Serendipity, Silos & Combinatory Play

Exaptive Data Guru Dave King teaches the world a new way to connect.

story by Veronica Pasfield | illustration by Aaron Cahill (@nghbrs)

Serendipity is becoming an endangered species in our tech-driven world. Uber realized it could use cellphones and GPS to create an app that takes the luck out of catching a cab. Tinder uses the same tools to drastically stack the deck in favor of hooking up. So many other platforms are overriding luck to bring us what we want and need.

Dave King, an MIT grad and founder and CEO of Exaptive, has dedicated himself to doing the same for innovation. 

“As a society, we believe that good ideas are these lightbulbs that go off in the minds of geniuses." 

"I think because we like the mythology of that, we haven’t really worked all that hard to take technological tools and use them to take the serendipity out of aha! moments," King said.

In 2011, King started a software platform company, which works with data and builds web applications. Three years later, his wife, Dr. Deonnie Moodie, graduated from Harvard and got a faculty position at the University of Oklahoma. King made the bold move of transferring Exaptive from Cambridge—a hub of elite universities and uber-brains—to OKC. After securing a round of funding, Exaptive’s 17-member team now helps NGOs, the Gates Foundation, and medical researchers solve meta problems. Revenue is into “seven digits” and Exaptive projects profitability by next year.

King is no stranger to risk-taking and big thinking. After King’s earlier start up didn’t go public during the recent financial crisis, he sold everything, scaled back to part time, and traveled the world to rock climb. Were it not for the lure of doing good with data, this newly minted Mesta Park guy might still be living in his VW camper van. “We choose to work with NGOs, biotech, and things like that because we wanted (the company) to do some good in the world.”

So what is this notion of "exaptive"?

Most people know Gutenberg invented the printing press. But most don’t know he went to a vineyard before he did so. He saw a wine press squishing grapes and thought, “What if I’m squishing ink instead of squishing grapes?” The early Gutenberg press is almost identical to a screw wine press. But what if Gutenberg hadn’t gone to a vineyard?

Innovation is not some brand new idea that somebody has. It’s sort of a recombination of existing ideas, or “exaption.” At Exaptive (the company), we focus on ideas that come from data, and trying to derive insight from data. The issue today is not about creating more data—we have so much—it’s about extracting the information that’s in the data. That’s the mission behind Exaptive; can we create a software technology and platform that will stack the odds in favor of people having good ideas?

Your platform helps connect innovators and researchers who are trying to solve similar problems, maybe not even within the same filed. You liken your work to creating connective tissue or building bridges between silos of specialization. 

We’ve designed a new network that’s all about finding out about the things you didn’t know you didn’t know. Cross-cultural sharing is a major source of innovation. There are so many techniques people are inventing every day in different domains. If somebody is developing a replacement for word cloud in the field of legal research, but you’re a medical researcher, you may not (know). It’s a bit like social media but via concepts and problems with similarities. It’s not about being social. We call this a cognitive network. It’s about facilitating thought.

Give me an example of how this works. 

We were hired by an NGO to help them gather information for policies that will help reduce stunted growth in developing nations. We tend to cluster them by continent—Asia, Africa, South America. But this data norm isn’t (determinative).

They gave us an amazing data set—500 metrics about every country on Earth. CO2 emissions. Amount of money spent on military. Education level of women. Then they asked us to use that data to come up with a clustering of countries based on the data.

One of our data scientists tackled his analytic model by converting his data sets into long strings like DNA sequences. Through the Exaptive network, he was connected to a geneticist who said, “Hate to break it to you, your data doesn’t look like DNA sequences. But it looks a lot like protein sequences. In fact, there’s a lot more algorithmic development around clustering proteins than there is in clustering DNA.”

Einstein said that “combinatory play” seems to be the essential feature of productive thought. 

If you can lower the barriers in allowing people to play, and to form and test hypotheses, then you create an environment that’s really rich for aha moments. (Our scientist) ended up with statistically significant accuracy in clustering countries, which has potential implications for how people intervene around malnutrition.

It’s almost like Exaptive is asking for a shift in consciousness. 

I find myself thinking about lateral vs. linear thinking. There was a fascinating (study) out of Northwestern University that looked at people who were trying to solve problems that require lateral insight. Whenever we’re faced with a problem, the first part of the brain that activates is the pre-frontal cortex. That’s the ‘brute force’ part of our brain. It also inhibits a part of our brain that understands literary allusion, humor, etc. So if someone is not solving a problem, the harder they focus, they’re actually lower their odds of (success). Science is filled with anecdotes about people who solve a problem when they go for a walk or get in the shower. 

You must have been concerned about relocating Exaptive from Boston to OKC. 

I was initially petrified at the idea of moving. We had built the company in Boston, and had clients and a team there. There’s no doubt it’s harder to find talent here than it would be in Boston or San Francisco. But I couldn’t be more proud of the team we’ve got here. 

Speaking of play, I’ve got to ask you, what’s the best thing about living in a VW van? 

My bedroom got a lot smaller, but my living room got a lot, lot bigger. The world’s this amazingly big, interesting place. It was great just to be in it.