Interview: Dr. Jon Schull 🗺

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“Recognize that innovation often emerges on the fringes, and at the threshold, of established professions. Students are on the threshold. It is their opportunity and responsibility to recognize that they are well positioned to be pioneers, and advocates for change, as well as repositories of established professional wisdom.”

jon schull interview series

Jon Schull is the Founder of e-NABLE, a global network of volunteers using 3D technologies to make free 3D printed prosthetics for children and undeserved populations. A social and business entrepreneur, inventor, human-computer interaction researcher, and digital community organizer, Schull also co-founded the Enable Community Foundation and pioneering digital rights company SoftLock.com, aka DigitalGoods.com (NASDAQ:DIGS).

Schull is the author of 19 patents, most of them informed by his theoretical work in complex adaptive systems and his Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from University of Pennsylvania. Schull and his collaborators pioneer solutions for “Connected Humanitarians” and their beneficiary-partners around the world. Dr. Schull will be a speaker at our global conference in April, #3DHEALS2017.

Q: What is your vision on the intersection of 3D Printing and healthcare?

A: 3D printing is a fabrication technique, a methodology, and a harbinger of things to come. These three aspects of 3D printing all have potentially profound implications for healthcare. As a fabrication technique, 3D printing and design accelerate and enables the development and production of useful healthcare devices. As a methodology, it is ushering an era of rapid prototyping, mass customization, and digital distribution.

Because digital technologies inevitably tend to spread beyond the traditional geographical and organizational bounds of institutional and professional medicine, 3D printing presages a future, where patients and “connected humanitarians” around the world have access to tools of production, and to medical data which was formerly available to, and controlled by professionals. An example would be prosthetic devices by non-professional volunteers.

If we take the long view, “non-institutional healthcare” has been the norm throughout most of human history. Looking forward, open source 3D printed assistive technologies (and other internet-enabled healthcare techniques) allows us to envision a new era of non-institutional healthcare that may complement, inform, and ultimately transform traditional, professional institutional healthcare.

Q: What do you specialize in? What is your passion?

A: Change making and inventing, studying and advancing the spread of valuable ideas through information networks. When I got my Ph.D. biological psychology (37 years ago!), I was interested in natural selection as a biological problem-solving in the information networks known as gene pools and ecosystems, and as a model for problem-solving by communities as well as individuals. When the world wide web emerged as an accessible global information network, I started a company and invented a system for distributing digital goods like software and e-books through the internet. in my second academic career I taught innovation and invention, and that lead to the creation of e-NABLE, which (surprise!) is all about change making by inventing and disseminating assistive technologies through the internet.

Q: What inspired you to do what you do?

A: I saw a youtube video about the first source 3D-printable “robohand” and had the bright idea of adding a comment inviting people with 3D printers and people who needed prosthetics to put pins on an online map. I described “e-NABLE” as “a [mythical] global assistive technology network built on an infrastructure of 3D printing, electronic communications, and good will.” Implausibly, it took off, and the possibility that this might actually work took over my life!

Q: What challenges do you see arising in implementing 3D printing in healthcare sector in the next 5 years?

A: The biggest challenge will be finding the right mix of regulation and bureaucracy, vs. creative, chaotic innovation. Regulations that ensure we “do no harm” are good. Bureaucracies and traditions that prevent doing good are harmful. As a result, undeserved populations suffer, and human resources are wasted.

Q: What is the best business lesson you have learned?

A: Nothing goes as planned.

Q: What is the biggest business risk you have taken?

A: I’m the only person I know who’s given up tenure twice. Both times it worked out, even though the ventures I plunged into (the digital rights management business, and e-NABLE) have been roller coaster rides.

Q: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome on your innovative journey?

A: If your most innovative ideas were obvious to other people, they wouldn’t be innovations. So you have to endure skepticism and discouragement. If the path forward is obvious to others, others can take it. So you have to slog. And yet, you are often wrong. So you have to accept failure, endure disappointment, and recognize that success is not assured.

Q: What is your vision for open source community like eNABLE? (You can change the questions to make it more correct)?

A: e-NABLE as a model of connected humanitarianism: volunteers using open source methodologies and emerging technologies to develop and disseminate new solutions for undeserved populations. This is not charity — it’s incredibly rewarding work. The opportunity — and the luxury — of creating a world worthy of our better selves should be universal.

Q: Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

A: I’ve had a varied career…but in my current field, I’d say humanitarians and change makers like Mohammad Younis and Gandhi, inventors like Dean Kamen, and digital communitarians like Richard Stallman (open source) and Johnny Wales (Wikipedia).

Q: What was the defining moment that led you to your field?

A: That would be the moment when I commented on a youtube video about the first source 3D-printable “robohand” inviting people with 3D printers and people who needed prosthetics to put pins on an online map describing “e-NABLE” as “a [mythical] global assistive technology network built on an infrastructure of 3D printing, electronic communications, and good will.” Implausibly enough, it took off.

Q: What area of research most interests you right now? Why?

A: Under what conditions are radically inexpensive devices possible, valuable, and appropriate? To answer this question, we need to explore the realm of the possible further, develop our understanding of both functional and psycho-social value, and develop a richer knowledge of the medical and social-economic contexts in which such devices are medically or socially appropriate.

Q: What advice would you offer to students today?

A: Recognize that innovation often emerges on the fringes, and at the threshold, of established professions. Students are on the threshold. It is their opportunity and responsibility to recognize that they are well positioned to be pioneers, and advocates for change, as well as repositories of established professional wisdom.

Q: Have you ever been fortunate enough to witness or to have been part of medical history in the making? If so, please explain.

A: The emergence of a global network of volunteers developing and delivering radically inexpensive assistive technologies to undeserved populations may prove to be a significant chapter in medical history (within the field of prosthetics or beyond). Or not. Time — and future work — will tell.

Q: What is up next for you?

A: I’m working on the research questions described above, and I’m trying to develop alliances of e-NABLE and other “connected humanitarian” movements with medical and humanitarians organizations around the world that can reach, serve, and protect the interests of underserved populations. (Look for news about e-NABLEghva.)

 

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