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Teenager crafts early detection tool for cancer

This article was first published on 4 March 2013.

In addition to being a great story about an important development in the fight against cancer, this story illustrates a couple of important points in the context of disruptive technology and disruptive innovation.

The first of those points relates to the idea of “democratisation”.  A number of influential commentators argue that the explosive growth of the web is increasingly placing the means of breakthrough innovation and disruption in the hands of a profoundly larger group of people than ever before.  Up until very recently, major medical breakthroughs required massive R&D budgets, privileged access to arcane knowledge and expensive tools and equipment:  the kinds of resources usually reserved for research laboratories in universities or pharmaceutical companies.  Those days of exclusivity are nearing an end.  The access to knowledge provided by the web, the gamification of science (sites like fold.it and kaggle.com), the rise of synthetic biology (see genomecompiler.com), the crowdsourcing of financial capital (sites like kickstarter.com), and continued exponential growth in the performance/price curves of technologies such as 3D printing are making it possible for a teenager working in his parents garage to have as much or more impact that a renowned scientist in a major company or research institution.  As the 15 year old hero in the attached story, Jack Andraka, notes “Through the internet, anything is possible.”

This is an important point in the context of strategy.  The reality is that the assets (capabilities, rights, privileged access, critical mass etc.) that have been wellsprings of value and sources of competitive advantage in the past may not confer the same advantages in the future.  This requires a major shift in mindset but it’s a shift that CEO’s, senior execs and strategists need to make in order to ensure their organisations are relevant in the future.

The second point that arises for me out of this article relates to what is almost a throw-away line at the very end of the original article.  Having described Jack Andraka’s wonderful accomplishment with the test for pancreatic cancer, they finish with the following:

“He told of currently working on “something the size of a cube of sugar” that could “look through your skin” and study blood or signs of almost any disease. The cost? An estimated five dollars.”

I think this is intriguing when you tie it to the announcement of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize a little over twelve months ago.  The story behind the X-Prize foundation is itself a fascinating story in challenging conventional wisdoms and quite literally turning science fiction into science reality and I’ll write more on that in a separate post.  For the moment though, the key things you need to know are that:

  • The X-Prize Foundation is almost single handedly responsible for the development of the world’s first privately built manned space vehicle in 2004 and the subsequent emergence of Virgin Galactic, a private space flight adventure with other 500 people signed up to experience space travel.
  • X-Prizes generally take the form of a $10 million purse for the first team to achieve a seemingly impossible technological breakthrough.
  • While the purse for the initial X-Prize was $10 million, it’s estimated that around $100 million was spent on research and development by teams from around the world competing for the prize
  • X-Prize has teamed up with Qualcomm, the world’s largest manufacturer of chips for smartphones to offer a $10 million purse for the first team to develop a medical device similar to the “Tricorder” used by Dr. Spock in Star Trek.
  • The Qualcomm X-Prize Tricorder will be a small handheld device that integrates the latest in sensor and imaging technologies with non-invasive laboratory tests and an artificial-intelligence data engine, a device capable of diagnosing 15 different diseases in three days as accurately as a panel of board certified medical practitioners. About 250 companies or individuals have pre-registered for the competition.
  • X-Prize’s are specifically aimed at challenges they believe can be met within 8 years (anything beyond that is too far away) but not within three years (anything that can be solved that quickly isn’t a big enough challenge.

On the face of it, it looks like young Jack Andraka may already be well on the way to solving some of the great challenges associated with bringing the Tricorder to life.

I mention this because I think the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize has the potential to be the thin edge of a very big wedge for a range of industries.  Most at risk are professional, knowledge-based industries.  The kind of technology that can sense key parameters, perform complex diagnostics and then identify recommendations for treatment in a medical context could, I would have thought, relatively easily be applied to a range of domains other than medicine.  The risk for people in industries and professions outside medicine is that, because all the development is happening in a different industry, they quite literally don’t see it coming.  Young Jack Andraka may or may not be on the team that wins the Tricorder X Prize but if you’re watching for signs that a Tricorder either might or might not be possible then the throw-away lines at the bottom of this article might lead you to believe the Tricorder might be closer than most believe.

The takeaway for me is that as a business leader you need to be continually scanning for things that, on the face of it, are beyond the scope of your business or industry.  You need to be drawing connections and building a view as to the mega-trends likely to impact your business and the organisations, projects, people etc. that will give you the clearest reading on where things might be headed and how quickly they’re headed there.  I don’t believe for a moment that this is an easy thing to do but, in this space, it’s generally the case that any insight into the future is better than no insight at all.  This seems like an obvious point to make but in my experience it’s often those things that are most obvious that are most problematic when it comes to leadership and strategy.

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