Exploring the arc of innovation – Q&A with Thomas Goetz

At TEDMED 2014, Thomas Goetz, health journalist, science writer, and entrepreneur, shared a riveting story about one of the lesser-known heroes of medical research whose successes carried crucial implications for future health discoveries. Curious to learn more, we reached out to him with questions.

"Science is not about that first moment - it's about the rules and the process that we use to explore ideas." - Thomas Goetz, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Jerod Harris]
“Science is not about that first moment – it’s about the rules and the process that we use to explore ideas.” – Thomas Goetz, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Jerod Harris]

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I spoke at TEDMED in 2010, and giving that talk had a profound impact on my work and my career. I knew that, given the chance, this was an invitation I couldn’t turn down!

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

“Innovation” is such a buzzword these days. Everyone wants to be an innovator, every organization feels compelled to be innovative. The word smacks of shiny technologies and slick strategies; it seems almost a facile topic. But innovation – true innovation – is hardly easy. It’s a struggle of ego and conflict and rife with failure. Most of all, it’s hard work.

To me, the story of Robert Koch’s scientific efforts shows that Koch was innovating on two levels at once. The first was science, with the investigations into the germ theory. But, just as difficult was the fact that he had to invent a process. He had to devise a rule set that allowed the pursuit of discovery, what we know now as “in vitro science.” This process, which we take for granted today, is received knowledge. It’s important to recognize that the process is as much a thing as the result of the process. What’s more, we’re in the midst of a new area of innovation today – the idea of “in vitae science,” which I discuss in my talk. My hope is that people will see that creating the rules that govern this new kind of science are as much for the making as the laboratory science of the 19th century. And, it could be just as impactful.

What’s next for you?

At my startup Iodine, we are actively trying to build the rules and technologies that might allow in vitae science to flourish. By giving people a forum to share their medical histories and creating a new dataset that can help drive better decisions for others, we are providing a quantitative assessment of subjective experience. It’s very much continuing what I spoke about at TEDMED, and putting these ideas into real life.