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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Innovation never has been the exclusive province of humanity. Bacteria, for example, in partnership with trees and other green plants, can claim a major innovation: photosynthesis. It's an old one, but it's a good one. The plants, with the aid of sunshine, release life-giving oxygen by absorbing the carbon dioxide that oxygen-dependent creatures like us exhale.
Today, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rising faster than plants can absorb it, thanks to the release of long-buried CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels. The result: a greenhouse effect and unwelcome long-term changes to the planet's climate. An innovation that removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would be nice right about now.
SRI International, a nonprofit innovation powerhouse located in Menlo Park, has not invented such a device but it is testing one. While the device is not elegant in the manner of a redwood tree or a rain forest, SRI's backyard is home to a tree-sized rectangular metallic object that quietly -- and modestly -- absorbs CO2 from the air. It operates on waste heat and does not generate CO2 in the process, traditionally a stubborn problem in green technology.
The manufacturer, Global Thermostat Corp., is an East Coast startup in a partnership with SRI since October 2010. SRI, founded by Stanford University and celebrating its 65th year, is running the initial test of a device that efficiently cuts CO2 concentrations while producing salable quantities of the gas.
"It's a world of abundance," Curtis R. Carlson, the president and chief executive at SRI, says in a recent interview at company headquarters on Ravenswood Avenue. "I have never seen so many opportunities. Every field is wide open."
SRI is practiced in opportunity exploitation and its website shows a long list of innovations. A few of them: the computer mouse, artificial muscles, GPS signal calibration, minimally invasive surgery using tools controlled by surgeons not in the room, and robots that use static electricity to climb walls.
The company employs 1,300 people in Menlo Park and has facilities in Japan, the United Arab Emirates, throughout the United States, and in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where SRI operates the radio-telescope observatory.
SRI's clients include corporations large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, national and international, as well as government agencies at all levels here and abroad. But its focus is in the United States, once supreme in scientific and technical research and development, but now engaged with eager and capable rivals.
"The world really is changing fast, both in terms of competition and in terms of technology," Mr. Carlson says. "You have to keep raising your standards."
To sharpen the competitive edge in the U.S., start with the schools, Mr. Carlson says, citing as one example SRI's program at Girls Middle School, a private nonsectarian school in Palo Alto.
SRI has run a two-day boot camp, where teams of girls write business plans and pitch their ideas to real venture capitalists, Mr. Carlson says. Mentors, including himself, help them along. A team starts with $100 and, if successful, repays it with interest, donates 20 percent of the profits to charity and splits the rest among the team, Deb Hof, the head of the school, said by telephone.
The ventures tend toward products that seventh-grade girls would buy -- jewelry and purses, picture frames and cork boards -- but one team wrote a book on middle school that was published, Ms. Hof says.
"When you interview these young women at the end of it, they're just terrific," Mr. Carlson says. "They discover the joy of working and solving puzzles. ... I could have cried."
Mr. Carlson says he remembered one girl who kept returning to the phrase, "I don't know if you noticed," as in, "I don't know if you noticed, but this was a lot of work, and a lot of fun."
That combination -- learning to work hard and learning that it can be fun -- is at the heart of the change to the education system that Mr. Carlson sees as vital.
Not appreciating the joy of hard work is a common barrier, typically confronted for the first time in college, and the sooner surmounted the better, he says.
In looking at innovative teaching methods, SRI worked with teachers and thousands of Texas and Florida students. One finding: kids don't learn math effectively from traditional teaching methods unless the teacher is extraordinary, Mr. Carlson says.
One answer that SRI is working on, Mr. Carlson says, is software, refined by extensive trial and error, to enable average teachers to achieve the test results of extraordinary teachers.
The United States is one among many participants in a fiercely competitive global innovation economy, an economy in which green technology figures prominently. The arguments are more or less settled as to the threat to life as we know it from climate change. Does SRI see this as a high priority, and green technology as an important opportunity?
Scientists certainly contribute to the effort, but SRI has other projects going, Mr. Carlson says. "People here are pretty consumed with what they're doing."
Climate change problems "are really hard problems," he added. "We really don't have the technology we need at this point." Natural gas, which emits lower amounts of CO2 than coal and oil, is becoming popular, he says, and represents a window of 20 to 50 years to develop green alternatives.
As for green technology, the United States is not out in front, but it doesn't have to be that way, he says. "Five companies are leaving California every week because they can't do business here because it's too expensive." His recommendations: a simpler tax code and "more effective" regulations.
"We have a lot of work to do to get California and the United States in better balance," he added. "We're not competitive. We need to change that."
The challenges are constantly evolving. Medicine today, for example, is based on physiology, chemistry and physics, but the focus will change to information technology and genetics, he says.
For example, any drug has a potential to be toxic, but with a patient's genome available, an analysis might predict problems, Mr. Carlson says. Which gets to the relevance of computerized assistance for doctors, which will be essential, he says, because the problems will be so much more complex.
Mr. Carlson played the violin professionally at age 15 and still plays. Asked about its importance, he replies that it's tough learning a Beethoven quartet or a Brahms sextet. Learning to do so became a metaphor for the rewards of work. "It was the major influence in my life," he says.
"The rewards are proportional to the effort you put in," a touchstone, he says. "Once you learn (this lesson), you know, it's hard to go back."
Among SRI's fields of inquiry are pharmaceuticals, anti-terrorism, robotics and material science, each of which presents at least the potential for misuse. Is ethics a factor in who the company agrees to work for?
"If we discover any ethical lapses, we won't work with them," Mr. Carlson says. "People with questionable ethics are a disaster to work with. You can't be successful with people you can't trust."