fields like materials science, chemistry, and
physics—what we call “hard technology.”
Tom’s story is typical. He’d decided
to pursue a startup to develop his idea
but quickly discovered that the technol-
ogy was too speculative for private invest-
ment. If Tom were a software innovator,
he could build a prototype and validate his
product in months with little more than
a laptop. But to innovate in semiconduc-
tor technology, he would need the tools of
cutting-edge research—fume hoods, spec-
trometers, electron microscopes. He would
also need time. Turning a semiconductor
breakthrough into a market-ready product
can take years. Unfortunately, demand by
qualified applicants exceeded our capacity,
and we had to turn him away.
In February, he sent me an e-mail. After
dipping into his personal bank account to
get his effort off the ground, he was shifting gears. He’d decided to enter the world
of finance and asked if I could introduce
him to one of my contacts at a hedge fund.
I was saddened, but not surprised.
Today’s research ecosystem isn’t built
to support innovators like Tom. Their
projects are too applied for academic labs,
which focus narrowly on new scientific discoveries. Meanwhile, private industry can’t
justify investment in expensive research
that doesn’t yet have clear commercial
potential. Faced with this chasm, even the
best innovators struggle. Many are bound
to say “why bother?” Can we blame them?
So how do we keep the Toms of this
world in the game? For starters, we need
to do a better job catalyzing the creation
of science-based startups and supporting
cutting-edge research within them. Free
from the institutional pressures of aca-
demic publication or corporate quarterly
earnings, startups can serve as powerful
vehicles to bring hard technologies to mar-
ket. Such firms often spend years perform-
ing research to develop a first product. Yet
despite driving some of the biggest tech-
nology disruptions in recent history, small
businesses receive only a small percentage
of all government research funding.
Society will face enormous challenges
in the coming century in areas such as
energy, water, food, and health. We need
to find a better way to support our best
scientists and engineers in their research
to turn new discoveries into commercially
viable products. Solving these big challenges will depend on it.
Ilan Gur is the founding director of
Drones to the Rescue
It’s expensive to use drones to deliver meds.
Not using them exacts a heavier cost.
If we could send fleets of drones flying
medical supplies to people in some of the
poorest and most remote parts of the
world, would it be worth it? Who’s going
to pay for the drones, or the equipment
needed to house and recharge them?
Who’ll pay for the personnel to operate
them, and the training required?
Last year I was part of a team that
tested product-delivering drones in
Mozambique with the help of a computational model of the country’s vaccine supply chain. The supply chain is the series of
refrigerators, freezers, vehicles, and personnel involved in getting vaccines from
their origin to the people who need them.
The Republic of Mozambique, in southeast
Africa, has over 24 million people and a
GDP of around $35.3 billion—which turns
out to be $419 per capita. Mozambique’s
801,537 square kilometers include rugged highlands and mountainous regions,
long stretches of plateaus, large rivers, and
woodlands filled with wild animals. Heavy
rainfalls and cyclones can pummel parts of
Mozambique. These conditions can make
it dangerous to get vaccines to people.
The “last mile” of the vaccine supply
chain—from the district storage facility to
the clinics, schools, and homes where vaccines are given—can be tough. Often people on motorbikes, rafts, bicycles, animals,
The results? Under a wide range of
conditions, drones can provide between
20 and 50 percent cost savings over traditional land-based transport. Of course,
the savings depend on the size of the
population served, the road conditions,
the speed of the land-based transport,
the reliability of the drones, and the willingness of people to accept them. But it
shows that new technology doesn’t have
to be expensive. By improving service and
freeing up valuable resources (like the
time of workers who’d normally be carrying vaccines long distances), drones can
save both money and lives.
Bruce Y. Lee is an associate professor of
international health at the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health.