Access and Feeds

Repurposing Innovation: Turning Amazon’s Alexa into an Assistant in the Lab

By Dick Weisinger

Upcycle. Recycle. Reuse.  Inventors and businesses selling products for one purpose are often surprised when their products are used for purposes totally different from what they were originally designed.

It happens frequently in the drug industry.  For example, drugs that have already been approved for one purpose but that also have value in treating some other problem are significantly cheaper to get to market because those drugs have already been approved for use in humans.

Bruce Bloom, CEO of Cures within Reach, said that “more and more, people are thinking of repurposing as a faster, cheaper, safer way to drive therapies to patients and as a method of creating a smarter way of new drug development.”

Consider a much older example of repurposing. 900 years ago, to save on both taxes levied per volume and on the weight of transport, wine merchants would boil off the excess water from the wine that they sold. The process was devised to save money, but the merchants discovered that the new distilled and concentrated wine was a good product on its own, something that was called ‘brandy’.

Another recent interesting example of repurposing technology is the use of the Amazon’s Alexa voice-driven assistant.  The device was originally developed for hands-free purchasing of goods from Amazon, but also for consumer uses, like checking weather and news, or ordering groceries or tickets to a concert.  Research scientists saw the potential in the relatively cheap device for performing hands-off functions in research laboratories. They reprogrammed the Alexa to be able to understand scientific information.  Now, when scientists are dressed in gloves and protective gear when running experiments, they can simply turn to the device and ask questions like “Alexa, what is the boiling point for Benzene?”

DeLacy Rhodes, assistant professor of biology, said that “we do so much in science where our hands are really busy, so it can be really helpful to have something there that can just tell you what it is that you need to know, be able to answer questions for you, look up information, and remind you of things.”

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