Monday, December 31, 2007

Barcoding Life, response from the innovators

I recently posted in the Beneblog on Barcoding Life, based on a dinner with Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs. I just received a response from these two dynamic scientists, and felt it was well worth sharing!

If there ever was a circumstance where a "single" technology - a dirt cheap back pocket reusable DNA barcorder - will transform people-disease-people relationships and equally transform people-biodiversity relationships, this is it. Yes, it needs the gadget and it needs the global DNA sequence snippet library for all species. The former seems really to be emerging, wanting only a $10 m nudge. But I see the latter, quite literally tens of millions of identified and vouchered DNA barcodes, as the huge task ahead of us (and as of this year, a bit behind us as well). This is a task where speed counts both before wild biodiversity is gone, and to incentivate keeping it in the game. The peculiarity of this task is that there is already a global army of biologists and taxonomists out there who really are up for putting their sweat equity and IP on the table to get the samples to the barcode factory, if they can get the funds to prime their on-site pumps. The scorpions of Africa? The dungbeetles of Central America? The ferns of Malaya? The aphids and ants of the USA? There really are - believe it or not - actual people out there who will get those samples to the robot if iBOL can meet the additionality to their day jobs, their hobbies, their loves.
That is what the $100 m is needed for.

This is one of those peculiar opportunities where a $100 m check will both jump-start a process globally and set in motion a self-reinforcing, self-multiplying process of positive feed-back loops in a jillion public and private sectors. More knowledge leads to yet more emotion and reason to get yet more knowledge. Like when you first discovered an open stack library in second grade. We do not know any other global, society-wide, transformational, human-driven process that can be bought for $100 m. View it from a venture capital standpoint. If ten angels were to do 11 projects each this year, instead of their usual 10 each, each knowing that the return on one of the 11 would be the transformation of the world, would that not resonate? And by the way, while the venture capitalist cannot dictate terms to biodiversity, by getting on this Board he or she will be exposed to a far more incredible world than all of human imagination will ever be able to gin up. Seeing the world through the eyes of a barcorder, through really reading the wild world, will be easily as eye-opening as the consequences of learning to read in first grade.

And on top of the global army of biodiversity samplers and barcoders there is already an organizational structure - CBOL, the Consortium for the Barcodes of Life - beating the drum, nudging the teams, exhorting the converted and the skeptics alike. But for all those afficionados and users of biodiversity - all 10,000,000-plus species we share with, compete with, avoid and embrace - the DNA barcode promise remains largely cold until the minor additionality costs per person, per species, per voucher are found somewhere. There is already a science/engineering process in place, proof of concepted, a barcode factory perking along on the backs of personal efforts and your tax dollars at work. But the barcode factory too needs a boost so as to go forth and multiply. Not encouraging to invent reading without having a book industry.

Human industry is now fascinated with capture, flow, distribution, distortion of information coming at a firehose rate. But that is human-generated information. We plunge on ignoring the immense body of naturally-occurring information - called wild species and what they do - because there is no hole in your computer to put a feather, a bit of mushroom, a fish bone, a cockroach leg or an aphid. If, when, we cannot read it, it is the enemy, it is firewood, it is biofuel - it is dull, green and boring (and bites). No one lives closer to it than the 80% of humanity not living the good life. Give that 80% the opportunity to know thy enemy, thy friend, thy associate, thy partner, and all of our and their lives will be much richer, much better, much more seeing. Democratization of wild biodiversity, and what humanity can know about it, is the operative word. A cheap, reusable, backpocket DNA barcoder can give us all that.

Jim, this is one of the great things that technology can give humanity - the ability to know that which is not humanity, but has made us what we are and here and there still lives side by side with us.

And thank you again for being good listeners.


Dan and Winnie

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Braillebug Reading Club

I'm excited about our growing partnership with the American Foundation for the Blind, the leading foundation focused on blindness issues. One thing we just did was to fill in the last few missing titles on AFB's Braillebug Reading Club. The Braillebug web site is dedicated to promoting Braille to students who could benefit from learning Braille. The Braillebug, a ladybug with six dots on its back on top of an open book of text

Now, we have all of these recommended children's books for Braille readers on in excellent quality. Because all blind students in the U.S. now qualify for, this means that these books can be quickly downloaded into Braille displays or printed out with Braille embossers. We look forward to adding future books to as new titles are chosen for the Braillebug reading club.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Social Enterprise and the Small Business Administration

Benetech was recently featured in a report to the President (of the U.S.) on small business. There was a chapter in the report entitled Social Entrepreneurship and Government, and Benetech was one of the case studies used (see pages 36-37). Author Andrew Wolk, a Senior Lecturer at MIT on Social Entrepreneurship, focused much of his discussion around the concept of how social enterprises were a socially useful response to market failure. He covers some other great social enterprises such as ITNAmerica (a novel approach to senior-focused paratransit) and Kaboom! (building playgrounds in poorer communities).

One of these days it would be great if nonprofit social enterprises were eligible for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants: these federally funded competitions often request proposals in areas (such as disability tech) where the market is unlikely to lead to a viable company but where a nonprofit social enterprise could very well become viable.

Monday, December 24, 2007

GreenDimes: Stops Junk Mail.

One of the most important gifts I'm celebrating this holiday season are the things I didn't get: many, many pounds of junk mail catalogs, many of them duplicates. And, it's accomplished through a great social venture: GreenDimes, whose motto is
Stop Junk Mail. Save Trees and Help the Environment
Greendimes automates the process of taking yourself off of mailing lists with a simple web application. There are actually a few catalogs we like getting, but that represented less than 5% of the junk mail we get, and we can keep getting those. Greendimes works through the hoops you have to jump through: a few of the direct mailing associations make it hard and require a postcard to be sent in for each address requesting exclusion. So, the Greendimes folks mailed us the postcards to sign and send in. And, they do battle with unreasonable junk mailers on our behalf (apparently Victoria's Secret is the worst). It's a terrific service, and I'm sure it's made a major impact on the environment!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Barcoding Life

Interspersed with all of my day job work (spending half my time on for Education right now), I get to have exciting meetings with social entrepreneurs with incredible ideas. Last week, I had three of those meetings! Here's the first one:

My very first ever angel investor, Sheldon Breiner, contacted me on short notice to ask if I wanted to have dinner and a brainstorm with Winnie Hallwachs and Dan Janzen, a pair of U Penn professors with a dream: a handheld barcode reader for life. The concept is that Joe Average can walk into his backyard (or his field), and find out what species there are there. What's that ant? What bird left a feather in our garden? What's this plant doing here?

The concept of DNA barcoding is deceptively simple: you choose a particular section of genetic material shared by all animals, but where a 600 or 700 base sequence is pretty much unique to each species. That means you can collect a whole bunch of data from specimens and have a database that links that segment of DNA to a unique or nearly unique species. It also means you can build a very cheap device to gather this data: Dan and Winnie were talking about something well under $100.

We spent the meeting discussing ways of getting the project funded as well as how to build the device, with Sheldon as well as Brad Zlotnick and Jim Larrick, two outstanding physician-scientists (I'm simplifying a lot here). The Canadian government has apparently committed $50 million to this $150 million project (the idea of DNA barcoding being an extremely clever, and Canadian, invention).

I'm not an expert in biotech by any stretch, but the implications of such a device are mindblowing. Imagine the impact on farming if you can accurately determine your pests instead of blasting your crops with broad-spectrum 'cides. The impact on medicine to cheaply identify the presence of pathogens in samples. And, finally, Dan's and Winnie's dream of a human society much more in tune with the life around them.

More information at the Consortium for the Barcode of Life.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lauren Weinstein on Google

I've been a long-time subscriber to Dave Farber's IP list (for Interesting People). I frequently see comments from Lauren Weinstein's blog. He writes very well, and is a frequent critic of high tech companies on privacy issues.

This week there was a great post, Lauren Weinstein's Blog: For Google and Others, Few Good Deeds Go Unpunished, where Lauren gave a very interesting and even somewhat sympathetic analysis of Google. The most interesting part for me was:
I simply don't sense in Google today the sort of utterly predatory attitude toward its users that does seem to pervade some other major Internet-related firms. This is not to say that I agree with all Google policies -- as regular readers of this blog know. But I believe it's safe to say that even many (or most) Google employees also don't necessarily agree with all of Google's policies. It seems clear from public statements that even the Google leadership feels internally conflicted at times regarding some of their own policy issues -- torn between fiduciary considerations and the real world complexities of operations in a politically-charged international arena.

It's great that Google takes "Don't Be Evil" seriously, for lots of reasons. One of them surrounds employee expectations that they will: recruiting employees is one of Google's top challenges. I'm hoping that more and more companies will be influenced towards better societal behavior: by employee pressure, by recruiting pressure and maybe (heavens) by investor pressure. All good business reasons to not be bad!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Landmine Detector Project Lessons Learned

Confronting failure is tough. There's a tendency to bury failure and hide it. In the for-profit sector, failure tends to be pretty obvious. You know how well an investment firm is doing because they have to publish their numbers. A tech company that bombs is quickly recognized as such. The social sector is well known for being risk averse, and this creates incentives to only discuss successes (or to portray borderline or failing efforts as successful).

I believe that we need to embrace failure. Better to have failed boldly on occasion to have never dared at all. The world's problems are too big and important to be addressed solely with timid measures.

Earlier this year, I and the leadership of our humanitarian Landmine Detector Program made the decision to put the project on ice. Ted Driscoll, a noted serial entrepreneur now turned venture capitalist, had been working to create an affordable humanitarian landmine detector from military-funded explosives detection technology. We did some great market research about real-world challenges facing deminers, and published an extensive report on what we found.

However, we went almost two years believing that we would have access to this technology imminently. Finally, we had to confront the fact that it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. In the six months since we put this on the back burner, we still haven't received access to the technology.

With the support of our largest funder of the project, the Lemelson Foundation, we decided to document the lessons we learned from this experience, in an essay. I was very pleased about Lemelson's willingness to both knowingly bet on our riskiest project and be open to distributing our post mortem.

It would be tempting to come up with a single reason that this didn't work out. But it isn't that simple. Read the essay if you want to know more.