Archive for December, 2008

It’s that time of the year.

Standing at the threshold, ready to step into the New Year: looking back, gazing forward…  Already considering what would we like to conclude about the year 2009 one year from now, when standing in the same position. The best chance of success will come from deciding now what we would like to see then. A great resolution would be making more room for innovation in our lives, workplace, and the world.  A good start would be working on ourselves, the New Year could be a year dedicated to “innovate thyself!”

A good start is to break some of our old routines; they say that simply finding a new route for the daily commute or using a different hand to soap yourself under the shower could work wonders…  Many intriguing options are within our reach: make an effort to meet new people and listen to their diverse interests, it might be enough to trigger the desire to learn something new, read a different genre, travel to places not visited before, take up a new hobby or cause. Any of these actions would help us look at our old problems from a fresh perspective, thus providing a good chance for innovative solutions, or even eliminating the problem altogether.

My own experiences with previously forcing myself to do any of the above have been all worth the trouble. One of the major problems I used to have, given the constant demands of work, family, and the ever intrusive e-mail and phone, was a perpetual lack of “quiet time” which I need for creative thinking. Unknowingly to me, I solved this problem by adding yet one more – new – thing to my already busy schedule. At a professional conference I met someone who passionately spoke about his hobby, rowing, something I had always wanted to try, but thought I would never have the time to learn or be good enough at. The following year I decided I was to actualize my long standing curiosity for it. Ten years later, I am still rowing. I have discovered that, in addition to its obvious health benefits, solo rowing was for me the best setting for the quiet time I needed for thinking (see my personal blog: Sports-inspired). The natural water surroundings have been conducive to finding creative solutions for both my professional and personal problems, and unsurprisingly, engendered the specific thoughts about harnessing the power constructive interference.

Apparently old dogs can learn new tricks and be better for it.

Have An Innovative New Year!

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Christmas innovations

A quick survey of the topic revealed news of the fashioning of a mobile nativity driven around by an Indiana man to overcome the ban on displaying religious paraphernalia in front of public buildings  to Santa coming by scuba scooter

The Christmas card seemingly maintains the reputation as the major season-related innovation. It took a man (Sir Henry Cole) exasperated with the handwriting to standardize the task and the lowering of the postage rates in the 1840s to spur such innovation. One wonders if the electronic cards showcasing new technology and styles every year would finally put an end to the long standing reign of the classic snail-mailed card. This Xmas I got mostly interactive animated cards, and I myself sent free custom-made animated ones. Technology also makes possible innovations in gift giving. For instance, instead of sending (and receiving) that dreaded unwanted Xmas present, givers can collaborate by chipping-in for receiver’s dream trip instead, sort of “crowd-funding”. If you do not want to go alone, (internet) Santa might just help you find a travel buddy…

Merry Christmas!

Christmas in the middle of "Circle City" by Zorina Galis.

Christmas in the middle of “Circle City” by Zorina Galis.

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We all probably have recollections of this kind of movie snippets: a dark saloon or tavern filled with smoke and locals. Doors open, enter the stranger. The silence and tension that follows can be cut with a knife… everybody is reaching for their gun… In contrast, in his book The Medici Effect, Johansson describes the convivial atmosphere in a tavern at the intersection of waterways bringing travelers from all over the world. They all share a common thing, they are all “strangers” eager to learn from the others’ and reveal their own diverse knowledge about new ways of doing things in distant lands. This reciprocal mental stimulation works as a great idea exchange. New ideas are afterward disseminated for implementation in faraway places.  What is different in the two settings and how do these examples relate to innovation?  

While there is a lot of current agreement that large, diverse groups are innovative, I did not find much said about the “stranger in a strange land” situation in relation to innovation. Maybe less striking, but equally disengaging can be an attempt to venture into unfamiliar intellectual territory, an area outside the boundaries for which one can offer widely accepted educational or professional credentials. This is especially hard when the person is a “lone stranger” facing a homogenous congregation, which shares an unlike professional past, or even just a different way of thinking. For instance, a previously well-recognized and respected expert can expect to receive mockery or total dismissal when offering an opinion in a gathering of specialists trained in a different discipline. Some of these “strangers” may be enthusiastic but inexperienced, yet others might be already recognized specialists in another field or corporation making a dramatic mid or late career change to join a long-established group. Their fresh perspectives are likely to be greeted with similar unwelcoming receptions. No wonder many people prefer to avoid stepping out of their comfort zone and they refrain from offering fresh perspectives.

What do we, the “natives”, stand to lose by not welcoming inputs from neophytes, is there a benefit to listening to someone who “does not have a clue”? Many!!! People who had different training and different experiences did not have a chance to learn about the “accepted” rules, hence they do not have preconceived ideas of what’s “right” or why “this would never work”. These people stun the domain experts by asking the question which we should all ask all the time: “Why not?!?”  Personally I like to call these people “fearless” and feel they deserve the kind of respect pioneers get.

My high opinion has been forged during the many years in which I have had the good fortune to work with bright people who were novices and/or came from very different backgrounds. Particularly fascinating for me was working with young engineers when tackling life science/medical problems (see article). These were obviously smart, well-educated people, but many could not even remember if they actually took biology back during high school, much like the saying: “engineers speak Greek, doctors speak Latin”. Yet, when presented with the request to solve a life science or medical problem, engineers turned in the most innovative solutions by applying their own style of thinking and tools (e.g., models and calculations using… yes, Greek symbols!), and by interjecting into the solution their previous, supposedly unrelated, knowledge. Efforts to engage engineers in medical innovation have been springing up everywhere, one I recently witnessed was The Ohio State Innaugural Engineering and Medicine Translational Symposium.

I decided it may be fitting to call someone an “alter-specialist”, as in the other specialist, while s/he engages in solving a problem normally considered outside her/his area of training/expertise. The alter-specialist did not have the chance to chose sides in following a camp of thought or another in the area of the problem (as the great majority of specialists trained in that field), thus can maintain an objective attitude toward facts found to relate to the problem’s subject matter. Furthermore, the alter-specialist has the capacity to access knowledge and processes that would not be applied to the problem at hand by the domain specialist. As soon as I had reassured them that it was not only completely safe, but actually preferable for them to do so, my young engineer collaborators would challenge my assumptions everyday. I also discovered it was important to immediately preface my interactions with the firm statement that there was “no such thing as a stupid question”, i.e., if a question can be formulated, then it just cannot be stupid ( as in “cogito, ergo sum”!).

The environment offered to the alter-specialist(s) is an essential feature enabling innovative problem solving. From problem formulation, to being able to guide the alter-specialists without imposing preconceived rules and ideas, with a constant attention to the mind-openness allowing to entertain what a domain expert could easily consider outlandish suggestions.

Importantly, I found many evidences that the apparently amazing success of the alter-specialist in providing innovative solutions is a reproducible event. For instance, I was pleased to read the data emerging from analyzing the success stories of the Innocentive platform.  Dr. Lakhani, who conducted the study, was cited by the New York Times to say that: “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”  A fine example of constructive interference! One could conclude that the alter-specialists were able to solve these though problems by using alternative approaches, naturally sheltered from the potential scrutiny of the domain specialist while working solo until the solution was crafted. More and more web based platforms seek to harness the power of “crowd-sourcing” for innovative problem solving and design.

Clearly, breakthrough innovation is generated by “strangers” willing to dive into solving somebody else’s problems. This, of course challenges the status quo in many ways, including how we normally accept input or recognize potential capabilities, the widely spread practice of recruiting people based on narrowly defined and accepted credentials, and is in turn calling for the innovation of such cookie-cutter worn-out processes.

Please DO interfere!

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The other day a friend shared by e-mail the enchantment generated by her current visit to Barcelona, especially by the art work of those she deemed geniuses. She added: “One wonders what it took in their genes and/or their shared environment to produce work that’s continuing to create a mark in time and across space.….

A thought that came to my mind almost immediately, triggered by my own treasured memories of Gaudi’s miraculous creations, was the irony of it all. I replied “can you even imagine that, at least here (in the US), it is a common misconception that the word “gaudy” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gaudy) that expresses tastelessness, tackiness, is a direct reference to the work of Gaudi?!? 

I heard this confusion so often, including “seen it on TV”, that I was appalled and researched its origins. I was pleased to see the origin of the word well preceded Gaudi. But then, why would anybody assume this word was inspired by his work?!? Because it’s so different! Gaudi drew from the Gothic and Spanish architecture and mixed in his love of nature to invent his own new architectural style. He used his extraordinary imagination not only to design visually magical buildings, but also to come up with unconventional designing tools, using photography to capture and later to reproduce results of physics experiments (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoni_Gaud%C3%AD).

Millions continue to travel from afar to be enchanted by Gaudi’s creations.  One of his master creations, La Sagrada Familia, towers the city, unfinished, still daunting today’s builders, yet it attracts and wows more visitors than most nicely completed cathedrals. How many of us are familiar with the work of Gaudi’s contemporary who were considered at the time to create with great subtle taste?  Standing out in a crowd is hard. Next time when someone offers something that is not our everyday thing, maybe even uncomfortably different, we should stop and consider adopting a fresh way to look at it. What if it is not just out-of-the-ordinary, but actually extraordinary?

Sagrada Familia towers over Barcelona


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Life sciences and medical practice have made tremendous advances, creating the opportunity for great medical innovations that will allow us to cure most major diseases, and live healthier, longer lives. Yet, what is known as the “unmet medical need” continues to outweigh our capacity to find viable solutions.

What are the major, maybe specific, challenges that confront this type of innovation? My take is that the best chance to come up with solutions will come from genuinely seeking to understand all points of view and by working together to overcome barriers amongst the major stakeholders in the process, a fine example of “constructive interference”.  Reportedly a similar view was recently publicly expressed by Andrew von Eschenbach, the outgoing head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Miriam Hill cited him on philly.com saying: “the drug industry will have to break down the walls not only between competitors but between big drug companies, smaller biotechnology firms and medical-device makers. The era of personalized medicine will require diverse types of companies to cooperate to generate solutions for patients, acting more like a team than individuals focusing on their own products. ‘They’re all playing golf,’ he said. ‘They need to play basketball.'”

At the upcoming Biotechnology International Conference, BIO2009 I had proposed and will be facilitating an interactive discussion between representatives of major stakeholders on the topic of: Fast forwarding life science innovation: what works, what doesn’t, where do we go from here. Meanwhile I am seeking to gain a better understanding of different points of view through this blog.

To get started, I will offer several perspectives on the current challenges I have gained from the different standpoints I came across during my work in the area of life science innovation, and as a user/consumer of medical products. Check the accompanying postings following this one. Hopefully they will be stirring enough, please do interfere!

The other posts regarding various perspectives: consumer, scientist, developer, investor, can be found by clicking on the BIO2009 category/tag under this post or in the tag “cloud” on the right hand side menu.

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We all are, have been, or will be at some point in our lives, users/consumers of medical products, that is unless someone is a “Superman/woman”. We all have thoughts and specific opinions about what we would like or expect. Two great examples were provided by answers to my previous request to define medical innovation. Kathy said:” From a consumer perspective, I want to see new products and care that consider the quality of my life and my body – not the statistical average”. Allen Fahden commented more broadly in response to the same:Life science/medical innovation means to me that the model of reaction to failure gets updated with preventing failure.” Kathy is expressing the growing support for “personalized medicine”, Allen is touching upon the need to shift more towards preventive medicine.

My own view as a consumer is that I subscribe 100% to these two goals. I should say I did not know or discuss with either Kathy or Allen before they offered their visions on life science/medical innovation. Let’s see what might be the answer to these opinions from the other perspectives.

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I spent the better part of my life researching the human body, searching for answers as to what keeps us healthy and what makes us sick. My shortest answer after all these years might be… it is very complicated! Of course, this is what makes it so exciting for many scientists, the enthusiastic dedicated problem solvers, but can became very frustrating for the others.

Here is an analogy I used when a very good friend of mine, a sharp-witted software developer, expressed her frustration bordering on anger to me when grim news regarding the side effects of a widely used medication were announced. At the time I was in the discovery unit of another pharmaceutical company and she asked me: “What’s wrong with you people, why can’t you figure it out?”

 I thought for a moment. How could I best express the extreme complexity of the problem of finding a universally viable “fix” for just one medical condition? I then asked her: “OK, let’s assume I am asking you to develop a software that will work flawlessly, on every and any computer in the world, not matter how old the hardware or operating system were, no matter what other applications were installed, regardless of the operator’s skill level, whether or not s/he chooses to read and follow the instructions, no matter what viruses might get into that computer. Agh, and did I mention that you do not know exactly what was used to build that computer”. She looked at me in disbelief: “well, that’s impossible!”

I do not want anybody to think though this means we are giving up. On the contrary. I personally have and many others have great hopes that we will soon be able to integrate and apply the knowledge coming from great advances from many branches of science and technology to individually diagnose and treat patients, and furthermore, to predict and prevent many diseases before they strike us. The promise of personalized medicine, referred to till not too long ago, as the “academic view”, has been indeed a favorite of scientists for a while, but is gaining more and more support both from the “front end” (i.e., consumers) and the other stakeholders.  However, all of these have raised some interesting points that will need to be addressed. As consumers, some still understandably fear the need to expose too much information about their individual risks, or not being able to afford the cost of individualized treatments.  For other stakeholder’s perspective, check the following posts.

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The short answer I gained from working in discovery/early development in the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to implementing medical innovation is: it takes too long and it is too expensive.

True, except for some very specific conditions that had been clearly connected to genetic modifications, personalized medicine is still in its infancy. The great majority of diseases have been or could be connected with a myriad of risk factors, some of them possibly related to individual genetic make-up. Efforts in preventive medicine are not compensated.

A great amount of thought and work goes into identifying risk associations, integrate all the pieces of information, and then confirming these findings, hence a lot of support is required (money + time). Public corporations need to create value for their investors, and so are known to spend a great deal of effort to prove (positive) financial achievements each quarter. Innovation, which to me means not only discovering, but also creating and implementing something new, takes much longer than that and can cost a lot. As often said, “you get what you measure“. Fittingly, in response to my request to define innovation, Ondrej Zaoral offered (on LinkedIn) his favorite definition: “Research and development turns money into knowledge. Innovation turns knowledge into money.”

Furthermore, due to very good reasons, new products designed for human health have to pass through additional rigorous hoops. Consider the time it currently takes from the discovery to the launching of a pharmaceutical product, which was widely reported to be in average 10 years and was calculated to cost in the realm of a billion dollars. Consider also that most of these products are not revolutionary, many represent improvements of previous versions. The pharmaceutical companies were the most likely to survive such a formidable journey, but their money is drying up as most are losing patent protection for their big selling drugs and fewer new products are approved. New business models are clearly needed. A major question is: who is willing and able to pay (and wait) for real medical innovation? Maybe the investors? The government? Anyone out there?!?

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First the disclaimer: I am not an investor myself, but I have worked with some. I will thus keep this short. Here is the most often heard perspective on investing in life science/medical innovation: “ It is very risky”. Suffice to say that there has been more than a year since the last biotech IPO (no IPOs in 2008), the venture investment in biotech has decreased significantly, and the current economic circumstances are not likely to improve this situation. It is not business as usual and it should not be – that is what brought us here. So, maybe because I am the optimist type, I can stop wondering: isn’t this the best time to invest in innovation?!?

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