Derek Parker's Third Act
What’s the dean of health-care design doing in Silicon Valley? Attempting to revolutionize the way hospitals are designed and built.
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In June 2011, Derek Parker boarded a plane at San Francisco International Airport. The veteran health-care architect was headed to San Diego to deliver the most improbable presentation of his illustrious, six-decade-long career. For six months, he had worked as a consultant with a Silicon Valley design start-up called Aditazz. Shortly after Parker signed on, the new company had entered Small Hospital, Big Idea—a design competition launched by Kaiser Permanente. The first round, in which the firms remained anonymous, drew more than 400 entries. Eight of the nine shortlisted firms invited to San Diego were industry heavyweights. The ninth, to everyone’s surprise, was the unknown Aditazz.
But that wasn’t the only surprise. During his presentation the following day, Parker dropped the real bomb: the hospital design that vaulted his unknown company into the round of nine had been created largely by an algorithm. Parker reached into his leather briefcase and placed a brick and a silicon chip on the table before the Kaiser Permanente jury. “I told them that these were two objects that were made of sand and baked in the oven,” Parker recalls. “Then I said that one of them is dumb, and one of them is smart. And that the smart one is the one we’re using to build hospitals at Aditazz.”
A standard computer chip is composed of hyper-pure silicon wafers that are chemically treated, etched with light, and layered atop each other to create an almost infinite network of potential electrical connections. The chip is assembled by robots in an environment whose air is 10,000 times cleaner than that found in a typical hospital operating room. It can contain one to three billion transistors—so small that 30 million of them can fit on the head of a pin. At approximately one-quarter of one square inch in area, it is probably the most complex structure humans have ever produced.
In 2011 Kaiser Permanente sponsored the Small Hospital, Big Idea competition. The company received more than 400 entries. One of the winning teams was Aditazz, a Silicon Valley-based tech start-up that used a computer algorithm to help create its design. The scheme features multiple spaces that encourage human contact; its common areas blur the boundaries between the hospital and the surrounding community.
Deepak Aatresh knew a lot about designing and manufacturing computer chips. Born in Bangalore, he spent seven years at Intel, watching the industry automate as the speed and capacity of the chips he helped create increased geometrically. In 1997 he left the semi-conductor giant to found (and sell) two tech start-ups. Ten years later—now a serial entrepreneur growing bored while renovating the basement of his Saratoga, California home—he happened to view a time-lapse video of a construction site. “It was fascinating,” Aatresh says. “First the earth-moving equipment arrived to remove the earth. Then the concrete was poured where the earth had been. Then other materials were added to make a complex three-dimensional structure. I realized that this was exactly how we build chips.”
Struck as he was by the similarities, Aatresh was even more struck by the differences between chip manufacturing and building construction. In his world, the built object was conceived by computer, then baptized in a wash of complex virtual simulations that subject the still-bodiless processor to almost every possible circumstance it might experience in its working life. Flaws and short-circuits were flushed out in a digital universe, where they were easier—and far cheaper—to correct. In contrast, Aatresh found building design largely unchanged from the time of the pyramids. Ideas were sketched into drawings. The drawings were then realized by laying brick upon brick, with a layer of mortar spread between them. Yes, the industry had adopted computer design and building-information modeling software. But these were incremental changes. Aatresh believed the industry needed something exponentially different. In early 2008, on the invitation of a friend, Aatresh accepted a position as entrepreneur-in-residence at Artiman Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm.