Some scientific and technical challenges slip through the gaps of existing research because they’re not quite a fit for academic labs, or startups, or other organizations doing R&D. But a new organization called Convergent Research, spun out of Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic initiative founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, is designed specifically to take on the problems that can’t easily be addressed elsewhere.
Take, for example, the world of synthetic biology, where microbes can be used for everything from making dairy proteins to breaking down waste. Only a handful of microbes, called model organisms, are typically used in this process. Other microbes might be more useful in some circumstances, like organisms that evolved to survive extreme heat or cold. But the current structure of both the academic and startup worlds means that the same organisms that have been used for decades are still in use now.
“In an academic setting, your job is to publish scientific papers that tell you something interesting and new about [new] organisms, but if you can’t yet tweak them, or work with them in the lab, that creates a pretty long path before you can get a good scientific paper and then get your next grant application through,” says Adam Marblestone, a Schmidt Futures “innovation fellow” who proposed the idea of creating new organizations to focus on gaps in research, and who will now lead Convergent Research. “And then similarly, in industry, if you need to make products in the next few years, you’re probably going to want to take the lowest-risk path and work with the relatively well understood existing organism.”
Inside Convergent Research, new “focused research organizations,” or FROs, will each take on specific challenges, with a startup-like team under a CEO aiming to deliver a solution that can help accelerate the field—without worrying about grants or making a product that’s commercially viable. (Convergent Research is itself now part of Schmidt Futures Network, another new initiative from Schmidt Futures designed to help the people it supports, like Marblestone, scale up their ideas.) An FRO called Cultivarium, for instance, will work to develop a platform that reduces the time, cost, and risk of studying and engineering different microbes that aren’t currently used in synthetic biology.
Another FRO, called E11 Bio, will work on a platform for mapping the architecture of the whole brain. Right now, scientists can map around 100,000 neurons. But there are around 100 billion neurons in total. “We mostly don’t know most of the structure in the brain that determines both normal cognition and how that works, and how that is different in brain diseases of all kinds,” says Marblestone. “Most of that structure is still invisible to us.”
Convergent plans to launch similar organizations to tackle other gaps in technology for problems like climate change, developing new antibiotics, or generating data for preventing disease. The team has already interviewed hundreds of people to try to understand what research they’d like to pursue if structural obstacles didn’t make it difficult. That doesn’t mean that current systems for research should go away, just that more is needed. “What I think is really important here is that we need more research, not less,” says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures. “We need more investment in science, not less. We need more opportunities to use every tool at our disposal. To choose this model, you don’t have to believe that existing models are wrong or faulty, but rather that we need more tools to solve hard problems.”