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Letters and Comments

April 20, 2010
The revolution’s coming; it’s just slow

As a Parkinson’s disease activist and a customer of 23andme, I see the potential revolution in personalized medicine (Briefing, March/April 2010) from a vantage point that is between ringside and in the ring. Personalized medicine is developing on three time scales. The fastest is the improvement in genome sequencing, which is proceeding at the speed of competing startups. A slower process involves elucidating the relationships among genetic markers, diseases, and the safety and effectiveness of treatments. Even slower are changes in medical practice: many professionals must change the way they think and act to account for patients’ differences. The evolution of personalized medicine is likely to be a long, wild ride.
H. Paul Zeiger
Denver, CO

New science is changing the taxonomy of disease and allowing for targeted therapies. As CEO and founder of Genomics Healthcare Strategies, I think progress is uneven because of the complexities of underlying biological processes and the difficulty of changing a health-care system focused on treatment. Molecular medicine’s biggest impact will be changing the economics of health care. Aside from improving care and lowering costs, it will change where and how we buy health care. New sources of information will create competition. Organizations that best demonstrate products with a clinical and economic benefit will be winners in these new markets.
Keith Batchelder
Charlestown, MA

How Academics Hinder innovation

Politics is only one small part of why U.S. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants have produced very little innovation (“Publicly Funding Entrepreneurship,” Notebooks, March/April 2010). Those grants go to university researchers because reviewers expect the grantee to have published articles, and these researchers are in a publish-to-survive mode. But ideas from small businesses are proprietary and therefore are not publicly available prior to commercialization, which means they lack a publication trail. For SBIR awards to yield products, stop having academics review grants. Small companies live or die on innovations; universities don’t.
Richard McDonald
Henderson, NV

Lasers Bring back the Memories

I’d like to correct a possibly misleading impression in “Year of the Laser” (March/April 2010). The first reference to a laser (after Einstein) should be attributed to Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes. Their 1958 paper in Physical Review Letters described the physics of “coherent laser light,” letting experimentalists evaluate the qualities of their laser light output. As a senior scientist at the Livermore Laboratory, I appreciated the image of the Nova laser. Our groups at Livermore spent 30 years working to build this 10-beam laser and used it to demonstrate inertial fusion; it’s exciting that fusion ignition and gain demonstrations are beginning using the 192-beam NIF laser.
John F. Holzrichter
Berkeley, CA

Get-Well Cards for Capitalism

I read your From the Editor column “Sick Capital” (March/April 2010) with pleasure. When your investor lamented that today’s VC investors spread themselves too thin, I had to smile. I had the same experience 30 years ago with my first startup. Well-known investors would roll in for the board meetings, ask some off-base questions, and fly off again. Your list of 50 innovative companies (TR50, March/April) tells me that opportunities in venture investing are mostly in biotech or materials-based technology, both of which need prodigious investment but could offer commensurate returns.
Sumin Tchen
Concord, MA

unleashing math on the world

Great article on “Turning Math into Cash” (March/April 2010). It shows how brainpower is expanding IBM’s offerings beyond what’s conventional. But, given the results of mathematicians running the financial industry, we might not want to let them run the world.
(Alan Underdown, Ottawa, Ontario)

Were those complex mortgage securities accepted by decision makers because mathematicians provided assurances? Or was it seen as a way to hide risk and promote sales?
(Robert Phair, Los Altos, CA)

I wish I knew. Many financial analysts believed that markets are efficient. Math models can facilitate foolishness, but that’s not the math’s fault.

IBM’s move toward consulting is smart. The mathematics behind analytics can convince managers of things they should have done long ago. I long to see the day when companies use analytics in decision-making. Plus, IBM’s consultants can set up analytics studies so that the right items are measured for the most effective insights.
(Brian Glassman, Pembroke Pines, FL)

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