Aurora Vélez of euronews spoke to Don Ingber the Founding Director of the WYSS Institute.
euronews: Don, could you explain what are the goals of WYSS and how do you reach them?
Don Ingber: The WYSS really, the vision behind it is that we have uncovered a huge amount about how nature builds, controls and manufactures all the way from a nano scale up over the past 50 years, and so what we are trying to do is to harness biological principles that we have uncovered to develop new engineering innovations with the goal to basically have break-throughs both in medicine and sustainability in the environment.
euronews: One of the most important parts of your work here is the way you work. Can you tell us more about these “collaboratories”?
Don Ingber: We are an academic institution and usually in academia individual scientists get their own lab space and make their own communities. Here we let the faculty keep their own lab spaces in their home institutions, but we bring them together in what we call “collaboratories” where they collaborate collectively on new inventions, discoveries and technologies by bringing together people from different academic labs different faculty labs, together with people that we have hired from industry, who have experience on product development and producing ideas to practice thinking about manufacturing, costs, regulatory issues.
And so we have created a culture that by definition is not defined by any one individual but by collaboration and the collaborations almost always spans entirely different disciplines. It goes from medical to non medical from undergraduate students to senior faculty members.
euronews: So would you say that this collaboration part is more important than the money you put into innovation, or not?
Don Ingber: It’s interesting, I think people think we put huge investments of dollars, we do not at all. We actually hire the staff based on need – who come from industry or technical expertise. We have students and fellows that they are paid by grants or we have a small amount of money that each faculty member can have two students or fellows working on anything they want. It is complete creative freedom. But we have large numbers of students and fellows, technicians and staff working.
For the most part they are paid, they are already here so if someone else has a new idea and he gets some other people excited, they can just work on it and there’s some money for supplies they can access.
We have incredible equipment and capabilities and if someone needs a major piece of equipment we have a bunch of groups aligned on that, we have funds to buy that. But it’s really a creative environment that is empowering for people to take chances because they have all the tools by which I mean people and equipment and supplies that they can just play.
And if things come that get other people excited then it’s like a snowball that is falling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger and has a life of its own. That’s how projects emerge we don’t pre-select we are working on this. It’s very interesting and it’s totally different.
euronews: There are some impressive inputs like shrilk.
Don Ingber: One of the technologies we developed here was inspired by the challenge to develop replacements for plastics because it is killing the environment. So Javier Fernandez is working with me actually on this project and made a synthetic form of insect cuticule. It is called “shrilk” because it is made of two materials one comes from shrimp shells which is one of the most abundant materials in the world and the other is fibre and it comes from silk so we called it shrilk and it’s made like a laminate, like plywood layers and has very unique properties very much like an insect cuticule it could be rigid like the back of a beetle but it can also be flexible like where the articulations are with the legs.
‘Another example is the “organs on chips” programme that we have where we are using microchip manufacturing to make very small devices that have hollow channels that are lined by living human cells. For example we mimic the air sac of the lung. The lung actually breathes, its flexible so we stretch and relax it and it turns out that that movement is critical for function.
‘And with that we have shown we can demonstrate drug effects. We can look at toxicity we could even model human diseases on a chip and that’s gained interest from pharmaceutical companies, biotech and cosmetics even chemical companies because animal testing is a major, major hurdle. There are ethical issues but also it doesn’t work very well especially in the pharmaceutical industry.”
euronews: Do you think that we can teach innovation? Or is innovation something that comes from within inside people?
Don Ingber: I think innovation is probably inside everyone but has to be sparked with a flint you know like to start a fire. And I think we do that by apprenticing and getting involved in the process. You do it without realising it. It’s very hard to tell someone how to do it, it’s like telling someone how to ride a bicycle you have to get in there and play.
euronews: In any case, you share your knowledge with everybody. There was a French group here today for instance.
Don Ingber: I talk to people. People come from around the world to visit, I travel around the world and I am on the press a lot and I’m very excited about the model. I think people often come on in here about a specific technology but I think what in some ways is most powerful and unique and impacting about the place is how we are structured to collaborate, innovate and translate and that has not been done before.
‘The more people come to visit the more we realise it is truly innovable and people do not how to do it in their own place because they often have pre-existing structures, politics, powers that be who think that this might be disruptive. But we were founded to be disruptive. That’s why we are successful.