steve George, a UCI engineering professor with a medical degree, who currently heads an eight-member interdisciplinary team working on an NIH-funded project. “This is a topic I’m very passionate about and interested in,” he told the crowd.

George, who is also director of UCI’s Edwards Lifesciences Center for Advanced Cardiovascular Technology, and his team are constructing a three-dimensional perfused artificial tissue chip that can be used for drug testing.

Guests take the opportunity to network with each other.

The chip, which will mimic the physiology and biology of cardiac and cancer tissues, will allow high-throughput testing of oncology drugs’ effects on the heart.
“For decades we’ve had two-dimensional culture systems, where you culture cells as a flat layer. We are not two-dimensional. We are three-dimensional creatures,” he said.
George, who already had experience working with three of his collaborators, had to develop additional relationships for this project – with stem cell experts, tumor cell biologist, cardiac experts and others – to make it tenable. “We require all kinds of different expertise,” he said.

He compared working on the project with traveling to a foreign country. “It’s very helpful if you speak the language,” he said. “You want faculty who are not afraid of new languages and who are interested in new things. You need to encourage a sense of adventure and you have to be very patient.”

Link: "If we don't fail, we're not trying hard enough."

Dr. Madeleine Pahl, a UCI nephrologist, is one of the directors at ICTS, UCI’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences. Funded by a $20 million NIH grant, ICTS’s mandate is to connect researchers with clinicians and the community in an effort to move research from the lab to the marketplace.

“We are the infrastructure that facilitates the team sciences and clinical research that you’re hearing about,” she said. “We’re one of 60 in the U.S. and we’re here to try to speed up the time to discovery from the lab to ultimately, patients and therapeutic modalities.”

Pahl detailed ICTS’s services, which include providing facilities for and assistance with clinical studies, nursing and bioengineering services, regulatory assistance, a variety of funding opportunities, biostatistics, lab services and ethical consultations.
In addition, ICTS offers researchers metabolic and nutrition services, a human performance exercise lab, genetics and genomic resources, biomedical informatics, and a blood donor program to help scientists obtain human blood for their studies.

Equally important: the institute’s ability to offer access to community organizations interested in partnering, and regulatory IRB approval and help recruiting subjects.

“We also have awards to allow for teambuilding conferences, which invite individuals from different areas to brainstorm, develop new ideas and hopefully initiate studies that will be funded ideally through NIH or other funding agencies,” Pahl said, urging interested audience members to contact her for more information. “We can individualize what services we provide and how we can help you,” she concluded.

Stanton Rowe, chief scientific officer at heart valve manufacturer Edwards Lifesciences, addressed the importance of diversity to the business development process. “We’re all very interested in innovation … that’s the focus of so much of our efforts today. So what does it take to do that?” he asked.

Effective management and a set of processes that encourage creativity are key components, as are passion, emotional intelligence, analytical skill, influence skills and connectivity.

Most important, however, is the ability to think independently.
“If you’re sitting around your product development teams and everybody has the same background as you and everybody is thinking the same way, you’re going to be impaired,” Rowe said.

“Workplace teams that are comprised of staff members from a variety of different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds function more effectively than work groups that are homogenous or comprised mostly of staff members with similar backgrounds.”

He added that diverse teams can have the most impact in the areas of problem-solving, conflict-resolution and creativity. “A diverse staff generates a unique team dynamic that is better equipped to tackle complex challenges. When your product development process is impeded I think you have to stand back and ask ‘are we all approaching this the same way?’”

In addition, Rowe told the audience, while we tend to gravitate toward people who share our views, opinions and backgrounds, innovation requires a broader perspective. “You’ve got to create cross-disciplinary teams that cut across cliques, departments and social groups. This is the type of environment where truly meaningful innovation can take hold.”

Lastly, he said, conflict is normal. “Great new ideas are often born out of the clash of different perspectives. We call it creative debate and it’s the essence of most of what my team does to be effective and efficient.”

Another UCI researcher heading a multidisciplinary team is Dr. Steve Cramer, a neurologist who is developing a tele-rehab application for stroke patients, with support from ICTS. “Tele-rehab is a major wave that’s coming to many aspects of medical care,” Cramer said. “And by definition, it’s very multidisciplinary.”

The stroke tele-rehab project encompasses computer programmers, software engineers, bio-engineers, a neurologist, and a physical therapy professor. “We speak multiple languages, are different religions, and we see the world very differently,” Cramer said. “But we sit down, put our heads together and think ‘how can we change the way that rehab is provided after stroke?’”

Rehabilitation is integral to recovery for the 7 million U.S. adults recovering from stroke, Cramer said. But it is costly, and changes in healthcare programs have caused resources to dry up. Additionally, patients in rural areas often don’t have access to therapists. “This is why I think telemedicine is really excellent for this. We need cost-effective methods to provide more rehab at greater intensity that’s accessible by patients in rural areas,” he said.

In designing the system, researchers looked for activities that people would enjoy. The prototype, currently undergoing clinical trials, consists of a table, chair, laptop computer with wireless card and a menu of games and activities – including blackjack and other casino games – that require patients to exercise their limbs. It also includes remote access to a staff therapist. The goal of the system, Cramer said, is to improve function across a range of domains – hand weakness, walking, speaking, depression … “whatever ails you.”

And because it is installed in patients’ homes, it is more accessible and less costly than traveling to therapy sessions. “This is the wave of the future – for stroke rehab and for much more,” he concluded.

Venture capitalist Bill Link has years of experience with innovation, having started several companies and having invested in many others, bringing more than 50 novel products to the marketplace along the way. Link’s talk focused on critical aspects of the innovation cycle.

His principles of innovation include the ability to focus on the big issues and the big picture, openness to learning from mistakes, a willingness to fail and an environment that allows failure. “If we don’t fail, we’re not trying hard enough. Don’t be paralyzed by mistakes; learn from them,” he urged the audience.

Key players in the innovation cycle include inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs; early-adopter clinicians (in the biomedical field); financial partners; and industry leaders who can commercialize and drive products globally.

Link has seen the innovation timeline change drastically. In the 1970s, it took fewer than three years to bring a product from idea to launch; now it can take more than a decade. “Times have changed,” he said. “It’s challenging but still tractive.
“We still have immense unmet needs in the healthcare field and innovation in healthcare technology remains highly active. Thanks to all of you who are committed to innovation because when we’re fortunate enough to do well, many people benefit.”

The presentation portion of the event concluded with a question-and-answer session, after which participants networked with each other while enjoying a buffet dinner.

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer

View Presentations
Michael Guiliana
Dan Stokols
Madeleine Pahl
Bill Link