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Engineering Innovation Updates
This week's article, a new partnership coming soon, and who I am
This Week’s Article
The primary reason I’m writing this update is to inform subscribers that the article that was slated to come out this Friday will be a few days late. I came down with an infection this week and progress was a bit slow as a result.
The planned article will incorporate a lot of ideas from Gerald Holton, a physicist/science historian and all-around fantastic thinker. He was been writing illuminating essays on the nature and history of scientific innovation since the 1950s. He just turned 99 a few months ago and is still winning awards as you can see below!
I’m excited to share more about his ideas and how they can inform the progress studies movement. I can’t wait to share more. Stay tuned!
In the next week, I’ll be announcing a new partnership between myself and a think tank dedicated to progress studies questions. As a ‘Fellow’, some proportion of my writing will appear on their platform, which I’ll be sure to link to Engineering Innovation Subscribers.
But I will still continue to post my own individual pieces to this Substack as well! More on that soon.
Who I am
I’ve been extremely excited by the growth of high-quality subscribers on this Substack. While my total number of subscribers is only in the low hundreds, an extremely high percentage of you have high-impact jobs, run progress studies organizations, write related Substacks, or are just all-around fascinating people. It’s been a pleasure to write for you and I hope to continue doing so for a while. Please email/dm me if you ever have any questions or commentary. Or even if you’d just like to chat, that’s great too!
In case it’s relevant to anyone who’d be interested in chatting, I also have a day job. I work a full-time job running social-impact incubation projects at the Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change at UChicago. It’s run by Steve Levitt and, more or less, what I do is try to come up with interesting projects/orgs that could do high-ROI social good if they existed. And then I try to bootstrap them into existence.
I come up with a lot of ideas, fail a lot, move on, repeat, etc. And, luckily enough, some things work out!
A few of the current projects I’m working on currently can be found below (I made up titles just now to make them sound flashy):
Losing Weight, Saving Lives: It turns out that almost half of the people who enter the health screen to donate a kidney/liver to a loved one get screened out for health reasons. Some of these, such as hypertension, aren’t considered medically reversible. But the most common reason, high BMI, is absolutely medically reversible. But, in the current equilibrium, these overweight individuals are kind of shooed out of the hospital once they are deemed too heavy to donate/some hospitals won’t even see them based on their BMI. So, the idea I had was essentially to put as many of these people as possible on free weight loss programs (paid for by my center) to give them a fighting chance at donating their kidney/liver to their loved one. We’ve partnered with a large hospital system and are piloting the program now. With these programs costing in the hundreds of dollar range, many donors being within 10-15 pounds of donation weight, and a human life often being valued in the millions, I like our chances of doing extremely high ROI social good.
OpenMolecule: Think ‘Human Genome Project but for screened molecules.’ Very few areas of academic biology have publicly accessible repositories of screened molecules that are suitable for machine learning tasks. This is a huge deal. Because, as things stand, if a researcher wants to do something like try to find a new antibiotic, they often need to just screen A LOT of molecules manually. Like a lot. Like possibly a hundred thousand. And it doesn’t need to be this way. When one of our project partners, Jon Stokes, was at MIT he helped show that this didn’t need to be the case.
He made his own training set of screened molecules similar to existing antibiotics, trained a model to predict which molecules in the search space of existing molecules were most likely to be good antibiotics, and manually screened the 50 most likely candidates as determined by the model. Of those 50, two ended up not just being antibiotics, but had success in killing types of bacteria that are currently resistant to most antibiotics! A large dataset of screened molecules would make this workflow possible for all variety life sciences research!
We’re trying to find a way to make a dataset of about 10 million wide-ranging molecules available to all academics to not just help in the fight against bacteria, but fungal infections, viruses, cancer, etc. These molecules have largely already been screened and are in the computers of various labs. We’re working to find a way to get them out and into the same place.
Jon Stokes talks more about what he did below and it’s fascinating.
Antibiotic Resistance: More and more people are dying from bacterial infections every year because bacteria are growing resistant to existing antibiotics while we fail to develop new antibiotics to which they are not resistant. This is the case because, unlike just about everything else, Americans don’t have a very high willingness to pay for antibiotics. So, while these drugs cost about $1.3 billion to develop due to the ridiculously high administration costs of US drug trials, they only make about $50 million per year. So, with those financials it obviously doesn’t make sense for Big Pharma to pursue. But…it seems like there might be a way to run an antibiotic trial and reduce the administrative costs by an order of magnitude! This project is in the early stages but I’m quite excited about it. Please reach out to me if you’d like to know more about it!
I would love to talk with any of you about any of these ideas or any ideas you may have! I’m just trying to do some good and have some fun doing it. No idea is too wacky or strange.
Thanks so much for reading every week and sorry there’s no new article this week. Hopefully hearing about a few of my projects was at least a little bit of a consolation. If you liked it, let me know and I’ll share more ideas in the future that are in the early stages! It could be a fun short newsletter to break up the pattern of longer, more complicated pieces.