Space: “Enabling” the Frontier

April 21, 2014

Bell LabsIt’s remarkable how often, when asked to reflect on how to spur innovation, the most successful inventors wind up talking about architecture.

At its peak Bell Labs housed 1,200 Ph.D.s who worked in an ingeniously designed space created by modernist architect Eero Saarinen. As Jon Gertner’s book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation points out, Bell Labs understood even back in the early 1940s that they would increase their odds of success by creating a space in which smart people naturally bumped into other smart people to have unplanned but potentially productive discussions.

And it worked. Over four decades scientists at Bell Labs won a whopping 12 Nobel Prizes, while inventing everything from touch tone telephones to transistors, lasers, communications satellites and cell phones.

Recently, when MIT asked esteemed faculty from the former Center for Cancer Research (CCR) why they felt that their organization had become such a leader in understanding cancer at the molecular level, nearly all of them mentioned the cramped former chocolate factory in which they worked, day and night, surrounded by people they respect and admire.

“We had so many people in such cramped spaces … but that’s what made it work,” said one. “We shared stuff, we shared ideas … we were plugged into the grapevine,” said another.

And over that time, five CCR faculty won Nobel Prizes while making seminal discoveries that paved the way for today’s era of targeted cancer therapies. Now all of MIT’s newer buildings – from the Ray and Mary Stata Center to the Media Lab and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research – are designed specifically to encourage “collisions” that lead to collaboration.

These insights provide an important framework when designing today’s new homes of innovation, which have migrated far from the mid-century Bell Labs-like “campus” to hundreds of smaller spaces, housing fewer but more diversified entrepreneurs. One such project, LabCentral, opened last fall in Cambridge, Mass. with the support of Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and others. It is just one of dozens of similar innovation spaces now found from Harlem to Houston, Chicago to Shanghai, where industry leaders are creating affordable, high density and shared lab space to help move early stage ideas forward to where they will be attractive to industry or investors.

This movement is undoubtedly a positive one. The exorbitant sums required to start business in biotech – renting space, equipping the lab, obtaining needed permits, etc. — have been a long-standing barrier to entry that makes the innovation puzzle in this industry especially hard to crack.

As this “innovation building boom” takes root organizers would be wise to remember that beyond bricks and mortar, cheap rent and access to technology, entrepreneurs need above all the constant presence of shrewd and recurring feedback from their peers who will test and shape their ideas and cause them to think differently.

The most successful innovation spaces will promote cross-pollination and inter-disciplinary collaboration, and will strike the right balance between order and chaos, predictability and spontaneity. They will recognize that idea-shaping insights might arrive from unexpected quarters…like that brilliant person who is behind you in line, waiting for another cup of coffee.