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Ali Arjomand: The Magic Suitcase

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Innovator Profile: Ali Arjomand, PhD

From playroom to particle accelerators: An innovator’s journey

 “My father would come home with a suitcase full of technological curiosities that would reveal a window to the outside world” –Ali Arjomand, PhD

It started with a magic suitcase. Before his PhD—and before making life-saving discoveries in nutritional science, or helping pioneer the genomics revolution, or directing innovation and scientific affairs for Bill Gates’ Global Good Fund–a young Ali Arjomand would eagerly await his father’s return to Iran with a suitcase full of technological curiosities. That suitcase represented a window to the world through which Ali would ultimately map new frontiers in science, business and innovation along a winding journey from Iran to London to Silicon Valley and Seattle.

Ali grew up in a curiosity-driven learning environment. One suitcase at a time, Ali’s father, an electrical engineer and business man, created a playground full of gizmos and toys for tinkering and experimenting. By age eight, Ali recalls going down to play in what he laughingly remembers as a slightly-dangerous play room full of scattered toys and tools from his dad’s toolset. His first interaction with a hot soldering iron taught him a valuable lesson—never pick one up from the wrong end.

“My dad would give me the opportunity to mess with things, and break and create, in an environment where there were no rules, where anything could be opened up and broken and put back together again,” said Ali, Founder of Propel Innovation Consulting. “My dad would give me the ingredients and then walk away. The more problems I faced, the more necessity there was for innovation. The idea was to put myself in places where I would encounter roadblocks or dead ends, in which case it would induce my innovation juices to kick in to solve the problems at hand, and I dove in without consciously knowing that I’d innovated.”

He remembers when a steam engine train set emerged from the suitcase. Fascinated by the way it converted energy to motion, Ali opened up the train, broke it down, and put it back together with pistons and strings that would reel toys around the room, to the sound of a steam whistle he’d put together. During those years of mixing and matching curiosities from his father’s suitcase, the young Ali developed the instinct to break down a problem and apply the right discipline—be it engineering or something else—to solve it.

“The mind of a child is so unrestrained, it’s a shame to clamp it down and force it to follow a toy’s instructions, map-like,” said Ali. “I wanted to do things that the toy wasn’t designed for. I wanted to create ways to fill in that gap.”

New horizons

Tinkering and playing with technology, he said, constituted a language that he could apply anywhere. When he was 10, Ali moved to London for boarding school at an historic institution. Science and math were more natural languages to him than English—he knew that he’d never be Shakespeare—but he nonetheless recognized that communicating was key to sharing an important discovery. Later in life, he would bridge his talents as a scientist and communicator to advance groundbreaking technological discoveries in the commercial context. But before that, he would spend his teenage years and young adulthood in California.

His family emigrated in 1982 to Silicon Valley, where he enrolled as a 15-year-old freshman at Homestead high school. It was the perfect environment for a teenage innovator. Ali came home every day to read Byte Magazine cover-to-cover while playing with circuit boards and building his own computer in his father’s garage, a Valley-inspired permutation of his old playroom in Iran. The PC revolution was in its infancy, touched off largely by a pair of graduates from Homestead named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who Ali recalls being most infamous for their legendary high school pranks: hacking into the football field’s sprinkler system during the halftime show; hacking into the school system to wreck chaos on home room assignments; hacking into AT&T and calling the Pope at the Vatican.

It was a time and place where smart people at play were instigating widespread disruption. He was surrounded by a sense that anything was possible with the right mindset; and he’d certainly cultivated such a perspective tinkering with the curiosities from his father’s suitcase.

“My path to this point and beyond was: here’s the key, now go open the door because anything is possible.”

Metaphorical keys seemed to be laying around everywhere back then. Right after getting his driver’s license, he cruised over to Hewlett Packard and Xerox, and found out there were home-brewed robotics engineers holding informal talks on their hobbies. Ali frequently snuck in and sat in the back row of these sessions, learning from experts who in their spare time were pushing the boundaries of a very cool field. No one asked what company’s department he was in. They assumed he belonged.

Selecting natural selection

Everything was lined up for following in his father’s engineering footsteps. Blessed with both passion and technical talent, he enrolled in engineering courses his first quarter at UC Davis. Within weeks, Ali realized he actually hated it. The coursework was one bland spoonful of memorization after another, with no avenue for discovery or creativity. So he did something completely different in his second quarter.

Ali switched to genetics. He’d never taken a biology class in his life, but he was fascinated by how living systems worked down to their mathematical roots. Meanwhile, he was writing more and more software on his home PC (his first was a Sinclair ZX81 his father had bought him in London as reward for a perfect report card). Genetics and computing constituted a curious balance: there were interesting and lucrative opportunities to advance computer technology; and there were whole new frontiers to map and explore in genetics. On the one hand, he loved surfing the gathering wave of personal computing, from assembling hardware to building software. On the more profound hand, genetics revealed itself to him as, essentially, the operating system of life.

He realized that if he fused his interests, he could apply biological answers to fix technology gaps in a manner no one else ever had.

“I figured with computers, why go through this long journey of trying to develop something when it’s already been developed. I could serve as a bridge from genetics to computing.”

The natural world, he realized, was defined by innovation. All around him, Mother Nature had performed one resource-constrained-driven workaround after another in the form of evolution. Finishing his undergraduate degree in genetics, Ali became increasingly fascinated by evolution, particularly the genetic aspects of environmental fitness. It was a deeply powerful concept for him, then as now, and it helped motivate him through his PhD in nutrition at UC Davis, where he heavily experimented on methodology and techniques in research.

Particle accelerator in the playroom

Where his childhood had featured a big playroom with a soldering iron, UC Davis had an even bigger room with an absolutely massive 15-ton research tool: a particle accelerator. It was being used for high energy physics by the US Department of Energy, but Ali saw its potential for a clinical health and nutrition study. It took some solid negotiating skills to get his university and the DOE to agree to a bold cross-disciplinary application never before done. This was an early and important example of the importance of communication for an innovator to advance his best ideas.

Ali wanted to track a nutrient’s path through the human body. No one had ever tried this. Giving a carbon 14 radiolabeled dose to folic acid to track it, he used the particle accelerator to follow folic acid’s trip through the human body with attomole sensitivity over a six month period. His study subject was his research advisor. The results of his study, published in 1998, were a huge deal. Ali and his colleagues had pioneered a vital new approach they termed, biological Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), an integral tool that was subsequently used in clinical drug studies, personalized medicine and other innovative applications.

Ali’s breakthrough folic acid study led to whole new avenues of research and AMS applications, opening fundamental insights into nutrition and drug kinetics. His research has had tremendous public health impact, including helping to change US food fortification policy that has virtually ended spina bifida in the US, a potentially severe spinal birth defect that limits movement and behavior.

“People at that time had used the particle accelerator to look backwards in time for radiocarbon dating of artifacts, but nobody had used it going forward–to actually follow and trace the molecules in a living human–and it was kind of a big deal,” said Ali, who remains an expert in AMS and uses it for his drug study work. “Back then we didn’t know how much folic acid was required to support healthy fetal development, and since this study’s results were published the US food policy has changed. You see folic acid fortification in flour and elsewhere in the food system and that’s to avoid a birth defect called spina bifida. I helped verify some population studies, validated what was coming from them.”

“Now you never see kids below 15 with spina bifida.”

Unlocking the genome

Ali’s lab at UC Davis continued tracing other vitamins for more studies, but he wanted to move faster and broaden his horizons. The human genome project was gathering steam and the field of genetics called to him. Jumping from academics to industry, he joined a San Francisco startup called CombiMatrix and moved with the company to Seattle at the turn of the millennium. They proceeded to accelerate the rate of discovery in genomics using their unique DNA-semiconductor platform using combinatorial chemistry on a CMOS matrix array (genetic strands of DNA synthesized on a semiconductor wafer).

Transitioning from science to business—Ali helped set up their Tokyo office, where he collaborated with University of Tokyo researchers to invent a new way of testing DNA methylation using customized DNA microarrays–he quickly found he could offer greater value to the world as a communicator of people’s innovations across hundreds of labs. His work took on a translational dimension.

“I understood the backend science, so I could speak to the scientists, but I could also speak to the market aspect with the investors and to the consumers. I could serve as a bridge between the two worlds: the innovators who were pushing the envelope and creating good stuff and wacky stuff; and the market and the opportunity for value creation.”

He’s sat at the intersection of science, technology, business and innovation management ever since. Drug companies approached him about applying his AMS expertise to trace drug kinetics in clinical studies, so Ali left CombiMatrix to start Accium Biosciences in 2004. He raised private capital with institutional investors, ordered and installed a custom-made $2 million particle accelerator–the first privately-owned accelerator mass spectrometer in the world—and recruited a team of physicist and analytical chemists to conduct radiotracer studies for pharmaceutical companies. He participated in roughly 50 clinical studies from 2006-2013 for the biggest names in pharma. And he served as co-investigator on his own NIH-funded brain cancer study, which produced several patents, including two that advanced the AMS technique he invented (the cancer drug was literally traced to the DNA of tumor tissue surgically removed from cancer patients participating in the study).

ali

Global Good

A lifetime devoted to advancing health and science culminated in a premiere position for channeling the power of invention for the good of society. In 2013 he left day-to-day management of Accium to direct strategy, innovation and scientific affairs for Global Good Fund, which Bill Gates personally oversees to serve the needs of impoverished people in low-income countries. Over four years at Global Good Ali led the strategic management of IP assets, prioritizing social impact over capital gain while deploying this IP via innovative, scalable and sustainable business models to address persistent global health problems.

Ali had frontline accountability for Global Good’s partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Together, they built a new risk-tolerant innovation model for exploring innovative solutions that could sustainably address global health and development challenges. They moved fast, learned and iterated, and scaled big when it mattered.

During this growth phase, Ali expanded his role to lead research operations at Intellectual Ventures’ invention laboratory, where Global Good’s investments funded over 100 scientists and engineers from many disciplines pursuing breakthrough ideas.

“The only thing that could beat running my own company was working for Bill Gates in Global Good and IV.” 

Bringing it together at Xinova

At Xinova, he continues to enjoy working with other innovators from many disciplines, using the communication and management skills he’s developed over a long career negotiating the commercial triple-point of science, innovation and industry. 

“I think Xinova is positioned well. There are good incentive models for all stakeholders… In general, I think it’s good to bring in people from outside the discipline to contribute novel thinking. That’s how I see myself, with my background, making an impact. I like to innovate from my strong place, which is life sciences-and-nature-inspired. I bring my own background to a session and it brings something different to the mix.”

But his background as an innovator is translational as well as technical. As an innovation session facilitator, for instance, he brought focus and structure to the sometimes-chaotic environment of a recent brainstorming session.

“I’ve worked with innovators for 20 years and I understand how they operate, both technically and mentally. I know how to speak to them and how to be sensitive to their needs. At a recent ideation session, I was corralling everyone and getting them to chip in and add their opinions and set our aims for the task at hand in the RFI, but at the same time helping us free ourselves to creative ideation and open thinking.”

Looking back… 13,000 years back… on his journey

Although his innovation career has always been future-minded, Ali is proud of what he accomplished when he expanded directed Accium’s accelerator technology on pre-history. Performing radiocarbon dating for the archaeology community, Ali and Accium shed light on ancient mysteries contained within thousands of relics, bones and fossils sent to their lab, including the discovery of sharks with a 400-year lifespan. One sample sent their way in 2011 wound up being Naia, who Ali’s team helped determine was the oldest human discovered in North America by thousands of years. Dating the Ice Age skeleton of Naia, a teenager when she died around 13,000 years ago, solved an ancient mystery of the genetic and geographic origins of the first immigrants to the Americas from Asia. This was the subject of a NOVA documentary that aired recently on PBS.

Ali Arjomonda, suitcase

Ali Arjomand standing by his company’s 1.5 MeV accelerator mass spectrometer where radiocarbon atoms are counted one-by-one using a faraday cup.

I think it’s kind of cool that me, this immigrant from Iran, came and helped set up the lab that would determine the age of the oldest known immigrant in North America.”


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