“Incrementalism is Innovation’s Worst Enemy”

  • Posted on 17.04.2013

“Incrementalism is Innovation’s Worst Enemy”


Jack Andraka

Winner of 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair


We are currently facing a crisis in medicine, one that I believe has much larger repercussions than climate change and would endanger each and every one of our lives. 

What’s happening is that we are seeing the emergence of these “super” diseases that mutate to be resistant to medical treatments and are difficult to diagnose, one of the main ones being cancer. In the next few years several cancers are predicted to increase their death tolls by 200% because of the lack of new medical innovation. These diseases are mutating at rates that are far faster than our current rate of medical innovation, and in the natural world it is survival of the fittest. 

To make matters worse our current healthcare system is ancient and broken — the vast majority of our medical technologies date back to the 1960’s and 1970’s. While other fields have accelerated, medicine has remained stagnant. 

For example you don’t see me carrying around a computer from the 1960’s, then again I don’t know if I could carry around one of those ancient things. 

The medical field has become stagnant, there’s good work going on, however they are really just clever applications of previous technology. Medical technology is evolving, but evolution is slow and has far too many failures and dead ends for us to use as a development strategy for technology. Today’s diseases develop at a much faster rate than our medical technology — and that means that we now have to worry about super resistant bacterias and cancers. 

As Nicholas Negroponte once said, “Incrementalism is Innovation’s worst enemy.” To his point, we cannot sustainably continue incrementally improving existing technology. Instead of the slow course of medical evolution, what we need is a medical revolution. 

My personal story with the stagnation of medical technology began three years ago when I was 13. A close family friend, who was like an uncle to me passed from pancreatic cancer. All of the tests missed his cancer until it was too late and the disease had metastasized throughout his body, killing him within 6 short months of his diagnosis. 

When I began researching the tests for pancreatic cancer I found that they were 60-years old—that’s older than my dad— and they were grossly inaccurate missing 30% of all pancreatic cancers and extremely expensive, and it’s extremely expensive costing $800 per test.

I knew there had to be a better way, so I developed a novel test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer that costs 3 cents and takes 5 minutes to run — making it 168 times faster, over 26,000 times less expensive and over 400 times more sensitive than our current test. 

– Jack Andraka, Winner of the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

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