3D Printing

Catherine Mohr: Medical Research, Technology and Innovation

She calls herself “a tinkerer at heart.” And ever since Catherine Mohr walked into a Boston-area bike shop looking for a high school job repairing drive trains and spokes, the New Zealand-born surgeon and inventor has taken tinkering to a mind-boggling high art here in Silicon Valley.

Dr. Catherine Mohr is the Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, the global technology leader in robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery. In this role, she evaluates new technologies for incorporation into the next generation of surgical robots. In addition, she is a Consulting Assistant Professor in the department of Surgery at Stanford School of Medicine where she works in the development of simulation-based curriculum for teaching clinical skills. She is also a Medicine Faculty at Singularity University and an Advisor in the Future of Health Systems Working Group of the World Economic Forum.

Dr. Mohr received her BS and MS in mechanical engineering from MIT, and her MD from Stanford University School of Medicine. During her initial training as a mechanical engineer at MIT’s AI Laboratory, Mohr developed compliant robotic hands designed to work in unstructured and dynamic environments. Later, while pursuing an MD degree at Stanford, she identified needs for new laparoscopic surgical instruments and collaborated to develop the first totally robotic roux-en-Y gastric bypass, and invented and then started a company to commercialize the “LapCap” device for safely establishing pneumoperitoneum.

She has been involved with numerous startup companies in the areas of alternative energy transportation, and worked for many years developing high altitude aircraft and high efficiency fuel cell power systems, computer aided design software, and medical devices.  She spoke twice at TED Conference. At her TED2009 Talk, she tours the history of surgery, then demos some of the newest tools for surgery through tiny incisions, performed using nimble robot hands. At her TED2010 Talk, she walks through all the geeky decisions she made when building a green new house — looking at real energy numbers, not hype.

To learn more about her works, please visit her official website.

The following is an interview with Dr. Catherine Mohr about Medical Technology, Innovation and Creating a Better World. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: Dear Catherine, I really appreciate you taking time to join us at eTalks. I am thrilled to have you.

Catherine: Thank you for the invitation, it is great to be here.

Niaz: You are the Vice President of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, where you develop new surgical procedures and evaluate new technologies for improving surgical outcomes. You have profound experience and a body of great works in the field of Medical and Disruptive technology. In addition to that you’re very passionate about the futures in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At the beginning of our interview, please tell us a little about your background and how did you get started?

Catherine: I am originally from New Zealand and grew up in Boston. Although, you can’t infer either of those facts from my accent. I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist, but my path to medicine wasn’t typical. As an undergraduate, I majored in Mechanical Engineering and built and raced solar cars as part of MIT’s team. That led me to working in alternative energy with Paul MacCready at AeroVironment working on hybrid electric cars and fuel cells. It was a wonderful time, and I remain very committed to sustainable technologies – encouraging kids at every opportunity to consider careers in science and engineering.

Niaz: Tell us about the road that led you to the world of robotic surgery. It was not a straight path, it seems.

Catherine: It wasn’t until after many years of working as an engineer that I went to medical school. I was in my 30s, and hardly the typical medical student. In many ways, I ended up in medicine because I was very interested in getting back onto the steep part of the learning curve. I loved engineering, but I had become an engineering manager, and I was looking for a new challenge.

In medical school, I was doing a lot of research in surgery and surgical technologies as part of my schooling. I encountered the da Vinci Surgical System and I started doing procedure development with one of my attending surgeons. We both work for Intuitive Surgical now – she as the Chief Medical Officer, and I am the VP of Medical Research.

Niaz: Intuitive Surgical is a high technology surgical robotics company that makes a robotic surgical system. Today, Intuitive Surgical is the global leader in the rapidly emerging field of robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery. We would like to learn more about Intuitive Surgical. Can you please tell us about Intuitive Surgical, its current projects and also how it has been innovating our future?

Catherine: The flagship product at Intuitive Surgical is the da Vinci Surgical System. It allows a surgeon to operate with full dexterity and capability, but through tiny incisions. The da Vinci System has been a major part of the increase in the rates of minimally invasive surgery in many types of procedures where surgeries were too complex, intricate or just too fatiguing. As of early this year, we estimate that there have been two million procedures done worldwide with the da Vinci System.

Current research and development projects at Intuitive Surgical are aimed at increasing the capabilities and decision making resources of the surgeon while continuing to decrease the invasiveness of surgical therapies. The goal is always working toward better surgeries that are less invasive.

Niaz: The da Vinci Surgical System is a sophisticated robotic platform designed to expand the surgeon’s capabilities and offer a state-of-the-art minimally invasive option for major surgery. It has been using all disruptive technologies like robotics, high- definition 3D camera and so on. Please tell us what is the da Vinci Surgical System and how does it work?Catherine: Although it is often referred to as a “robot”, a more appropriate description would really be “telemanipulator,” as it doesn’t make any autonomous decisions of its own. To operate the da Vinci System, the surgeon sits at a console which has both a 3D display and a pair of input devices, which capture the motions of the surgeon’s hands and the da Vinci System moves the surgical instruments in a precise, scaled replica of the motions that the surgeon is making. This is coupled with a 3D camera so that the surgeon sees the instruments in the display superimposed over where they feel their hands to be.

Sitting down at the console, moving these input devices, and seeing the instruments move exactly the same way is the “intuitive” part of the process.

Niaz: How is robotic surgery, using something like the da Vinci system, better than the old-fashioned way with human hands?

Catherine: The human hand is rather large – at least when you are thinking about making an incision in the body large enough to fit that hand through. The da Vinci instruments are only 8mm in diameter, so they allow you to bring all the capability of that human hand into the body, but through a small incision. This is much better for the patients, as they get the same operation inside, but they heal more quickly with less pain.

Niaz: If we look at the evolution of surgery, we can see really huge changes have happened since last the two decades. With the rapid acceleration in human-machine interaction, the potentiality of robotics in surgery is going to be very vast. How can innovations like robotic-assisted surgery change the world of surgery?

Catherine: The changes haven’t only been happening on the surgical side. The improvements in surgery will come partly from synergies with advances in other parts of medicine. Some of the most exciting things that I have seen have been improvements in diagnostics and screening. As we find cancer earlier and earlier when it is easily cured surgically, we won’t have to do huge reconstructive operations to restore the function that would have been lost by cutting out the larger tumor. This gives us the opportunity to further reduce the invasiveness of our surgical therapies by moving to even smaller incisions, or going in through the mouth and avoiding external incisions entirely.

Niaz: What do you see as the future of robotic surgery? What are our core challenges to reach to that future?

Catherine: As we look at reducing invasiveness, we always want to be able to build things smaller while maintaining strength and precision. Interestingly enough, some of the biggest advances in robotics may come from new material science and machine tools.

Niaz: As an expert in the fields of robotic surgery and sustainable technologies, you’re passionate about realizing the potential benefit that appropriately applied technologies can have in our society, and inspiring the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs to tackle the world’s important problems. Can you please tell us about some interesting and tough technological problems that you want next generation of entrepreneurs to solve?

Catherine: Apart from the new materials, many of the opportunities to do extremely small interventions will rely upon being able to navigate within the body – like having a GPS for the body. Today, we can map the body with things like CT or MRI imaging, however, the body does not stay static. Organs move constantly, which makes navigating with a preoperative image like trying to follow a GPS map while the roads are constantly changing and moving, but your map never updates. Solving these problems would make it easier to make surgery even less invasive.

Niaz: As you know, it’s really hard to do scientific breakthroughs, to build companies like Apple, Google, Space X, and Tesla, to do something in massive levels with truly disruptive technology. I would like to hear your ideas on doing breakthroughs, coming up with authentic disruptive innovation and on building next big organization?

Catherine: It is solving problems that matter that is the key to these disruptive companies. The problems that matter also tend to be hard, so you need to be patient, and dig deep into the technology to get to solutions. None of the companies you mention are short on ambition, they all started fairly small, and they are deep experts in their technologies.

Niaz: Do you believe Silicon Valley is still the best place to build next big technology company?

Catherine: It is the best place because its historical success has led to the intense concentration of tech talent. However, the shortage of housing and the resultant astronomical housing prices make attracting people to come to Silicon Valley who aren’t already here rather difficult.

Niaz: What does actually make Silicon Valley very special?

Catherine: Critical mass. The concentration of talent, and the expectation that you will fail a bit before you succeed continues to attract the ambitious with big ideas. People cycle through startups gaining experience, and they keep going until they do succeed.

Niaz: You’re a medical technology pioneer, a mechanical engineer, and an expert in robotic surgery. Prior to going to medical school, you worked in the field of alternative energy transportation and sustainable technologies, working for many years with Dr. Paul MacCready at AeroVironment developing alternate energy vehicles, high-altitude aircraft, and high-efficiency fuel cell power systems aimed at reducing our world’s energy consumption and emissions. Can you tell us about how do you connect all of your skills, expertise, ideas and knowledge to break through the threshold in any specific field to get the best out of it or build the big things?

Catherine: Much of what I do involves understanding how the problems we are trying to solve are part of large interconnected systems, and thinking about optimization across the entire system. Optimizing only one part of the solution at the expense of the other important parts is counter-productive. For example, maximizing energy storage without considering weight for an airplane, or improving surgical capability without making it easy enough to operate safely. The big interconnected problems I like to tackle involve many of the same skill sets, even if they are in far flung areas like sustainable energy and surgery.

Niaz: How beneficial is it to have a multi-dimensional background and expertise?

Catherine: Attempting to solve all of these big programs are always team efforts. The myth of the lone inventor is just that – a myth. You need huge diversity of skills on a team, but that very strength means that teams often have difficulty communicating, if the background and experiences of the team members are too different. The people who have experience, background and training in several fields act as the linkers and translators within teams. I like to joke that I am “trilingual” – I speak Geek Speak, Medical Jargon and English – three mutually unintelligible languages. Being able to explain the clinical to the technical and the technical to the clinical is a valuable role.

Niaz: As far as I know you hold several patents. Please tell us about your patents?

Catherine: Most of these are in the area of manipulation or vision on the da Vinci System. You’ll notice that few, if any, of those patents list me as the sole inventor. Invention tends to come when you are solving a new problem with a team, and have the opportunity to try novel solutions. The best ideas are also often hybrids of many people building upon and improving each other’s ideas as you solve a problem together. Patents certainly serve a purpose in that they give you a period of time in which to use an idea before a competitor can legally copy it, but it is the teamwork and problem solving aspect of it that I enjoy the most.

Niaz: What is your favorite part about working at Intuitive Surgical?

Catherine: Getting to remain on the steep part of the learning curve – medicine and technology are changing so rapidly, that keeping up with what is going on is a constant process – one that I enjoy very much.

Niaz: As Vice President of Medical Research, what do you do on a daily basis? What is a normal day like for you?

Catherine: I’m not sure if I really have a normal day. Some days are lab days when we are in the research operating room developing new procedures or testing out prototypes of new instruments. Other days involve traveling around and both speaking about our technology and learning about new technologies from their inventors. And, some days involve trying to look out into the future to see what changes are happening in medicine so that our next products fit the new needs that are arising.

Niaz: What other kinds of projects or initiatives have you been involved in?

Catherine: I started playing the cello recently, and through building our house and blogging about it, I have been active in the conversation about green building and native plant gardening. Recently, I have also started working with GAVI, the vaccine alliance, on technologies for tracking vaccines in developing countries.

Niaz: You wanted to save the world, or at least a piece of it. But you just weren’t sure how to go about it. And now in 2014, we can see your profound body of works that have helped to change the world of robotic surgery and sustainable technologies. I know there are still a lot more to come. What would be your advice for the ones who want to follow your footsteps and change the world to make it a better place to live in?

Catherine: Focus on the problems that matter to you, if it matters to you, it probably matters to other people too. People make the mistake of focusing on what they think other people want, and then their hearts are never really in it. Without passion you won’t have the drive to do all the really hard work that comes with trying to make a difference. People are very impatient for success now, but it will never come unless they take the time to become deeply educated and skilled in the areas needed to be able to make a contribution.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Catherine: The technologies that will probably shape our future careers are in labs somewhere. I expect I will reinvent myself several more times as those technologies come out of the lab and start changing our world.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Catherine: Thank you for putting this program together

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Further Reading:

1. Andrew Hessel on Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science

2. Aubrey de Grey on Aging and Overcoming Death

3. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

4. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

5. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

6. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product

7. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

8. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

9. Brian Keegan on Big Data

10. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

Andrew Hessel: Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science

Andrew Hessel is a futurist and catalyst in biological technologies, helping industry, academics, and authorities better understand the changes ahead in life science. He is a Distinguished Researcher with Autodesk Inc.’s Bio/Nano Programmable Matter group, based out of San Francisco.  He is also the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer.

As the co-chair of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at the Singularity University, he addresses the disruptive shifts underway in life. He speaks widely on topics that include cells as living computers, life science as an emerging IT industry, and biological safety and security. He is active in the iGEM and DIYbio (do-it-yourself) communities and frequently works with students and young entrepreneurs.

To learn more about his works, visit his Official Website and follow him on Twitter.

The following is an interview with Andrew Hessel about Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: You are a genomic scientist and consultant in DNA technologies. Working with leading academic and commercial groups, you have traveled the globe for more than 15 years in the exploration of digital biology, the successor to recombinant DNA technology that is transforming DNA into an easy-to-use programming language for biological systems. Your work is empowering a new generation of young researchers to tackle big biology related problems like sustainable fuel production, environmental cleanup, superbugs and cancer. At the beginning of our interview, please tell us a little about your background and how did you get started?

Andrew: I really love technology, particularly computers, but saw living things as special. I wanted to understand how they worked, so majored in cell biology, microbiology, and genetics.

Niaz: What first got you interested in biotechnology? Tell us about the road that led you to the world of biotechnology, synthetic biology, and genomics?

Andrew: I was interested in DNA code and realized that using computer programs to organize and analyze it would be very powerful. I started to write software and databases. Combined with lab bench skills, this gave me some unique abilities at the time. I was hired by Amgen, Inc. in 1995. It was an exciting time, with the Human Genome Project ramping up and Internet and biotechnologies booming. I learned a lot, fast. One of these lessons was how valuable a small genetic program could be. Amgen’s phenomenal success could be traced back to just a few hundred bases of genetic code.

Eventually, the draft of the human genome was published and the economic bubble burst. Things slowed down. I took some time off to reflect. I realized that it had only taken 10 years for scientists and industry to build the technologies needed to read large amounts of DNA. It seemed reasonable that DNA writing technologies would also evolve quickly. I started tracking improvements in DNA synthesis, the core technology that makes synthetic biology possible. The field was still very small. I was lucky to meet many of the pioneers of synthetic biology early on. It was like Silicon Valley in the early days, only this time around it was all based on carbon.

Niaz: Now we are learning how to make a living world which was not possible before. We can engineer our nature to sustain our need. What is the interface between programming and biology? How does computer science relate to the genetic code?

Andrew: Computer programming is relatively easy. Engineers made the processors. Engineers created the languages and compilers. Because we’ve made everything, we know everything about how these things work. The specifications are known.

Cells are essentially living computers. Genetic engineering is software engineering. The challenge is that we didn’t create the cell or the programming language. We don’t understand fully how everything works yet. This limits the sophistication of the programs we can write. But we’re learning more every day. As our knowledge grows, so do our capabilities.

Synthetic biology is still very young compared to electronic computing. Human-readable programming languages are just starting to appear. DNA synthesis, which compiles this code into an executable form, is still expensive. But as the computer design tools improve and DNA synthesis costs fall, programming living cells and organisms gets easier to do, faster to do, and a lot cheaper. This opens up biotechnology for more people, just as the PC brought computing to the masses so will computing transform healthcare.

Niaz: Tell us about programming our genes? Would it be possible for our genetic codes to be published on the web and open sourced by ‘gene programmers’ for example?

Andrew: Absolutely. A lot of genetic code is already published openly – and more of it is flooding into databases daily. This includes data on individuals. For example, I’m part of a project called the PGP – Personal Genome Project, where participants willingly publish their genomes for open research.

We’re already seeing dozens of small biotech companies using next-generation DNA technologies – companies like Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, which engineers custom microbes, or San Francisco’s Glowing Plant, Inc. I expect many more companies to appear. Bioengineering and biological programming are already hot jobs – and I believe there will be a lot more positions to fill in the future.

Niaz: What are the possibilities of biotechnology? How it will change the world and how it affects to find the new ways to achieve success?

Andrew: The possibilities are staggering. Consider the range of existing organisms. Every environmental niche is populated. There are millions of large species on our planet, and possibly billions of microbial and viral species. This is just what’s here today, now, or at least what we know about.

Biotechnology greatly expands the range of possibilities. There’s no species barrier at the code level, so we can mix and match traits from species that otherwise could not share genetic code easily. We can also create new environments and direct evolutionary processes to produce novel traits. We can print cells using 3D printers. We can connect cells or cell components to electrical devices, creating bridges that never existed before – possibly leading to new sensors or electronically-controlled metabolic processes.

These approaches are unfamiliar to people today. But fifty years ago, so were computers and robotics. Over the coming decades, the fundamental processes of living systems will be better understood, and biology will become more accepted as an everyday technology. I think this is a positive thing for humanity and for our planet.

Niaz: How long until genome sequencing becomes available on an iPhone?

Andrew: Prototype devices are already about the size of an iPhone. But having this feature on a phone isn’t what people are asking for today. When there’s enough demand and the technology is cheap enough, it will happen.

Niaz: As you know, Robots are starting to emerge in sequencing labs. To what extent can this field be roboticized?

Andrew: DNA sequencing has been increasingly automated since the late 1990’s. The robots are already doing much of the work, even the sample preparation.

Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about synthetic biology?

Andrew: It’s computer-aided genetic engineering –programming living things using software and hardware tools. I like to think of it as the next IT industry. It’s already beginning to happen. For example, the iGEM Synthetic Biology program (http://igem.org) has already trained tens of thousands of students. Kids today grow up digital. Increasingly, they’ll grow up biotechnological, comfortable and adept with the tools to engineer biological systems.

Niaz: What will be the first mainstream application to be introduced that is dependent on synthetic biology?

Andrew: By mainstream, I take it you mean some form of branded consumer application, since some engineered products are already incorporated into many common products. An example is modified enzymes or oils in laundry detergents and soaps, and also biofuels.

For people to actively seek out a synthetic biology product in large numbers, it will need to be something fun and/or useful, affordable, and above all safe. I think there’s a good chance it will be a food or drink – probably one based on yeast, since post-processing can eliminate any genetically modified yeast from the product. I’m tracking projects in beer and milk that have a high potential to go mainstream.

Niaz: When will the first human organs be created using synthetic biology?

Andrew: This is more a challenge for the cell biologists. 3D bio-printing technologies are very exciting right now. Prototype tissues and organs are starting to appear, but the capabilities are still very limited. These will improve but the rate of improvement is at present hard to estimate – there are too few data points. That said, I think the first bio-printed human heart will be transplanted in less than a decade.

Another approach is to engineer humanized animals. There are almost a billion pigs in the world. If their organs were engineered to be immune-compatible with humans, almost overnight there would be no shortage of organs for transplant.

Given enough research and development, I expect we might learn how to activate self-repair or self-replacement of our organs so transplants won’t be necessary. But this is still in the realm of science fiction for now.

Niaz: How much progress can be expected in the field of synthetic biology by 2025?

Andrew: It will grow exponentially or super-exponentially as DNA synthesis and other biotechnologies advance. You can bank on it, like Moore’s law.

Niaz: You are the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer. Can you tell us more about Pink Army Cooperative, its initiatives and upcoming activities?

 Andrew: I started Pink Army in 2009 to make people aware that the rapid advances in biotechnology are allowing smaller innovators to compete effectively with big pharmaceutical companies. As a cooperative, it’s an open source company owned by the members and capitalized by the membership fees. After getting about 600 members, I stopped focusing on awareness and started working to create the digital tools for making synthetic cancer-fighting viruses very inexpensively. Meanwhile, viral therapies are beginning to have success in treating some cancers, in some cases completely eliminating them with a single treatment. I expect to do much more with the cooperative in the next year or so.

Niaz: You are a Distinguished Researcher at Autodesk and the former co-chair of bioinformatics and biotechnology at Singularity University. How has your experience with Autodesk and Singularity University affected your vision for biotech and Pink Army?

Andrew: Definitively. Singularity University allowed me to connect with other innovators around the world, including Autodesk. Since 2012, the team at Autodesk has been working to create innovative design tools and industry partnerships that will make biotechnology easier and yet more powerful. In short, Autodesk is building the tools that make Pink Army and other advanced biotechnology companies possible. And just a few months ago, we made our first synthetic virus, a bacteriophage called PhiX174. This was a first step toward one day producing cancer-fighting viruses.

Niaz: More people are now getting into biotech, nanotech, genetic engineering and genomics. What do you think about the important factors of the success in these industries?

Andrew: I think they are similar to other industries. If these technologies are used to create useful products and services that people are willing to pay for, the companies will be successful. Improvements in these technologies are reducing costs and risks of development, but these industries still face a more complicated path to the marketplace with their products than, say, the computer industry, at least in the US and UK. This could be a big opportunity for emerging markets in the short term. Eventually, I believe efforts the regulatory and approval processes must be streamlined.

Niaz: Why do we need to think really big as well as to be high ambitious in the filed of biotech, nanotech, genetic engineering and genomics? How to stay motivated to build the next big things from these domains?

Andrew: These are powerful technologies that can address global challenges but there is always the risk of accident or abuse. We must be open and transparent about what we are doing with these technologies and we must pursue positive applications. We need to train people to be responsible and safe in their practices. We must also update and empower the regulatory organizations to do their jobs properly.

Niaz: How big is life science industry? How is life science going to be evolving in near future? Do you think we are about to live like science fiction?

Andrew: I don’t have an exact figure dollar-wise, but collectively, including medicine, it’s in the trillions of dollars. Life science will only become more robust. I don’t think we’re going to live like in science fiction, just better because of what these technologies can deliver to people.

Niaz: What does excite you most now?

Andrew: How quickly things are changing. Opportunities abound for anyone that is interested in these areas.

Niaz: Is there anything else you would like for readers of eTalks to know about your work?

Andrew: I would just like people to explore this space for themselves. If my work gets them curious or inspired, that’s great.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Andrew: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

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Further Reading:

1. Aubrey de Grey on Aging and Overcoming Death

2. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

3. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

4. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

5. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product

6. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

7. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

8. Brian Keegan on Big Data

9. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

Peter Weijmarshausen: 3D Printing

Editor’s Note: Peter Weijmarshausen is a pioneer of 3D Printing. He is passionate to make new and exciting technology accessible for everyone. He is Co-Founder and CEO of Shapeways, the leading 3D printing marketplace and community that helps people make, buy and sell anything they want. Shapeways started in the Philips Lifestyle Incubator in the Netherlands in 2007, and spun off as an independent company in 2010. The company is headquartered in New York, with offices in Eindhoven and Seattle. You can read his full bio from here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Peter Weijmarshausen recently to gain his ideas and insights on 3D Printing which is given below.

Niaz: Peter, thank you so much for joining us. We are thrilled to have you at eTalks.

Peter: It’s my pleasure to be here Niaz.

Niaz: You have been working with 3D printing for long time. You have co-founded ‘Shapeways’, the leading 3D printing marketplace and community. And now working as the CEO of ‘Shapeways’. Can you please give us a brief of the evolution of 3D printing?

Peter: I’ve been working with 3D Printing for quite some time now. Prior to Shapeways, I worked for a company that published the first free 3D software, called Blender.

3D Printing has been around for awhile. At the time when Shapeways was founded (in 2007), 3D Printing was still very expensive and used primarily on rapid prototyping. People were using 3D software but thought it was impossible to hold their designs in their hands.  By 2008, we launched Shapeways.com and started 3D Printing the impossible. In 2010, we spun out of Philips and moved headquarters to New York.

Niaz: Do you think the average person should care about 3D printing and why?

Peter: Definitely. 3D Printing is revolutionizing the way consumers think about products. Currently, we settle for store bought products. With 3D Printing you can customize products to your exact need.

Niaz: What are some of the current applications of 3D Printing?

Peter: There are a ton of applications for 3D Printing. At Shapeways, we have a very diverse community: we see a lot of hobbyists using Shapeways to create custom products to fit their various hobbies, as well as jewelry designers using Shapeways to create beautiful pieces. There are also a host of companies using 3D Printing to fuel innovation in various fields, such as the medical industry.

Niaz: What are the primary issues 3D Printers still need to overcome?

Peter: Learning how to 3D Model is still quite hard. This being said, we’re working to lower the barrier to entry so that anyone can create real-life products from digital 3D files. We just launched a new API that allows developers to easily create applications that make printable objects!

Niaz: Do you think we can literally make everything with 3D printing?

Peter: Currently, we can’t make everything using 3D Printing. For example, we still can’t 3D Print Electronics.

Niaz: Will we be able make everything with 3D printing in near future?

Peter: I don’t see why not.

Niaz: Those who don’t know about ‘Shapeways’, can you please give a brief of your company?

Peter: On Shapeways, individuals can make, buy and sell their own products. We 3D print everything on- demand, which means that every order is customized and personalized. By providing a platform for our community members to share ideas and gain access to cutting edge technology, we’re bringing personalized production to everyone.

Niaz: Do you have any estimation of the numbers of products that you have already made at ‘Shapeways’?

Peter: We currently have over 250,000+ community members in over 130 countries and have printed well over 1,000,000 products to date. These numbers continue to grow at a faster rate.

Niaz: What are the most exciting products that ‘Shapeways’ community has created?

Peter: We see so many exciting, amazing products created daily. One of my favorites is the Strandbeest, it has over 90 moving parts and requires no assembly!

Niaz: What are the responses from customers?

Peter: Our community is incredibly grateful for the service we provide. We often receive emails and blog posts thanking us!

Niaz: Any negative feedback?

Peter: As with any company that supplies physical products, we see some customer complaints but our customer service team is well equipped to handle .

Niaz: What does Shapeways have planned for 2013?

Peter: We’re currently building out our factory in Long Island City! Once fully built out we’ll have 30-50 3D printers in LIC capable of printing 3-5 million parts a year. It’s ambitious but it’s possible and we can’t wait to see the factory come to life.

Niaz: Wow! That’s really impressive. Where do you see the 3D Printing industry going over the next 5 years?

Peter: We will see products emerge that we’ve never imagined before – mind blowing shapes and solutions. I envision Shapeways continuing to grow in both employee number and locations. I can’t wait to see what will happen in the next five years.

Niaz: Peter, thank you so much for giving us time in the midst of your busy schedule. I am wishing you good luck for the New Factory as well as for all exciting things that you are doing in 3D Printing Industry.

Peter: You’re welcome Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

8. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Evolution of Technology and Innovation

Editor’s Note: Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger retired from IBM on May 31, 2007 after 37 years with the company. As Chairman Emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology, he continues to participate in a number of IBM’s technical strategy and innovation initiatives. He is also Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, where he is involved in multi-disciplinary research and teaching activities focused on how information technologies are helping transform business organizations and the institutions of society. You can read his full bio from here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Irving Wladawsky-Berger recently to gain insights about the evolution of Technology and Innovation which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Irving, thank you so much for joining us.  We are thrilled and honored to have you for eTalks .

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Niaz, thank you for having me.

Niaz: You began your career in IBM as a researcher in 1970. You have retired from IBM on May 31, 2007 as a Vice President of Technical Strategy and Innovation. From the dawn of Supercomputing to the rise of Linux and Open Source, the Internet, Cloud Computing, Disruptive Innovation, Big Data and Smarter Planet; you have been involved with it all.  You have worked for 37 years for bringing sustainable technological innovations for IBM. Can you please give us a brief of the evolution of technology and innovation? What do you think about the technological trend that has been changing since you have joined in IBM?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Well,It has been changed radically since the time I started in 1970 until now, let say, after 30 years. At the time in 1970, there were no personal computers and needless to say there was no internet. Computers were expensive and people were able to use them in a time sharing mode. Usually you would be needed a contract to be able to operate a computer and it was relatively expensive at that time. So most of the innovation and research had to be done in a kind of big science lab environment, whether it’s at a university like MIT or an R&D lab in IBM. Now all that began to change when personal computers emerged in the 1980s and especially in the next decade in 1990s, because personal computers became much more powerful and much less expensive. And then we had the internet. Remember the internet was only really blocking to the world in the mid 90s. And all of a sudden, it was much easier for lots of people to have access to the proper technologies and to start doing all kind of entrepreneurial innovations. Before that it was very expensive and then with the internet they were able to distribute their offerings online directly to their customers. Previously, they needed distributor channels and it did cost a lot of money. That has changed even more in just the last few years because of the advent of Cloud Computing. People started to do entrepreneurial business. They don’t even need to buy computer equipment anymore. They have a laptop or a smart phone that they use to get access in the cloud. As a result the cost of operating business is getting lower. This is particularly important for emerging economy like India, Africa or Latin America. Because they don’t have that much access to capital as we do here in the United States. So the availability of the internet, cloud computing and mobile devices etc. is going to have a huge impact for entrepreneurialism especially in emerging economy.

Niaz: So what has surprised you most about the rise and spread of the internet over the past 15 years?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Wellyouknowwhen I started, before the mid 90s, I was very involved with the Internet but as part of supercomputing before then the internet was primarily used in research lab and universities. And it all started to change with the advent of World Wide Web as well as Web Browser.  It made everything much more accessible. It was so easier to use. Before browsers, it was primarily interfaced that engineers had to learn to use. It wasn’t really available to the majority of people. The internet probably like other disruptive technologies; we knew it was exciting, we knew some good things could happen. But most of us couldn’t anticipate how transformative it would become. As an example, the fact that it would so much transform the media industry,  the music industry, newspapers, video streaming etc. On the other side, some of distinct people were predicting of the internet in the near term, like ‘it would totally transform the economy. You don’t need revenue and cash anymore’. That was wrong. So some of the predictions were just wrong, just like ‘you don’t need revenue and cash anymore’. Because if you are running a business you need revenue, cash and profit. Some of the predictions have been taking a lot longer than people thought in the early days because you needed broadband and things like that. And then other changes happened faster than any of us anticipated. In just an interesting experience, to watch how unpredictable disruptive technologies are.

Niaz: Now what do you think about the future of internet? What significant changes are going to occur in near future?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: First of all, I think broadband will keep advancing. And that’s being one of the most important changes. When I started using internet in the mid 90s, it was 16kb over a dial modem. Then few years later, it only went to 64kb over dial modem and then broadband came in. And it is getting better and better and better. Now in some countries, as you know, like South Korea, is extremely fast. And I think in US we don’t have that good broadband yet. But it is good to see it continues to be better.  Broadband wireless has come along. And that is very nice. I think the rise of mobile devices like Smart phones in the last few years, has the most important ways of accessing internet. And it has been an absolute phenomenon. And absolute phenomenon.  When the internet first showed off in the mid 90s, we were very worried that the internet was growing you needed to be able to have a PC and in those days time PCs were not that much inexpensive. You needed an internet service provider. That was not inexpensive either. So there was a strong digital divide even with the advanced economy like USA. I remember having a number of important meetings, while I was working in Washington in those days on the digital divide. All that had disappeared as you know mobile devices are so inexpensive. Just about everybody can afford it now.  But not all mobile devices are smart phones yet capable of accessing the internet. And I believe within few years, just about everybody in the world will be able to access the information, resource and application. That is going to be gigantic.  Finally, internet, broadband, cloud computing and disruptive innovations are going to bring changes that will be the most important change over the next few decades.

Niaz: As you know, Big Data has become a hot topic of tech industry. What do you think about Big Data?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Big Data is very interesting. And what it means is that we now have access to huge amount of real time data that can be totally analyzed and interpreted to give deep insight. Now I am involved with a new initiative of New York University called Center for Urban Science and Progress. A lot of the promise is to gather lot of information about transportation, energy uses, health and lots of other real time information in the city and being able to use it effectively to better manage the city and to make it more efficient. So now, we have access to big amount of data. But being able to manage those data, being able to run experiments and being able to make sense of data, you need to model. You need a hypothesis that you embedded in a model. Then you test your model against your data to see your model is true or not. If your model is true then the prediction you are making is correct. And if your model is not true, the predictions you are making is incorrect. Like for an example, you can get lots of health care data. But for finding the meaning, using those data efficiently, you have to have a good model. So in my mind big data is very important but more important which I called Data Science. Data Science is the ability to write model to use the data and get inside from what the data is telling and then put it into practice. And the data science is very new even big data itself is very new.  I think that it shows tremendous promise but we now have to build the next layers of data science in the discipline and that will be done discipline by discipline.

Niaz: Over the past twenty years you have been involved in a number of initiatives dealing with disruptive innovations. What do you think about disruptive innovation?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: I think that the work of Clayton Christensen has been really excellent. People knew that there were disruptive technologies that may change but until Clay wrote his book Innovators Dilemma and I think his next book ‘Innovators Solution’ is even better. I use these books in the graduate course at MIT. These are two excellent books on innovation. People didn’t understand for example why it is so tough to manage disruptive innovation? How is it different from the regular sustaining innovation or incrementing innovation? What do the companies should do with sustaining or incrementing innovation vs. disruptive innovation? And so he framed it in an excellent way to show the differences and to provide the guidelines for companies what they should do and that what they should watch out for. I think he wrote ‘Innovators Dilemma’ around 1990s. Now even today, the reality is, many companies don’t appreciate how difficult it is to truly embrace disruptive innovation. If you go and ask companies about disruptive innovation, they would say they are doing disruptive innovation. But in reality they are just working with incrementing innovation.  But to really be embarrassing disruptive, it’s till culturally very difficult for many companies.

Niaz: What is cloud computing? What are the ideas behind cloud computing?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: There are many definitions of cloud computing. There is no one definition. I think the reason is that cloud computing is not any one thing. I think that it’s really a new model of computing where the internet is the platform for that computing model. If you look at the history of computing, in the first phase, we had the central computing model and the mainframes in the data center were the main platform of that model. That model lasted from the beginning of the computing industry until let say mid 80s. Then the client server model came.  And in the client server model, the PCs were the central platform of that model. Now cloud computing is a model and it’s totally organized around the internet and it’s totally organized to make it possible to access hardware resources, storage resources, middleware resources, application resources and services over the internet . So cloud computing, when you think about it, the actual computer is totally distributed over the internet in the cloud.  Finally cloud computing is the most interesting model of computing built totally around the internet.

Niaz: How much disruption does cloud computing represent when compared with the Internet?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: I think cloud is the evolution of the internet. I think cloud computing is a massive disruption. And it is a very big disruptive part of the internet, because it’s totally changing the way people can get access to application and to information. Instead of having them in your PC or in the computers in your firm, you can now easily get whatever you want from the cloud. And you can get it in much standardize ways. So cloud makes it much easier and much less expensive for everybody whether you are a big company or whether you are a small or medium size company or whether you are an individual to get access to very sophisticated applications. And you don’t have to know everything. Remember in the PC days, if you bought an application, you got a disk, you had to load it, then there were new versions and you had to manage those versions by yourself. It was such an advance way over the previous worlds. Everybody was happy. But it was very difficult to use. Cloud as you know the whole world of apps. If you need apps, you can go to apps store. And an app store is basically a cloud store. So you can easily get whatever you need from the app store. When an app has a new release it will tell you. You don’t have to know everything. You have to do anything. It all being engineered and that is making IT capabilities available to many more companies and people. So it’s very disruptive.

Niaz: What do you think about the future of startups which are competing with giants like IBM, Google, Amazon, Facebook?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: That’s the history of the industry. You know, in the 80s, people said how anybody competes with IBM as IBM is such a big and powerful company. And the few years later, IBM was almost died because client server computing came in and all these companies like Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Compaq; they almost killed IBM. And locally for me who was there it didn’t die. Then in 90s, you could say, how can anybody compete with Microsoft after windows came up, it was so powerful, it was everything. Google was nothing at the beginning. And here we are now. Every few years we ask this question, here is the most powerful company of the world and what can possibly happen to them?  And you know sometimes nothing happens to them. And they continue being more powerful. Sometimes, in the case of IBM, they reinvent themselves. And they stay very relevant. They are just no longer the most advanced company in the world, they are an important company. But In 70s and 80s it was the leader in the computing industry. I think many people wouldn’t say about IBM now. For competing and surviving in any industry you have to have a very good business model. And for entrepreneurial innovation, coming up with a great business model is the hardest and core challenge.

Niaz: Can you please tell us something about the ways of asking BIG questions to challenge the tradition and come up with disruptive innovation?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Niaz, you are asking a very good question because asking big questions, coming with new business idea or business model is very difficult. I would say, in the old days, lot of the ideas came from laboratory if I talk about IT industry. Today, the core of innovation is in the market place. How can you come up with a great new application or a great new solution that will find a market that will find customers who want it. You have to be much focused. You have to have some good ideas. You have to study the market. You have to understand who are likely to be your customers. You have to know who your competitors are going to be. If those competitors are going to be big like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, you have to know, if you are starting a new company, what do you have unique over those companies. But I think that in general the inspiration or new ideas is a combination of creativity and market place. You have to look at the market place and have to be inspired by marketplace. Here are some great ideas you have and bring light. I think I couldn’t able to give good answer. You are asking like ‘Where the great business ideas come from’. It’s like asking movie directors or composers, where do you get your creativity. It’s a similar question. There is no good answer to that.

Niaz: Thank you Irving. I am wishing you very good luck for your good health and all future projects.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: You are welcome. It was very nice talking to you. And good luck to you Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing