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Identifying Breakthrough Life Science Research Technologies

Every so often, a new tool, technique, or instrument completely revolutionizes how we do research. These tools and techniques are quickly ingrained into the research enterprise, catalyzing breakthrough discoveries and making it difficult to imagine life without them.

Every so often, a new tool, technique, or instrument completely revolutionizes how we do research. These tools and techniques are quickly ingrained into the research enterprise, catalyzing breakthrough discoveries and making it difficult to imagine life without them. These tools, techniques, and instruments, often called “platform technologies,” have enabled discoveries that even their inventors did not anticipate, created entire new fields of research, and resulted in Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs.

The Obama Administration has championed the use of open innovation approaches like prize competitions to spur innovation and engage citizen solvers on a broad range of issues. Recently, six foundations ran a prize competition to identify the most compelling ideas for revolutionary life science platform technologies.

We had the chance to speak with representatives from these foundations about the life science platform technologies competition. Here’s what they had to say:

What are platform technologies, and what are some important historical examples?

Robert Shelton, President, Research Corporation for Science Advancement: Platform technologies are tools, techniques, and instruments that are applicable to many areas of research, enabling novel approaches for scientific investigation that were not previously possible. Platform technologies often generate orders of magnitude improvements over current abilities in fundamental aspects such as accuracy, precision, resolution, throughput, flexibility, breadth of application, costs of construction or operation, or user-friendliness. 

While they have different levels of relevance to the life sciences, the following are examples of platform technologies:

  • Polymerase chain reaction
  • Charge-coupled device (CCD) sensor
  • Fourier transform
  • AFM/SFM (atomic force microscopy/scanning force microscopy)

Why did you pursue an ideation challenge?

Maria Pellegrini, Executive Director of Programs, W.M. Keck Foundation: In the coming decades, advances in the life sciences will be critical to addressing key global issues, such as providing environmentally sustainable and widespread access to energy, healthcare, food, and water to a rapidly expanding human population.  We recognize that, while directly addressing each of these problems is critical, there is also a strong historical precedent for investing in the identification and development of platform technologies. A recent report attributes a large portion of the remarkable advances currently being made in biological research to the impact of platform technologies.

Why do you think this ideation challenge was important?

Julia Metzner, Program Manager at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Platform technologies have revolutionized and enabled advances in a number of fields and have led to significant increases in knowledge. The introduction of platform technologies can complement existing modes of developing tools and extend their applications. The interdisciplinary nature of developing platform technologies enables lowering of the barrier that has prevented life scientists, physical scientists, and engineers from working together in the past. More and more tools are being made available that allow non-domain-specialists to work outside their expertise areas, and challenges that were previously only able to be addressed within the silos of a specific domain can now be addressed by people outside of that domain.

What were the results of the ideation challenge?

Miyoung Chun, Executive Vice President of Science Programs at The Kavli Foundation: Identifying new platform technologies through an ideation challenge was a way to engage hundreds of scientists and problem-solvers from a variety of different fields and allowed us to reach a broader community. More than 900 people from 68 countries reviewed the call for ideas, and more than 200 entries from 30 countries were submitted. The ideas submitted covered agriculture, molecular and cellular biology, diagnostics, instrumentation development, information and computational sciences, neuroscience, imaging, immunology, and chemistry, to name just a few of the topics.

The five finalists, each of whom submitted an exemplary idea and received a monetary award, were:

  • Richard Taylor, Professor of Physics, Psychology, and Art, University of Oregon – Biologically-inspired, fractal electronics for interfacing artificial implants to living systems
  • Caleb Bell, Founder and CEO, Bell Biosystems – Developing magnetic organelles as living MRI contrast agents to accelerate the bench to bedside realization of cell therapies.
  • Matt Beaudet, CEO, NemaMetrix – A disruptive high-throughput, low cost, and easy-to-use platform for drug development based on physiological monitoring of the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans.
  • Meng Cui, Group Leader, Janelia Farm An all-optical platform for ultra-deep molecular and functional imaging of mammalian brains
  • Lydia Sohn, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of California, BerkeleyA low-cost, label-free platform to screen, and subsequently sort, single-cells for multiple surface markers.

What did you learn from this competition?

John Burris, President of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund: For the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the process was the most important part of the competition.  We liked the fact that the entries were judged without any name or affiliation attached. There is often criticism that decisions are based too heavily on institution and reputation of the applicant.  With this competition those factors were not part of the judging process.

What new partnerships between federal agencies, foundations, academic institutions, or other organizations (like professional societies) would you like to see to define and support future platform technologies for the life sciences?

Christopher Stawski, Vice President for Strategic Program Initiatives at the John Templeton Foundation: The opportunity to collaborate with everyone in this competition highlights the potential of challenge prizes to encourage and support pioneering ideas in areas of shared interest.  Future partnerships and prize competitions amongst government, academia, foundations, and other organizations could target specific areas of interest within the life sciences while still encouraging a broad-minded, cross-disciplinary approach for attracting new ideas.  More pathways should be created to encourage collaborative investments in innovative, “blue-sky” ideas that develop new research methods and tools in the life sciences that may have far-reaching benefit and impact on human lives.


The life sciences continue to benefit greatly from the development of platform technologies. OSTP is especially excited by the use of open innovation approaches to identify new platform technologies demonstrated by this ideation prize.

OSTP also wants to hear from you. What are your ideas for actions that we can take to support the identification and development of new platform technologies for the life sciences? Email us at

Robbie Barbero is a Partnership for Public Service Fellow at OSTP