Reflections on TED2014: Ideas Worth Spreading … FASTER!

Apr 18, 2014, 2:11 PM, Posted by Lori Melichar

When people find out I work for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they often want to tell me their idea for solving the problems that keep Americans from being as healthy as they can be. It's one of the pleasures of my job. Some of these ideas are indeed pioneering,  with the potential for breakthrough change.  All of them are helpful in shaping my vision of a path to achieving a Culture of Health.

I heard a lot of ideas last month while representing RWJF at TED2014. If you aren’t familiar, TED is an organization dedicated to spreading ideas through inspiring talks and conversations. Their annual conference is a great place to meet leaders from a variety of disciplines, from science and technology to business and the arts, and it was a privilege to attend.

One of the people I met who had lots of ideas was Pattie Maes, who heads up MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces Group. I loved Pattie's 2009 TED talk about using wearable technologies to acquire what she calls “a sixth sense.” Pattie spoke again at TED this year as an “all-star.”

When I met up with her, I shared my amazement that the mission-impossible-style technologies she demonstrated in her 2009 talk—including an ability to use the palm of your hand or a wall as a calculator—have been feasible for some time. I asked, “What’s happened with all of those technologies you described in 2009?” and her answer shocked me! She told me that though the student who developed them, Pranav Mistry, landed a great job as the head of the Think Tank Team and vice president of research at Samsung, it would certainly be a while before consumers would be able to walk up to any surface and use their hands to interact with the information in front of them. In fact, she said, it would take about 17 years for many of these technologies to go from the lab to consumers’ hands.

That gasp you hear is from researchers who have been working to improve health and health care since 2000, when the Institute of Medicine released the Yearbook of Medical Informatics—which asserted that it takes about 17 years to get something from clinical trials into medical practice.

My first thought was, “What is with the number 17?” My second thought was, “How can we live in a world where we are creating mind-blowing technology that can improve people’s lives, yet the people who could benefit from it right now may never see it in their lifetime?”

Of course, not all innovations take 17 years to come to fruition, but apparently, many do.

As I sat on the plane ride home from the conference, thinking about the ideas I would share with my colleagues, I found myself wondering: How can those of us passionate about creating a Culture of Health close the gap between the time of invention and the time of mainstream adoption?

RWJF has been supporting pioneering work to accelerate medical discovery, including grants to Sage Bionetworks' BRIDGE platform and the Human Vaccines Project. Perhaps the ideas we need now are those that accelerate technologies that can improve lives and advance a Culture of Health—in less than 17 years!

Lori Melichar, a labor economist, is a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation where she focuses on discovering, exploring and learning from cutting edge ideas with the potential to help create a Culture of Health. Read her full bio.