Discovering the Pioneering Genome: A Few Final Thoughts From TED

Mar 25, 2011, 7:37 AM, Posted by

My framework and perspective on measuring “pioneer-ness” has been radically altered by what I have seen and heard at TED.  What began as a traditional academic exercise of collecting data to examine a hypothesis and testing fit of predictions has evolved into a task of discovery – a quest to discover the “pioneering” genome.

Jim Hornthal gave a memorable talk in TED university (a series of short talks held in a smaller theater than the official “TED TALKS”) about the importance of pattern recognition, a quality another speaker said that only humans, not computers, possess.   

Pattern recognition can help us discover useful information we didn’t know we were looking for. Jim talked about several ways humans seek assistance when making a decision. 

  • Rely on experts
  • Rely on friends
  • Check with crowds
  • Use algorithms to understand complex data, such as what’s currently being done in genomics

We’ve used the first two to examine the Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio.  We will embrace the third once open proposal is launched .It is the fourth that intrigued me…. a strategy that I encounter daily in my entertainment life, but had not considered in my work.

Similar to the iPod app Pandora, which predicts what kind of music an individual will like based on the fundamental properties of the songs they have indicated they liked in the past, I am intrigued by the challenge of discovering what it is about the Pioneer team’s projects that makes them pioneering, in order to predict projects and ideas that the team should seek to support.

To turn patterns into information, I’ll start by going through the notes I took at TED, the words my colleagues shared, and the characteristics the other meeting attendees supplied: infrastructure, unconventional, unpredictable.

I’ll also go through the two years of data we've collected in our quest to objectively score our portfolio's success at attracting and supporting successful pioneering ideas/projects.  Even our crudest measures, such as when we just ask our examiners, "Is this pioneering?" why?  What is pioneering to you?

Through all of this, I’ll look for clues to the building blocks of the pioneering genome, then see how we can use that information to gain knowledge.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.