There’s no such thing as failure, as long as you view it in the proper light.
That’s the philosophy of scientist-entrepreneurs Darrick Carter, vice president of adjuvant technology at Seattle-based IDRI (Infectious Disease Research Institute) and biotech company founder, and Aaron Feaver, co-founder and chief technology officer of energy-storage materials company EnerG2, who shared their views of the trial-and-error process of scientific discovery in a new feature we’re calling The Xconversation.
This occasional series pairs top practitioners and leaders in the innovation community for wide-ranging discussions over lunch, facilitated by Xconomy.
In yesterday’s installment (Part I), Carter, a biochemist and biophysicist, and Feaver, an engineer and materials scientist, probed the similarities in the molecular manipulations they undertake to develop new vaccines and improve batteries with engineered carbon materials, respectively. They discussed their early interests in science, the challenge of balancing scientific openness with a business’ need to protect intellectual property, and whether there’s a Moore’s Law for batteries, among many other topics.
As their conversation continues, Carter and Feaver, both fathers, talk about how their work as scientists focused on the molecular scale shapes their world views, the added urgency they feel from climate change, how computing technology is accelerating their research, and the difficulty of knowing when to take the leap and build a company based on your science.
The following excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity:
Orders of Magnitude, Avoiding Kale
X: As researchers, entrepreneurs, who focus on the very small, has how you view the world at the human, macro scale, changed over time? I have the same question when I talk to an astronomer researching things that are orders of magnitude larger and farther away.
AF: In some ways it has for me. I like to garden at home. I go out and look at beads of dew on a kale plant, and kale is extraordinarily hydrophobic. I’d kind of like to get a kale plant under an [scanning electron microscope] and look at what’s going on in there. It’s just amazing how water beads up on the surface of a kale leaf. It’s probably partly a nano-scale interaction, or maybe micro-scale fibers or something like that on the surface of the it. You probably could tell me more about it—
DC: I try to stay away from kale.
AF: But anyway. You do see this stuff in everyday interactions, and because you know something about it, for me, I wonder. I think about that kind of stuff here and there. I tell my kids about it. They’re taking science classes, so that’s kind of fun.
DC: I see it more fractally. I think the nano scales or micro scales that we look at, if you zoom away to the International Space Station, the rest of the world looks like that. If you zoom away to the galaxy, the whole galaxy looks like that.
X: Do you have kids, too, Darrick?
DC: Oh yeah. Three.
X: I have two kids. They’re pretty young. Just yesterday, my eldest daughter, who is 3 and a half asked me, ‘What’s an interview?’ I was curious about how and at what age you explained to your kids what you do, and at what age did they start to get a realistic understanding of it?
AF: My daughter is 6, and my son is 8 going on 9. I think they already get it to some extent. Just yesterday, my son asked me if I knew what an aerogel was. And I said, yeah, Caleb, actually all the materials we make are kind of like aerogels. They’re carbon aerogels. And he thought that was really cool. Unfortunately, a carbon aerogel looks more like a lump of coal, whereas a silica aerogel is this amazing glass cloudy thing that I’m sure is what he saw on TV. So we had a conversation about what an aerogel is and why it’s different from other forms of material and stuff like that. We’ll play with the dishwashing sponge and talk about this concept of pore volume and stuff like that. He totally gets it. It’s not that foreign of a concept. He can’t dive into all of this crazy detail, but they get the basics.
DC (whose kids are 12, 8, and 3): The 8-year-old, they just had a verbal test, and the teacher said, ‘I have to tell you this because I asked him if he knew what a vaccine was, and he was really offended. He said, “Of course I know what a vaccine is. My Dad’s a biochemist!”‘
I don’t think the 3-year-old knows yet. At around 5 or so, they start getting what field you’re working in, if not exactly what you do. The 12-year-old, whenever he gets angry at school, he says, ‘Can you bring some Ebola in?’ No, no, they don’t like that.
AF: We just made liquid nitrogen ice cream. That’s a fun thing to do, even when the kids are three.
DC: That’s all they think you do at work is play with liquid nitrogen.
His school invites me often to talk about biology. Just now I was talking about Zika virus at the middle school. Before, when the Ebola outbreak happened, I brought some Ebola DNA because we were working on an Ebola vaccine. I got so many complaints later through the teacher. The parents were like, ‘You let somebody come in who’s going to bring in stuff like that?’
Climate Change as Motivator
X: Another connection between your respective areas of focus that occurred to me is climate change. Darrick, as you put it in your op-ed for Xconomy last fall, climate change is spurring faster and broader spread of infectious diseases spread by insects—
DC: Zika was a good example of that, in hindsight.
X: And Aaron, I would put EnerG2’s efforts at improving energy storage in the category of clean technology. But how much does climate change as an issue factor into your day-to-day efforts and motivation?
AF: It definitely is for me. That’s one of the primary motivating factors for trying to do what we’re doing. And I think, really, for a good chunk of the team at EnerG2. You’ve got a bunch of people over there that are motivated to come to work at least, not on a daily basis maybe, but that’s part of the reason they came to EnerG2 in the first place. The fact that we’re doing something that matters.
DC: For us, we’re not really into environmental engineering or making bacteria that are going to fix carbon or something. Really it’s more of how do you deal with what climate change is going to do to the disease profile. I have no idea. It is really scary.
X: I imagine it lends an additional sense of urgency though?
DC: You’ve got to find a solution, and I don’t think anybody has one. If there’s constantly new diseases…
What we did with AIDS, basically turning it into a chronic disease—no matter what Charlie Sheen thinks—but that took, what, 30 years? If we start seeing new AIDS-type things emerging every two years, it’s going to overwhelm the system.
X: Another aspect of that that I was thinking of as I just re-read your essay is, What impact might the spread of these diseases to developed countries have on the urgency with which people work on them? There’s the ongoing lament about how much financial resource goes after erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer versus mosquito borne illness, broadly speaking.
DC: I think the government can do better. The NIH budget has been pretty stagnant because nobody seems to really care. Compare that to the military budget. In some senses maybe it’s good that there’s some scary stuff coming up.
AF: In some ways, this is a doomsday-type scenario. The tropics are where everything is at. The tropics are expanding, basically, right. You can’t say that’s happened now, but it’s gradually starting. You see insects that you haven’t seen before, right?
DC: And we see Chagas disease. It’s caused by a parasite that’s borne by certain pigs. They’re finding them in Texas now. You never had the disease in the U.S. before.
AF: I’m from northern Illinois originally. My grandparents lived in Tennessee. Ticks in Tennessee. Big problem. You go hiking and you’re going to have ticks. I would have tick inspections when I was a kid. Now there’s ticks in northern Illinois.
DC: The same thing with these mosquito vectors. All these flaviviruses—chickungunya, Zika—the carriers, they’re migrating farther north.
X: All the reports have talked about how the Aedes aegypti mosquito doesn’t live here. Thinking about all that you’ve said, it’s sort of cold comfort. It doesn’t live here now…
DC: It doesn’t live here now.
Tools of the Trade: Big Data the Accelerator
[After lunch arrived—Coho salmon, rockfish tacos at Ivar’s Salmon House—discussion turned to the impact various computational advances, big data, and artificial intelligence are having on their day-to-day work.]
AF: In the biotech sector, companies do a lot of parallel sequencing work. That was something that was interestingly copied in the battery sector a few years back by a company called Wildcat Discovery Technologies. And they basically just said, OK, we’re going to massively parallel process material synthesis testing in batteries.
What we’re stuck with right now is, you put material into kilns and it takes a whole day to produce enough material to process—actually it takes multiple days to produce it. And then it takes multiple days after that to put it into an actual functioning battery and see what works, and it takes days after that to process it. The iteration loop is long and hard.
What Wildcat did isthey invested in the equipment to make lots of materials in parallel that are a little bit different, and to do massive designs and experiment, and then also in parallel, get them into lots of small battery cells. And so, I might say, in order to develop a material, I might collect hundreds of data points to get there. What Wildcat might say is for a few hundred thousand dollars, tell me what you want me to study, and instead of a few hundred, I’m going to collect many thousands of data points. It’s just random in some ways, but you’re just doing a massive designed experiment.
DC: I think the big data thing is making more of an impact than artificial intelligence. We have a good example where a collaborator was using one of our proteins as a negative control for his stem cell work. It turns out that protein induced an 800 percent increase in a grafting of stem cells. It shouldn’t. There’s absolutely no reason this protein should do that. It does something very different.
And in the past you would have had to set probably three or four postdocs on this, and they would have to try to figure it out. All we’re proposing to do is we’re going to dump the protein on stem cells and do a massive expression profile of these cells, and most likely it will tell us which pathways are being turned on and why it does this.
In the past it would have taken years, probably a decade to figure it out. And this will probably take us six months—assuming that the pathways make sense. We’re all hoping that it’s going to tie in to something that somebody knows something about.
Another good one is we’re trying to crystallize one of these proteins to determine its structure. That’s most of what I did during my later grad student and postdoc years. Now you pay 300 bucks and there’s a robotic system that will set up thousands of crystallization conditions and automatically image them and send you back the conditions that work. You think about one or two years of your life versus $300 for a screen that’s going to come back in two weeks. It’s like, Wow, this field has really moved on since I left.
X: What’s a technology you think might have a major impact in the next 10 years on the work you guys do day to day? Do you think we’re going to see scientists wearing augmented reality goggles and manipulating 3D holograms of molecules while you’re still in the field?
AF: I don’t know. The thing that I look forward to in my field—it’s much more macro-scale—but what’s happening with solar is very interesting in terms of the price of solar and what that’s going to do. It’s on an exponential curve downward. We’re already getting to where a lot of it is cheaper than the grid in certain situations. If that keeps going down enough to the point where you get people defecting from the grid for cost reasons, and we’re able to bring in energy storage to make it reliable and so that you don’t have to worry about night or clouds or bad weather, than that totally fundamentally changes the entire energy infrastructure. The whole system.
It seems like it’s not that far away, so that could be a really big shift in how the world operates, how energy is used, how expensive it is.
When you talk about energy storage at the grid scale, it’s so much more massive than anything that we’ve seen yet. The number of batteries in those types of installations absolutely dwarfs the size of all the electric vehicles or all of the laptop batteries or all of the cell phone batteries that are currently produced.
Lithium ion batteries are a $10 billion business right now. If that was the technology that was used to store grid-scale energy, we’re talking about trillions and trillions of dollars.
DC: Does that bring a lot of the old pollution questions if you have all this lithium hanging around?
AF: There are a lot of challenges with any of those. Lithium ion is not as well recycled now as it could be, so before you deploy it at that kind of scale, you’ve got to figure out how to reuse it. [Lead in lead-acid batteries is] more thoroughly recycled because it’s toxic so people don’t want to see it in the environment. It’s not like the plastic bag you see on the street. It’s a lot worse than that. The percentage of recycled lead is extremely high. It could be, if you bothered to figure it out, for lithium ion batteries or lithium sulfur batteries or ultracapacitors or whatever. It’s all doable, there just hasn’t been the investment in figuring it out.
From Failure to Discovery
X: You are also both company founders in addition to being scientists, Darrick several times over. Aaron, EnerG2 is your first company, but it’s been 13 years. Tell me what it was that compelled you and your co-founders to take the science you were working on and build a company around it. How did you know when you pulled the trigger that it was the right thing, the right time?
DC: I couldn’t work at a big company. I realized when Corixa got so big, it was just too much HR, too much forms, too many things that I didn’t want to deal with.
But to say it’s the right time—I was glad I was so naive, because in hindsight I don’t think I would have done it, knowing what I was going into. My son was born just about that time, so it wasn’t great in terms of money. I don’t regret doing it, but at times—like when the economic downturn happened and I was paying our salaries and rent on my credit card—those are times when you go, ‘I don’t know how good of an idea this was.’
AF: My wife wanted to strangle me for a few years in a row.
DC: Oh, good. It’s not just me!
AF: She still does, but for different reasons now.
X: In business and in the scientific discovery process, failure—fast failure, ideally—and trips back to the drawing board are a way of life. How have you remained motivated throughout your careers?
AF: I don’t see failures. I see pivots. It’s not like you just gave up and went home. You decided that this approach wasn’t going to work and we’ve got to try something different. Yeah, there’s a bunch of things that didn’t work. Trial and error is not a beautiful way to pursue something, but it is tried and true.
DC: When I look at scientific misconduct and people faking their results, I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot in the worst way possible. Because, to me, a lot of times, the failures are the most interesting things. When things aren’t working like you think they should. Like this new molecule with the stem cells. What the hell? But now it could turn into a huge discovery. If we could make stem cell technology more efficient, it’s a big deal.
It’s almost likely there isn’t such a thing as failure—except if you do something stupid, like I just forgot to add this enzyme and now all my reactions are off.
AF: Yeah, you’re right. All you’ve done is just figured out that you’re missing something, and then it opens up the opportunity to go find out what really matters in this situation. That’s how discovery is made, right?
DC: If you’re applying all the knowledge that is there and it doesn’t work, then something’s wrong about the knowledge.