The cover feature of science this week was “Termite Inspired Robots” and I immediately had flash backs to my day at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) it’s a little like the blue pill matrix stuff. The article reports on how biologically inspired robots that behave like termites use local cues for large-scale construction projects well beyond their individual means (anyone who has ever seen a termite nest will immediately appreciate the construction prowess, unusual in that we always associate termites with deconstruction). Biologically inspired robotics has deep roots at DARPA. I was the first and maybe the last zoologist DARPA ever hired and in 1996 I was recruited to use my training in evolutionary adaptation to invest in life sciences to harvest new technological applications (with an eye toward keeping the US technologically superior, DARPA’s mission). I spent more of your tax dollars than I will care to admit on biologically inspired robots creating new platforms inspired by: Gecko’s that can climb walls and capturing the adhesive capability and mechanics, cockroaches that can scramble over rubble, big dogs that can run through the forest like my German short haired pointer and micro flying insects that use the force dynamics behind insect flight. In each of these very successful cases, there has been an explosion of new science, technology and commercialization in bio-inspired engineering robotics (e.g. Google Robotics, BigDog Robot, Rhex, DARPA’s Z-man program).
I and others in the OVPR have been analyzing and thinking on a recent publication from the University Press called “Multidisciplinary Research in an Era of Big Bets” and it dawned on me that analysis of Big Bet success based on my own experiences in the Controlled Biological System program that I started at DARPA circa 1996 was in order as we think about this issue for CSU. The story really spans more than a decade so it will be difficult to bore you with the whole story at once. Rather, treat you to a slower torture of piece-mealing the story out over multiple Muses and take aspects of the story one by one.
The Controlled Biological Systems program was a $60 million, 5 year program. Its goal was to extract biological discoveries into 1) engineering biological systems from molecules to organisms, 2) creating hybrid biological abiotic systems using novel interfaces and 3) to engineer totally biomimetic platforms. We will focus first on the last pillar of the program and the big bets we took in bio-inspired robotics. First it was critical to understand the problem we were trying to solve. At the time, we were entering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and given the lack of roads, ground movement with wheels or tracked vehicles was limited. The mission was also more embedded in urban environments where mobility can also be constrained. The need was for a new generation of systems that could operate locally with dynamic mobility and thus we turned to unlocking the force dynamic principles of legged and winged mobility. We established investments in enabling basic research and discovery to see if we could determine how to extract solutions for these challenges into technology development. These were pursued aggressively and with off ramps to mitigate risk and the ability to cease a project in the event that the results were not realized in a reasonable timeframe. Seminal papers were published that for the first time described SLIP dynamics of legged locomotion, rotational forces responsible for insect flight, and unique forces associated with geckos sticking to walls. These fundamentals were then used by engineers to recreate similar capabilities in synthetic systems.
This is one lesson learned from my DARPA days in placing big bets. Define the problem. Identify the fundamental and enabling roadblocks to solving them. Bring different disciplines together to attack the problem from different perspectives and skills. Understand the timeline and translation of discoveries into innovative solutions. Set a plan to mitigate risk of placing your big bet and roll the dice. More to come.
“All you need is love”
The 50 year anniversary of the Beatles invasion of the US coupled with Valentine’s Day reminds us of this simple statement of human existence. I hope you had the chance over last week to connect and bond around this fundamental emotion that binds us as couples, families, tribes and as a CSU community. My wife Barbara and I celebrated 49 years of Valentine exchanges. I remember placing my first valentine in her paper bag taped to her desk back in first grade. I can’t remember if I had the guts to sign it.
I recently had the special opportunity to experience the passion that binds interdisciplinary CSU investigators together. OVRP held two meetings to spark interdisciplinary cross college discussions around two areas: diagnostics for public and private sectors and in integrated neurosciences with specific interest in the new BRAIN initiative launched by the White House last year. In both cases, we had a great turnout with representation from multiple colleges, positive constructive dialogue about CSU strengths and opportunities and most importantly a sense of enthusiasm to come together in new ways to pursue new ideas and potential sponsorship. We will build on this momentum and perpetuate these forums toward creating new horizontal coalitions and awareness in pursuing new multidisciplinary research opportunities. Thanks to all those who participated and stand by for follow up.
Last week, we also announced the first speaker in the new Leadership in Innovation series, Mary Wagner, Senior Vice President of Global Research and Discovery and Concept Innovation. I met Mary over a year ago in my previous hometown where we both lived and came to know her unique combination of science and leadership in a multinational company with a tremendous need for innovation. I initiated this series to provide the CSU community rare opportunities to hear from thought leaders and practitioners in innovation. More specifically, I am hoping we will learn about mission oriented problems in industry to which CSU and its affiliated industry and academic partners can contribute novel solutions. I believe this is in the spirit of the land-grant mission and we can find win-win scenarios in working with industry to enhance shareholder value, while expecting industry to contribute to discovery and innovation at CSU. I invite you to participate and come hear Mary’s talk on Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. in Bob Davis Hall of Fame Room at Moby Arena. Mary will spend the day on campus on Feb. 28 meeting with faculty. Please join us.
The translation of discovery into entrepreneurial efforts is an important component of our enterprise. I attended the Rocky Mountain Innosphere after hours event last week sponsored by the NoCoBio. It was a great event with a huge turnout. It was a great networking opportunity for the community and a CSU spin out on antimicrobial coatings called Diazemed, founded by Melissa Reynolds was highlighted. As an entrepreneur I appreciate the herculean efforts and risk involved with taking ideas into this arena. I am fortunate that the two companies I started back in 2003 are both still viable and moving their technology forward. It’s not an easy road.
I returned to the nation’s capital this week with the president and the chancellor of CSU to be introduced on the hill with the Colorado delegation. The mood on the hill was upbeat as the day of our meetings coincided with the passing of the new Farm Bill. While long in coming and mired in the political deadlocks of recent times, the members felt relieved that they had accomplished something. Our reception with our delegation was quite warm and we opened opportunities to return with more specific issues that I collected from the Colleges.
I also had meetings with agency leadership on different topics. One topic was the global health initiative that has been a high priority for the Obama administration focusing on a new national strategy for Antimicrobial Drug Resistance or American Medical Response (AMR). There are already significant public private partnerships to address AMR in Europe- the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI)- that have invested 1 billion Euros to battle what is a very serious threat to animal and public health. The White House has been organizing meetings in the agencies to coordinate AMR activities and encourage realignment of funds to address needs. There has been no identification of new funds for this effort, yet it still may provide new opportunities.
Before I left for Washington I had a great day in the College of Liberal Arts. Thanks to so many for making it possible to get exposed to the great work being done in the arts, humanities, political science, literature and poetry and others. I continue to gain useful insights from these visits. In particular, looking for ways to bring social sciences more integrated in solving some of our problems of our day seems like a real opportunity.
Finally, I want to say that if you continue to find your way to the Muse and find it useful, I am glad. It’s really intended to provide transparency between administration and faculty. The university changed its policy on use of email distribution list that relegated the Muse to a link on the Today at Colorado State.
While the juice has enjoyed most of the attention from the squeeze, the rock has not been too far behind. Squeezing water from a rock provides us perhaps with the closest analogy to our current funding environment. The fiscal landscape for sponsorship challenges us to be ever more creative in our thinking and strive for agility and flexibility in our relationships with partners and coalition members. The ‘less with more’ model strains us as even we are coming out of very austere fiscal times.
This model requires us to be even more diligent about resourcing to strategic plans and priorities, to the extent we can identify how we are invested currently and would like to be invested over the next 5-10 year. This has become a framework for constructive dialogue and has been the basis for most of my interactions since I arrived in September.
Open forum budget hearings were held this week. The ideas and passion behind the ideas presented during the course of the day from deans, senior administrators, and student government leaders was powerful. There is great opportunity to prioritize and leverage existing assets to achieve collective goals. We will continue to seek ways to have this dialogue and resource strategic goals even as we face fiscal challenges. In representing the Office of the Vice President for Research I spoke about the need for investments in Predictive Analytics, complex proposal preparation and sponsored activity, resourcing responsible conduct of research and the CSU innovation report. The slides can be found at the CSU Provost website.
We had a great meeting at Craig Hospital, in Denver this week. Brett Anderson, Lise Youngblade, Wendy Wood, Hank Gardner and I visited to explore collaborative interest in neurorehabilitation and occupational health. Craig has a world reputation in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. The meeting sparked a lot of energy and will soon be followed up with a visit on campus. This area always fires my passions given the commitment of the courageous and dedicated men and women who serve this patient population.
Speaking of campus visits, we launched a new Leadership in Innovation Series that will host the first speaker Feb. 27. Mary Wagner, senior executive vice president for innovation at Starbucks will be speaking and spending a day on campus. We are excited to host Mary to kick of this series and look forward to learning about what keeps her up at night (other than caffeine) and explore how CSU could collaborate with Starbucks. An official announcement will follow shortly.
Finally, I know everyone will be glued to their television set this weekend (and you may be reading this after the Broncos have won) and I wanted to remind you that given that we have the top veterinarian school in the country that it is the 10th anniversary of the Puppy Bowl. There is supposed to be a killer kitten half time show. Enjoy. Go Broncos!!!