What if you could use a lensless, portable microscope to detect microbes in the air? This did not occur to the designers of the apparatus, which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to develop but was lying unused in a storeroom at Oxford University. But it did occur to James Dash, a 15-year-old pupil at John Hampden Grammar School in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. His winning proposal was one of 51 entries in a competition run by Marblar, a website for crowdsourcing ideas.
CyMap, researchers’ name for the device, is one of countless clever gizmos and techniques mothballed as solutions in search of a problem. An estimated 95% of all technologies coming out of universities never make it to the real world. Marblar, which was launched in September by a bunch of PhD students in Britain, aims to harness the collective imagination to prevent such waste. Other ongoing competitions invite people to come up with uses for a new kind of foam, a probe inspired by a wasp sting or paint-guns to squirt layers of paint just few molecules across.
The original inventors pay a small fee to post a challenge on Marblar’s website, using videos and slideshows to explain in plain English how their technology works. Geeks of all ages then submit their ideas about what it might be used for. Other users rate these before the inventors themselves pick the winner, who typically receives a cash prize of about £500 ($800). In future, says Daniel Perez, one of Marblar’s co-founders, winners may be invited to partner with the inventors and gain a stake in the commercialisation of their joint intellectual effort.
Marblar will not eliminate all waste. Many inventions have straightforward uses, says Lita Nelsen, director of the (rather busy) technology-licensing office of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all they need is better marketing. This is something technology transfer officers, often business-minded boffins who are able both to identify prospective licensees and explain the research to a non-scientist, may be better placed to do.
But Marblar is definitely onto something. IP group, a British venture-capital firm that invests in innovations spun out of universities, has ploughed about $600,000 into the start-up. It is already considering creating a company to commercialise a technology to glue strands of DNA without using an enzyme. In another challenge, a PhD student from Cambridge noticed that this is just the sort of thing he needed in his work on novel methods for drug delivery.
First published on economist.com.
Image credit: Marblar