Lean Academia

I’ve been taking time away from the lab each day for the past few weeks to learn web application development. I’ll post more about the what and why another time.  This week the connection between my program and my lab work came together in another way.

I’m enrolled in class at Starter School (formerly called The Starter League and Code Academy), which sits with-in 1871, Chicago’s premiere start-up incubator and co-work space. Starter School is a 9-month program that teaches the coding, design and entrepreneurship to build software and start companies. (If you want to learn more about what makes this program unique and awesome, check out this WSJ article and the interview with my classmate Chance).  I’m only enrolled in the first 3 months which focuses on coding and programming.  We do start diving into entrepreneurship and it has been an eye opening experience for me.

Our starting point in those classes was The Lean Start-up by Eric Ries and the How to Build a Startup series on Udacity with Steve Blank.  I wish everyone in academic research would watch Blank’s first lesson (which is done in three videos).  I see a number of parallels to academia worth that I’ve been noodling based only on my teaser introduction to the world of Lean Start-ups.

“Start-ups are not small version of big companies.”  The labs of our senior established faculty (the people with endowed chairs who have four R01s (or used to) at a time) seem like big companies.  They have well established systems for moving their research forward. Processes that they’ve built over years, staff that execute details. But the lab of a newly hired assistant professor can’t operate like a smaller version of that.  I don’t think it should.  In the current funding climate, I think allowing (and encouraging) junior faculty to act and think more like start-ups would increase their likelihood of success and increase their ability to innovate.

In recent years, people within and outside the research community have criticized our grant review process as not really promoting the kinds of innovations and leaps we need to truly tackle our goals (as a cancer researcher, these are often written and framed within our failure to “win the war on cancer”). These commentaries assert that we don’t make the kinds of leaps we hope to make, but instead make small incremental advances in our science.  I’ve heard time and again from my peers about the great novel idea they had that got a response of “No one will fund YOU to do that. You’re too unproven” in some form or another from mentors or peer reviewers. These faculty are like entrepreneurs – they have hypotheses about what will work and they need to test them (in academia, we call this getting pilot data). The problem is that we tend to be resistant to pivoting when the pilot data doesn’t play out.  Our resources are so limited that the pilot data is too often seen as a means of showing we can do “anything” rather than “this thing”. Hypothesis testing in the lean start-up is expected to lead to lots of hypothesis rejection or modification until the hypotheses left to test are so low risk (e.g., should the logo be Pantone 165 or 166?) that spending time and money to test them may not be necessary to launch.

Lean start up also aligns nicely with the calls from some of our best scientists to think about alternatives to the randomized clinical trial.  Randomized trials are expensive and time consuming and not conducive to early data that suggests the intervention/product won’t work in the “real world.”  When data to reject “real world applicability” comes to a lean start-up, it MUST re-evaluate the path.  But a junior faculty member trying to build a lab doesn’t have the ability to pivot a randomized trial or it might be the last one she’s funded to run.  She needs to deliver the study she was funded to.  A greater flexibility in the study designs we let drive our decision making would benefit our field.  We would also benefit from giving our faculty and their NIH program officers more flexibility to adapt and make changes mid-study.

Opening academia up to new approaches to building a research program/lab and new ways of thinking seems at least worth contemplating given our tight funding climate. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this!