MENLO PARK, Calif.--If you've never seen a robot climb straight up an entirely flat vertical wall, I dare you not to be impressed the first time you do.
That was my certainly experience when I watched a wall-climbing robot do its thing at SRI International here the other day. Indeed, my host, who had been with me through several product and project demonstrations over about three hours, noticed how excited I was by watching this little device go straight up the wall, and, I think, began to wonder if I was actually interested in any of the other things I'd seen.
In fact, she shouldn't have worried. I was at SRI as part of my ongoing Road Trip at Home series and was getting a rapid-fire lay of the land at this Silicon Valley research and development--and incubation--powerhouse. And while the robot technology may well have been the coolest thing I saw all day (see video below), I liked almost everything I saw during my visit.
The wall-climber is the sexy model SRI built to showcase its electroadhesion technology, which, as senior research engineer Harsha Prahlad explained, is as it sounds, an electrical adhesive. "With the power on, there's adhesion," Prahlad said. "With the power off, there's no adhesion."
Prahlad said that SRI sees this technology as a "sticky pad" for objects, a "temporary tape you can attach objects to your wall with." Yet, there's no sticky residue: all the adhesion is done through the power of attracting opposite electrical charges to each other. An object, like a small robot, has flexible plastic electrodes attached to it, which are charged positive or negative, and then it will stick to any surface because "the world develops opposite charges for us," Prahlad said. "So wherever there's a positive, the material gets charged negative, and vice versa."
So what is SRI doing with electroadhesion? According to Prahlad, it is looking for ways to incorporate it into structural or building inspection--you could have a wall-climbing robot place a camera or a sensor in a hard-to-reach spot; into consumer products--so you can attach objects to a wall; into military use--so soldiers can place a surveillance camera, or to place some other kind of item; into industry--it could be used to move large items, such as car parts, around.
Prahlad said that electroadhesion is a winning idea because the systems that power it require very little power, weigh next to nothing, and are nearly silent. "And they can conform around [any] object," he said, "so they can adapt to any shaped object."
Today, places like car manufacturing plants use a variety of robotic systems, like vacuum or mechanical graspers, to move items around. But Prahlad said electroadhesion offers as much as 20 times the power and 10 times the mass savings over such legacy systems.
First shown publicly in 2008, the wall-climbing robot and other systems built with electroadhesion are at least two years away, Prahlad predicted.
A history of innovation
For decades after its 1946 founding, SRI was part of Stanford University, and was known as Stanford Research Institute. But during the Vietnam War, said Norman Winarsky, SRI's vice president for ventures, licensing, and strategic programs, Stanford was getting picketed for having government contracts, and so the institute was spun off as a nonprofit.
The irony of that is that today, SRI has plenty of partnerships with Stanford, and at least 70 percent of its contracts are with the government, Winarsky said.
Silicon Valley, of course, abounds with companies and institutions geared toward pushing the latest technology and science toward profitable markets. There's the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Stanford; Google and Hewlett-Packard and Intel, and others.
But SRI has been leveraging high-tech R&D into start-ups for years, and Winarsky said that around 50 companies that began inside the institute have eventually been spun off. Four of these companies have gone IPO and together are now worth $20 billion. And, of course, this is the institution that spawned the invention of the mouse, the hyperlink, surgical robots, that was in on the very first Arpanet communication ever, and so much more.
"Our mission is to be the world's leader in innovation," Winarsky said, "delivering new innovations and solutions into the marketplace. That's very different from our peers, which are usually [set up] to educate, or to do R&D alone."
At any given time, SRI has around 2,000 projects in the pipeline, spread across five major divisions.
Among them are the information technology division--with three sub-divisions focusing on artificial intelligence, speech and natural language, and computer security; physical sciences--clean tech, batteries, alternative energy, and new materials; and engineering systems, where the institute is looking at developing new systems and software.
There's also an education division, which was one of my first stops for the day, accompanied by Melissa Koch, a senior project manager in SRI's Center for Technology in Learning. Among other things, Koch is working on a surprising National Science Foundation-funded project she told me about, one aimed at providing low-income, urban girls with after-school science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) development.
The idea, Koch said, is to help answer the question of where the next generation of innovators is going to come from. Working alongside a nonprofit known as Girls Inc., she is trying to entice middle-school-age girls in underserved communities to consider careers in information technology--through exposure to professional women of color, as well as visits to places like Google and IDEO--and to "get comfortable using new technologies as they come about."
The last of SRI's five areas is its biosciences division, which largely focuses on drug development, Winarsky said.
It might be surprising to know that the institution is a major pharmaceutical player, but that's because most of its work ends up being brought to market by companies with professional marketing and sales organizations. Still, the underlying science behind some of the pharma industry's pills comes straight from SRI.
One project I got to see is run by Gita Shankar, the director of formulations R&D in the biosciences division. Shankar explained that one big problem in the pharmaceuticals industry is that many drugs require being taken intravenously--something that is not practical in many situations.
Even when it's practical, Shankar added, many people prefer to take drugs orally--as a pill or a solution--rather than having them injected, and research shows that people are more likely to take a prescribed oral drug than one that's IV. So at SRI, Shankar and her team are working hard at figuring out the rather complex problem of converting IV drugs into those that can be taken orally.
The difficulty, she explained, is that while an IV drug goes straight into the blood stream, a swallowed substance must first transit the stomach and the intestines--and their myriad acids and bases--before making it to the patient's veins. That process can take as much as two hours and easily degrade the drug.
As a result, SRI has built up a competency, Shankar explained, in converting existing drugs--such as the antibiotic vancomycin--from IV-only to oral and building a giant database of the substances--known as "enhancers" that can help push a drug successfully through the stomach and intestine and into the veins.
Once the division is successful at coming up with a drug transformation, SRI will find a commercial partner to market it, and then collect royalties.
According to Shankar, all the drugs in SRI's pipeline are in a pre-clinical pathway, and many are geared toward maladies common in the Third World, often those that are not well served by major pharmaceutical companies. As a result, she said, much of the division's funding comes from philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
At the same time, the division is also working on developing drugs for the military, including one geared toward battling anthrax attacks in the field. Shankar said that an IV approach to such a drug was impractical because it required 18 doses over six months. But by converting an existing drug into one that can be taken through the nose--which shortcuts the stomach and the intestine--that slow, deliberate process can be streamlined for the reality of military life.
Siri and Intuitive Surgical
Throughout my visit, almost everyone I met made a point of mentioning Siri, a DARPA-funded company that emerged from SRI's R&D labs and went on to get acquired by Apple, which wanted its mobile virtual personal assistant technology to allow iPhone or iPod Touch users to ask questions about things like services, destinations, or finding consumer goods.
Another frequently mentioned success story was Intuitive Surgical, a Sunnyvale, Calif., SRI spin-off that makes the Da Vinci robotic-assisted surgical system. Da Vinci is being used far and wide for high-precision prostate surgery, as well as myriad other procedures.
The system was first available in 1999, and in 2000, the FDA made it the first robotic surgical system ever cleared for general laparoscopic surgery, SRI said. Since then, Da Vinci has added cardiac, urological, chest, and gynecological procedures to its FDA-approved repertoire.
The point of everyone mentioning Siri and Intuitive Surgical was to showcase SRI's well-known and respected innovation engine. Because while it is a nonprofit that performs more than 70 percent of its contracts for governments, and because much of its funding comes from private foundations and government agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, DARPA, and others, it is still in business. And to hear Winarsky tell it, its business, ultimately, is spinning off new ventures.
As well, it's about trying to determine, earlier than most, where the next great innovation fields will be. To SRI, Winarsky said, those will be the true emergence of artificial intelligence-based virtual personal assistant systems (SRI currently has four developing ventures in that area); and cybersecurity--"We're beginning to see malware that's profoundly different than worms and viruses we've seen in the past," said Winarsky.
But for many of the SRI employees, these fields could well end up being their path to millions, Winarsky suggested.
Indeed, a chief selling point for its more than 2,200 employees is the chance to participate in hefty royalty checks that can come in from successful spin-offs, or even to join new SRI-spawned ventures as founders or executives.
And in the end, Winarsky said, SRI is all about generating an environment that breeds innovation. And that takes a clear and well-defined process.
In fact, oddly enough, one of SRI's most consumed products is a two-day course on its innovation process that it teaches both at its Silicon Valley headquarters and around the world.
"The theory is that innovation is a discipline," Winarsky said. "It does and can have a genius moment of creativity. But it's not necessary that the climate be overcoming all obstacles...So what SRI is refining and leading is cultivating the environment to make innovation."