A curious time

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Enschede city centre. Photo: Kleuske.

The month was July and the coldest Australian days were beginning to appear. I had escaped to Okinawa and the Japanese mainland in June, and fared well enough during my three winter weeks back home, but now I was able to escape again, this time to Europe.

I chose an interesting time to travel there, the last time I went. It was during the Australian summer of 2014/15, and during my time – from Geneva to Kosovo – there had been snow and cold like I’d never seen or felt. Weather-wise, I’d done myself a medium-term disservice, going from Australian winter to European winter to Australian winter (and then finally to a summer); for more than a year I only caught glimpses of our Sol. This time I was making things right, I was going in summer.

My first stop was in London, England, where it sadly didn’t feel like summer at all. I met several students from the Okinawan summer school whose labs were at King’s and UCL. One good friend, a Spaniard, showed me around the developmental neuroscience floor he worked on. He showed me the many single-cell electrophysiology set-ups, two-photon microscopes, and a fascinating light sheet fluorescence microscopy set-up which was able to image large slices of translucent organisms at speeds of up to 1000 times that of comparable confocal microscopy. Quite an impressive and well-equipped institution.

After some Cuban jazz in Camden Town and a tour through the Houses of Parliament, I was off to Oxford to visit the lab of Tim Vogels. He was and is a highly respected theoretical neuroscientist who trained with Larry Abbott and Wulfram Gerstner. His students and post-docs were all very welcoming and interesting. A few of us even went out to enjoy some more ‘English’ jazz, this time played by an American, an Israeli, and two Italians. In perhaps perfect Oxford style we were cramped into an ancient bookshop a few blocks from the Bird and Baby. For half the concert, Bill and I peeked over an old piano and between piles of books to gaze upon the motely quartet.

In the next, long day I travelled south from Oxford, all the way to Dover, crossed the English Channel by ferry, and made my way to Paris to visit another friend. He showed me the most peculiar and wonderful electrophysiology set-up for in-vivo, awake recordings of mice. His work is in spatial navigation and memory, and the interactions between the hippocampus and the cerebellum. One of the better ways of studying this was by placing the mouse on a large styrofoam ball suspended by a constant flow of pressurised air. This allowed the mouse’s head to be fixed in position while facing a set of screens to simulate a virtual environment. The mouse could navigate this virtual environment by walking or running on the ball. All this meant that the electrophysiological recordings were less noisy and that the results from the experiment could not be affected by, for example, the mouse using their whiskers to probe and explore the environment – plus, one could let the mouse learn a particular gain (one step on the ball equals one step in the virtual environment) and then alter that gain (like perhaps making one real step equivalent to half a virtual step), testing how they reacted and re-learnt.

After spending the weekend in Paris, I caught a high-speed train headed for Frankfurt on Monday morning. That afternoon I perused the streets and replaced some personal electrical equipment I had left behind in Paris (my friend was generous enough to post the others back home for me). The next day I visited my old roommate from Okinawa, Tim. He had a background in physics and did theoretical work at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Science. It was wonderful to see such lively and modern institute with such strong mixes of experimentalists and theorists working together. To keep the music tour going, we saw a blues concert that night.

I spent the next few days visiting Luxemberg and some old WHO friends in the south of Belgium before heading for the real reason for this summer expedition in Europe: the CuriousU Summer School at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands. The university there is famed for its mission to be ‘the most entrepreneurial university in Europe’. And from my short time there, it seemed like it already was.

For a significant portion of my early scientific journey, I would have told you that business had no business poking its nose in science. But as the years go on, and my idealism is balanced by some facts of the world – like balance sheets and debt – I have slowly come to realise that science and business (and government) ought to be deeply connected around some major junctures. Rather than being at odds with one another, they rely on one another to effect positive changes in the world; science needed business and government to act in the world and business and government relied on science to innovate and give them more efficiency or economic opportunity. For instance, there is little point in developing a cure to cancer that businesses and governments cannot reasonably or ever afford to provide to patients. Perhaps worse, in some sense, would be developing a cure for some ailment which was accessible but relies upon obscure infrastructure or other technology that the business community or government doesn’t yet have ready access to. Such an infrastructure gap, if identified ahead of time, could be filled in anticipation of new technologies and science. Such connectedness could save needlessly delaying the public’s access to scientific discoveries that would benefit them. And of course what good scientist don’t want the fruits of their labour seen in action?

During the course in Enschede, I lead a small team in a hypothetical early-stage start-up. With me was a mathematician, a psychologist, and two engineers, who all worked together to design a business plan and pitch to investors for a new neuromorphic computing architecture I had thought to turn into a company one day. Throughout our hypothetical business development and the associated lectures, I became amazed at how complex, really, business can be. Having a good idea hardly mattered (although it helped). What seems to matter most is the execution of that idea. How you protect your intellectual property and how you choose to sell your product or service to customers is vital for a successful enterprise. And should you be a selling a product or a service, anyway? A preconception I had was that we would of course be selling a computer chip to our customers for them to put into their machines, as a product. But actually, it made much more business sense to create a complex sort of loan and maintenance agreement with our future customers. Though negotiating such agreements would be time consuming and especially challenging with our fist and second customers (before we had much of reputation behind us), in the long-run we would have a more regular income stream for ongoing R&D and continuing to better our service offering to our customers. Compound these challenges with the risks of financial loss, competitors in the form of big tech companies, and occasionally unscrupulous business people, and it becomes plain to see how The Next Big Idea can be easily squashed by a few significant errors made early on.

So it was a curious time in Enschede. I can’t say I’ve been altogether swayed to agree with the likes of Larry Marshall and co., and nor will I be rushing for the exits from academia any time soon. But I’ve gained some perspective. I have a set of basic business thinking tools to pull out from the drawer if I spot something potentially commercialisable in my research. And I can spot such potential in others’ work, too, and offer some initial advice on who to talk to. So, to that end, you may or may not see me involved in a profit-making business one day, and surprisingly it may not be so begrudgingly as my past self may have once feared.

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