Quintessentially American: Leveling the Playing Field for Best Ideas to Combat Diabetes

Earlier this week, I witnessed a striking role-reversal in the field of biomedical research. The Dean of Harvard Medical School, Jeffrey S. Flier, a prominent diabetes researcher in his own right, listened intently as undergraduate Megan Blewett presented her pioneering proposal to advance Type One Diabetes research in promising new directions.

Blewett, a senior at Harvard, was one of 12 winners of a Challenge sponsored by the Harvard Catalyst for the best and most feasible hypotheses that might drive the development of better tools for the diagnosis, treatment, or cure of Type 1 Diabetes. Funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and led by Eva Guinan of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business school, the initiative leveraged crowdsourcing techniques to solicit out-of-the-box insights—encouraging people with expertise in areas unrelated to diabetes to apply insights from their disciplines to this biomedical challenge. The Challenge was posted to a global, open innovation marketplace and promoted by Harvard University President Drew Faust, who sent a letter to the entire University community at the Challenge’s launch.

The impressive winners selected from more than 190 entries by a multidisciplinary panel included not only an undergraduate, but also an MD/PhD student, an anonymous patient, a cardiologist, a biostatistician, a human resources representative, and a collaborative team from four universities. Harvard Catalyst has already secured a $1 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to support research proposals from the academic community to explore some or all of the scientific questions posed by the winners.

Blewett was excited by the prospect of her idea driving scientific inquiry. But most impressive, she said, was seeing how the Challenge could facilitate in the biomedical arena the kind of accelerated innovation she has witnessed in computer science and other disciplines that are less dependent on expensive lab equipment and infrastructure. “The fantastic thing about this challenge is that it lowers the barriers to entry. So all you really need is an idea and Internet access,” she said. “And, I think that’s quintessentially American.”

Specialists, too, praised the Challenge for unbundling ideation from the formal grant application process. Harvard endocrinologist and Challenge winner Jason Gaglia said it was “freeing” to be able to contemplate the most important and feasible question to ask, regardless of whether his lab had the specific expertise or full resources needed to address it.

For Kevin Dolan the Challenge was very personal. As a patient diagnosed with the disease at the age of 16, Dolan perceived the Challenge as an opportunity to communicate to the world’s top researchers the innovations that would have the greatest impact on his day-to-day life. Dolan is not a scientist, but his proposal to develop a non-invasive blood glucose monitor was selected in a blind review by a prestigious panel of judges.

Results like these are the driving force behind the Obama Administration’s commitment to increase the use of prizes and challenges to spur innovation. Hats off to the National Center for Research Resources for leading the way and to all of the inspiring contestants who answered their call!

More information about the 12 winners and their ideas plus video of the September 28th awards ceremony at Harvard Medical School is available online.

Robynn Sturm is Advisor for Open Innovation to the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Your Federal Tax Receipt