Having consumed the better part of Evo’s life, the MIFF enterprise was wearing thin, and had gone far beyond his level of competence. He was losing the will to maintain, but the job could not be left unfinished. Bringing MIFF to market was the only acceptable outcome.
In these ventures, the odds are squarely against financial success. Only one in 5,000 inventions is a winner, and typically the inventor’s share amounts to little. With MIFF’s potential, material success was possible, but it’s not why Evo choose to do science. Most scientists are curious, playful people, more interested in how things work than in seeking wealth. It was more important to master and contribute to a field of study, and become part of a bigger conversation in medicine. Those rewards are the most redeeming.
As a child, Evo dreamed of being a doctor and curing disease. Now, the prospect of actually saving lives stole his breath away. A sweet ending would justify all his efforts. Accomplishing something special would soothe his troubled soul. Indeed, there were many good reasons to see this thing through.
Nevertheless, things moved quite slowly and precariously. Evo had his enemies, both within and outside the institution. Outside were the usual suspects: bureaucratic government agencies, corporate monopolies, and cut-throat businessmen. Inside were myopic administrators and arrogant physicians blinded and spoiled by Big Pharma. Evo struggled to contain his anger and resentment.
At first, Brookstone was not in favor of patenting his invention, but Evo was insistent. He pleaded with hospital administrators, and forced his case up the chain of command, finally to the Chief of Medicine, Dr. Ted Honcho. The cause resonated with Honcho, who directed Administration to patent the MIFF technology.
Evo was ecstatic about Brookstone’s decision to support him. He felt recognized and respected for his efforts. He proudly wore his Brookstone baseball cap and jacket, like a company man.
Shortly thereafter, Evo was summoned to the office of Minnie Hardash, VP of Administration. She was a petite woman in her late 60s, a bit hunched, with thick spectacles, and crooked, yellow teeth. Her cheap, mousy brown wig never quite fit well on her head. Evo donned a new suit and haircut for the occasion.
He greeted Ms. Hardash gracefully, bowing as he offered his hand. They sat across from one another separated by a large oak desk, littered with stacks of legal forms. She was barely visible behind her fortress, in her Italian leather, wing-backed chair. Evo was offered a metal folding chair.
Hardash’s forced smile barely concealed her intentions. “So, finally I get to meet the esteemed Dr. Lucio. I hope you are pleased that we have moved forward with your invention.” Evo nodded affirmatively, noticing her slight German accent.
“First things first: You must sign this document assigning the invention to Brookstone, thereby waiving your rights. You will have no claim to this invention. It is now the property of Brookstone. You’ll receive a bonus for your efforts. Is that understood?”
Expecting praise, her bluntness threw him off completely. Evo tried to collect himself, but his growing rage was palpable. In a voice barely below the danger threshold, he begged to differ.
“You don’t seem to understand. This is merely the beginning. We have much more work to do, and only I can make it happen. Without incentives, why would I continue this project?”
“You are under contract! The law is clear on this. You used our facilities and were paid well for your services. Your invention was made in our labs with our equipment. It does not belong to you!”
“Paid well? Do you know how much I’ve invested in this enterprise? This project began long before coming to this institution.” The temperature in the room was rising.
Evo began studying slime in graduate school, decades earlier. By the time he arrived at Brookstone, the groundwork was already in place, but it would take a few more years before MIFF was discovered. Considering all he had accomplished, the disdain from Hardash was incomprehensible. But Evo refused to be judged by her yardstick. Too much was at stake.
“Let’s be clear here. The MIFF technology is going forward, and I will be leading the charge. Just give me my fair share.”
Hardash winced slightly, but held fast to the reigns. She knew nothing about MIFF, but assumed it was not worth much. “What makes this invention any better than all the worthless wonders discovered every year?” Her sarcasm was not lost on Evo.
“That will be left for experts to determine.” Her evil eye hit Evo like a spade to the forehead.
“Anything you do belongs to Brookstone!” Hardash leaned over her desk between the stacks of papers, and looked him straight in the eye. “We own you, Lucio!” she said, with a crooked smile. Evo yearned to punch her in the face, but contained himself.
“Without my insight and guidance, this enterprise will fizzle.”
“All the better!” she responded without blinking.
“Bacteria are becoming resistant to all our drugs,” Evo argued. “New drugs must replace the old ones.”
“Let someone else do it somewhere else!” Hardash screamed. “This is a hospital! Our business is treating patients!”
“Obviously you haven’t noticed there’s science going on here at Brookstone. In fact, there is very important science that this university is committed to. Investing in MIFF is an investment in me. I plan to see this thing through, so get used to it.”
“I repeat, this is not your property! And you are out of line!”
Evo was undaunted. He knew the hospital not only committed to MIFF, but also to him. And this was his last chance to claim some of the revenue. Evo collected his thoughts. “These questions are for lawyers to decide. All I want is fair compensation.”
“You need to do as you are told!”
Evo took another deep breath and changed his tone: “We’re on the same team, Hardash. It behooves us to work together.”
With that, he rose from his chair and walked out of her office. Stopping briefly at the door, he turned and said: “I am the heart and soul of this venture. You need to respect that.”
And so it was business as usual at Brookstone. Research was seen as a necessary evil by hospital administrators. They did not want to be chasing pipe dreams, not with all they had to juggle.
Evo was not one to fuss, but opportunities like MIFF were rare. Either he championed the cause, or remained in the shadows forever. It was time to take a stand.
Thus, Evo was largely on his own. His Chief, Dr. Wally viewed MIFF as a hot potato. He knew the enormous cost and commitment involved, and the high likelihood of failure. Wally was not willing to jeopardize his position at Brookstone for MIFF, despite being generally supportive of his scientist.
Evo expected more in return for his loyalty and productivity, but understood his Chief’s predicament. His ascendance reflected well on Dr. Wally. In turn, Wally kept Evo out of trouble. Wally fattened his résumé, and kept research a priority, while Evo enjoyed autonomy, security, and a lab to play in. They usually worked well together, but this MIFF thing was testing the ropes.
Eventually Evo grasped the politics involved, and learned to value his Chief’s vital role. Wally dealt with the crap so he didn’t have to. As head of the Division, Wally shouldered far more responsibility, and made bigger sacrifices. It took Evo forever to get that, since politics seemed such a waste of time. Wally undoubtedly deserved some credit for the MIFF invention, having granted Evo the freedom and resources to play. But, with regard to fighting Administration, he was nowhere to be found.
The enterprise was growing, and Evo was no longer on his own. Indeed, he had inherited some strange bed partners. Myopic administrators, overpaid lawyers, shrewd deal makers and cut-throat investors were now necessary evils. Evo knew slime, and saw it flourish as the business grew. He had sided with the enemy.
Scientists are often pawns in the corporate world, but Evo was not discouraged. He knew his place. For the most part, he was just a scientist, absorbed in his work; finding a silver lining in every failed experiment; choosing the right door of inquiry to open; concocting new theories to make sense of the data. The joy of discovery trumped them all. It sure seemed more meaningful and fulfilling than what others were doing for the enterprise.
This adventure began long ago. Evo’s first stint as a microbiologist was in his 20s, in a clinical lab, examining feces for parasites. What grossed most people out, he found fascinating. Like Sherlock Holmes in the lab, he thrived on singling out offending germs.
Having discovered his life’s work, Evo entered the University. He spent eight years studying viruses, fungi, parasites and bacteria. His biofilm research began there.
At the time, the word ‘biofilm’ did not exist, and little was known about slime. Few considered it a worthy subject for study. Meanwhile, molecular geneticists and protein chemists were revolutionizing the biological sciences. So much was known about DNA and protein, and so little about slime.
It was Evo’s graduate school mentor, who foresaw slime’s importance in disease and realized the uncharted opportunity. But working with slime meant starting from scratch, without a compass, or the shoulders of giants to stand on. Few could hang their hat on the subject. Competition was slim, yet collaboration was equally scarce. Following his mentor’s lead, Evo was determined to carve his own path, knowing it would take years before they made any real contribution to science.
Before making headway, the chemistry of slime had to be worked out. One by one, new types of slime were discovered. Each strain of bacteria made its own unique type. Different slime molecules were composed of different sugar molecules, assembled like long strings of pearls. Those long molecules might contain glucose, fructose, mannose and other stranger sugars in a unique order. One slime might stick to metal, another to plastic, while another only to teeth. Some bacteria stick to other bacteria. Over billions of years, germs have devised infinite ways of making and using slime, especially in disease. That was Evo’s focus.
Fighting disease is in many ways about fighting slime. Death from viral diseases, like flu and Covid-19, was often from secondary infections caused by slimy bacteria. So, understanding the nature of this stuff was central to finding a cure. By identifying the forces that kept slime together, scientists could discover ways to disperse, dismantle, and eventually inhibit it. Some experts focused on the genes involved in making slime; others studied biofilm architecture and chemistry, or characterized its diversity. Such projects inspired many careers in science.
Eventually the nature of slime began to unfold. Almost all bacteria make it; each enveloped in its own slime capsule. Slime is a multi-purpose coating, making bacteria resourceful and elusive, and providing a major survival advantage. Biofilm was one of nature’s greatest inventions.
Evo’s doctoral dissertation focused on the glue that held slime together. Not much had been accomplished before then, since the gooey slime made it nearly impossible to handle. He eventually found a way to pull it part and measure it. With this yardstick, he threw a battery of drugs and chemicals into the soup to assess their effect on slime production. Quantification was the strategic advantage that led to the discovery of MIFF.
With his rapid slime-measuring tool, Evo identified several interesting drug candidates. Some enhanced slime, while others inhibited it. Enhancers could make bacteria more dangerous. Some forms of slime (e.g., xanthan gum) even had commercial value. Conversely, slime inhibitors made them less pathogenic. Evo was wise to focus on the slime inhibitors, since they had the potential to prevent infection.
Evo’s first challenge was a smelly black sludge that clogged the lab sink. Chlorine treatment worked temporarily, but the slime always returned. Numerous concoctions were poured down the drain, to no avail. During this dogfight, Evo employed MIFF to beat the black sludge.
Though arch enemies, Evo commiserated with slime. Like slime, scientists are stubbornly stuck somewhere, determined to solve problems. Black slime was a worthy foe, and would not go away easily.
Just as slime insulated bacteria, Evo isolated himself from the outside world, sacrificing normalcy to solve this age-old riddle. This was no small accomplishment: Black sludge not only clogged, but also corroded pipes. Evo understood the great cost involved, and the impact of defeating it.
Evo made progress, but eventually grew tired of the single-mindedness. He was done with the one-dimensional, insulated life. Research had its moments, but not for an older, wiser man starving for human contact. Hiding in the lab was no longer an option. Yet, the next chapter was on hold, awaiting completion of the MIFF adventure, or until he could find closure.
And so, Evo’s personal life suffered. After many superficial and failed relationships, he was living a spartan, lonely life in a bachelor’s pad, just a mile from work. Despite dating around, he had little faith in romance. Casual relationships grew tiresome. And work was beginning to suck. Evo was a classic burnout case.
Any great pursuit takes its toll. Working long hours at the same job for decades eats away at the fabric of life, regardless of the nature of work. Once a devoted scientist, he was no longer following his heart, but rather an illusion. It was a setup for failure.