Monday, April 14, 2014

How to perform cutting-edge science and advance technology: breaking the norms

After my undergrad study in Ankara, I moved to Munich for my Ph.D., to live in abroad at the age of 23. During the five and half years that I spent there, I believed I learnt a lot both in terms of science and life experience. I then moved to the Bay Area to do my postdoctoral study at Genentech, where I was deeply impressed by the quality of science and life. Throughout my articles, I’ll give examples of famous tech and research companies/institutions from the Bay Area including Apple, Google, Facebook, Stanford, Genentech and Tesla Motors because of two reasons: 1) I am simply more familiar with them because I lived there J 2) they are mostly worldwide known institutions and it is easy to grasp how they change our life. The advantage of living there is also being ahead of the wave. For example, it is not very unusual to see a driverless car with the label “Google self-driving car” on Highway 101 in San Francisco next to your car. Overall, my point is also not a praise of the US over Turkey and Germany but just an emphasis on their strength in developing cutting-edge science and technology. In some future articles, I would like to write about why Turkey and Germany are also great countries to live. I believe that both Germany and Turkey have the potential to create a Bay Area environment to generate their own breakthroughs if they would break certain norms.

Advances in science and technology unavoidably change our life in many aspects. From young to old, we benefit from the developments that facilitate our daily activities and help us to fight diseases. Many diseases now can be treated, and people with chronic conditions have gained better life conditions. While the societies who conduct cutting-edge research are at the peak of the wave to find solutions to problems, the followers/imitators would mostly try to adopt pioneers’ inventions to seek their own solutions. Naturally, not every advance of leading societies will be a proper answer for the others. They even may create more problems if not well adopted. Hence, it is highly desirable that followers/imitators would develop their own innovations. In addition, if we don’t want to be concerned about others spying on our government officials, and personal life -which will naturally happen as long as we all use Gmail, iPhones J- we better develop and use our own solutions. But how can we create a society that could come up with its own breakthroughs?

I believe that this requires an environment that encourages liberal thinking, which can welcome challenging –out of the box– ideas even if they seem out of the standardized life norms. While one can build a city like Dubai by pouring money into any society, a similar approach would not be sufficient to create a Harvard University or a Google in any society. The latter requires infrastructure, culture and complete freedom of individuals to come up with innovative ideas again and again as quick as possible. Even Germany, which is one of the most developed countries, lags behind the US system in that regard due to a somewhat conservative system and thinking. For example, Germans are famous to make high quality products: if something has "made in Germany" label, we know that it is strong, stable and long lasting. Even if it is more expensive, we would invest on high quality German products considering the future. However, to develop treatments for devastating diseases and develop our own technological advances rather being solely users of others' technologies requires more radical thinking and quicker accomplishments. For example, if iPhones were to be made in Germany, most of them would not come to market that quickly because they would fail quality tests of German standards due to e.g. their antenna problems, software problems etc. When they come to the market though, they would work perfectly. However, in that case, now we would most probably be using iPhone 2 rather than iPhone 5. Development of the best electrical cars (Tesla), Internet search engine (Google), online social networks (Facebook, G+) are similarly products of environment having complete freedom of individual to come up with leading-edge ideas to change the world without authoritarian restrictions. It is noteworthy to mention that most of these companies were founded within the last 10-15 years, by young individuals at their early 20ies or 30ies, unlike established, well-trusted big-brother companies/governments, who most of the time would dislike and try to suppress such young and creative initiations in the conservative societies.

One great example of such an innovative company is Tesla Motors. It was founded by visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk, 11 years ago, when he was 31! Today, Tesla Motors produces the best electrical car (Model S) in the world (ahead of established companies like Toyota and BMW). If someone were to come up with the idea of making such an electrical car company in another country, in addition to lack of innovative environment, they would mostly liked be suppressed by rich and powerful establishments and vanished in a short time. Not to mention, SpaceX, the other company founded by Musk is has another hard to perceive vision: travelling common people to space. It is interesting that Elon Musk studied Art and Science, which might be a critical component of his visionary personality, who thinks of and produces novel ideas again and again. I would strongly suggest to you at least to have a look at his TED talk. Maybe the most famous CEO of the last decades, Steve Jobs had similar visions to come up with novel and inspiring ideas and products, which significantly changed our lives. Steve Jobs was also very curious about art and had been always fascinated by design. His rebellious nature to challenge authoritarian systems (norms) was evident even before funding Apple. For example, he and his buddy and co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, developed and marketed "Blue Box" which could hack into large phone company in the US to make free international calls instead of paying fortunes. When they started producing the Apple 1, one of the main aims was to challenge the concept that the computers, which were very expensive at that time, were only for rich people, companies and banks.

Being first in developing novel science and technology is also very important from an economical standpoint. Tesla Motors market value reached to ~$ 36 billion within 12 years! WhatsApp, which was founded in 2009 by two former Yahoo employees (Brian Acton (41) and Jan Koum (38)), was recently sold to Facebook for $ 19 billion, an amount that is larger than major investments of countries often are. For example, the cost of the much discussed 3rd bridge in Istanbul is ~$ 6 billion and the Eurosia tunel is ~$ 1.3 billion. The amazing football stadium of Bayern Munich, the Allianz Arena, cost ~$ 0.34 billion. The research budget of the entire European Union in the framework of Horizon 2020 is about ~$ 15 billion per year! While there have been other similar applications, WhatsApp was the first to create a user-friendly and stable app as a solution to the need of free texting, hence it dominated the market. Being the first in science and technology is like being first in art. When we see the worldwide famous art pieces from Picasso or the ‘Blaue Reiter’, we can easily think that we could do the same. Yes, most probably, some could make the same artwork but what matters is that they were the first to make such ingenious art in their time, which had a certain fixed focus and understanding of art.

How have such companies been flourishing in the Bay Area? At first glance, I think it is due to two characteristics of the west coast which do not really exist in European culture (1) Rewarding everyone: Such companies take care of all their employees from the lowest status workers to top management and reward all of them whenever success if achieved (see the figure below). (2) Valuing everyone’s idea: They create an environment that everyone feels equal and valued. A CEO of the company may dress up in away that you may not notice if she/he is the CEO or the one cleaning the floor. Highest management people would communicate with the people from each level and listen to their perspectives. These two critical aspects give the feeling of belonging –being a piece of the puzzle– in which then every individual gives their best to improve the work environment and the quality in a synergy. Additional 3 criteria for success in my opinion are the availability of top niche resources, professional work ethics and quality of individuals as briefly discussed below.
(3) Resources: Presented resources should be compatible with the targets of the organization. For example, if an institution aims to have the market for solar-power systems, it should have sufficient resources -both information and cash reserves- to develop innovative ideas and be ahead of competitors.
(4) Professional work ethics: A professional organization would have clear targets and proper methodologies to reach the targets. This would depend on visionary leadership and talented managers. They would find and hire the best individuals suited for the work without discriminating them by their identity and background.

(5) Quality of individuals: Last, which may be the first in importance, is the quality of the individuals forming the organization. The quality of individuals at each level matters in such organizations similar to the importance of each brick forming the Galata Tower in Istanbul. Strong individuals are those who care about their health, their family (spending quality of time with family), and their environment/society (helping to charities, contributing their knowledge and feedbacks to improve the conditions they live in). Steve Jobs once said, “A” players would like to work with “A” players. Institutions, which value individuals at each level, invest a lot of resources to improve their employees both at work and outside of the workplace. Even if they are not “A” players initially, they could develop to be “A” players in an environment that they value and are valued by. This surely pays off well in the long run to have stable and happy team players who are loyal and sincerely bound to the organization. In my next article, I will go into details of such a company, and give details of how they create a state-of-the-art innovation environment to come up with various breakthroughs.

Edit by Caroline Hojer. 

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