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HOW TO INNOVATE LIKE A ROCKET SCIENTIST

Seven lessons from today’s leaders on how to create big ideas.

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Most of us know what it feels like to get a big win at work. Whether it’s landing a new account, designing a better product, or achieving a big goal, professional success is what drives us to achieve. Yet few know the satisfaction of creating paradigm-shifting advances in their fields. By definition, that level of industry disruption doesn’t happen every day. But it does happen, and when you ask proven trailblazers how they accomplished revolutionary shifts in their professional landscapes, one common theme emerges: Innovation

Amgen, a leading global biotechnology company, collaborated with The Nation of Artists on Innovation², a video series that showcases how some of the brightest minds think about innovation. In conversations with experts at Mount Sinai, Microsoft Garage, NASA, Headspace, and other companies, the series dives into what makes innovation possible.

Here’s what we learned from some of the leading experts in oncology and other fields from the Innovation² video series, and the advice we’re taking with us into our next workday:

LEAVE ROOM FOR DISCOVERY

Innovation and discovery go hand in hand, something researchers at Amgen know inherently. “Part of my life has really been about, not so much innovation per se, but about discovery, where you’re trying to find out fundamental things about how the world works and why it works the way it works, without there necessarily being any directed practical application,” says Ray Deshaies, Senior Vice President of Global Research at Amgen.

Deshaies’ first discovery was early in graduate school. “It had been proposed that there’s a channel in the membrane of a part of the cell known as the endoplasmic reticulum, that enables proteins to be secreted from cells so that they can exit cells. [I wondered,] how do they get out? The membrane’s job is to keep things inside, not to let them leech out,” Deshaies said. He set up a genetic screen as a graduate student to try to find this positive channel. And in fact, that screen revealed the core component of the channel. “I named it Sec61. It’s [now] in all cell biology textbooks. Everybody in college who’s going to major in biology is going to read about Sec61, and that’ll be around forever.”

Deshaies’ curiosity led to a major discovery that changed the trajectory of cell biology. “That’s like a fundamental piece of human knowledge,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. It being [my] first [discovery], it has this special place in my heart.”

Other discoveries, like BiTE® Technology developed by Amgen Vice President Peter Kufer, almost feel “serendipitous.” Amgen is pioneering the application of T cell engagers and a broad array of bi- and multispecific biologics to treat a range of human diseases across its therapeutic areas of focus. The new BiTE® modality, Kufer says, “allows the T-cells, which are the most potent defense cells in our immune system, to potentially recognize cancer cells. And this actually makes BiTE® molecules acting like eyeglasses for T-cells to recognize tumor cells of a certain type of cancer.” The BiTE® immuno-oncology platform invented by Kufer is a versatile one: it could potentially target any tumor-associated antigen, furthering precision medicine. It is currently being studied across a wide range of settings, including different levels of tumors, progressing diseases, and different treatment lines.

CREATE A SAFE SPACE FOR FREE CONVERSATIONS

Of course, it’s easier said than done to create that sort of space. Eliminating the fear of judgment is the most crucial element to create free-flowing, safe spaces for innovation. To David Putrino, Head of Rehabilitation Innovation at Mount Sinai Hospital, psychological safety is most needed for innovation. “Nothing shuts down my thought process or ideas faster than someone coming in at an early ideology phase saying, ‘Well, there’s no basis in the literature for that,’’ he says. “I certainly don’t care about being wrong. I’m always wrong. But being in an environment where I don’t feel like people are thinking less of me for these things, that is very important to me for the process of innovation.”

During the pandemic, Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE Foundation, made a space for her team’s researchers and scientists to voluntarily meet and find solutions to the pandemic, “creating a neutral ground where people can voluntarily share as much as they want.” There was no contract and no forced participation in the conversations. But these weekly conversations allowed Ansari’s researchers to help each other where they’d previously been stuck. In fact, some of those conversations have turned into new companies or new competitions to get innovators to come up with solutions fast. “All these were experiments that just came out of the necessity we saw in the world,” she said. Ansari and her team gave people “the permission, opportunity, [and] flexibility to experiment.”

Rob Lenz, Senior Vice President of Global Development at Amgen, feels similarly: “My job is to create an environment within my group, where there’s hundreds of scientists and clinicians, and unleash that collective genius that can come from working together,” he says. “It’s not up to me to come up with great ideas, it’s up to me to create an environment that will allow scientists at all levels of the organization to contribute equally.”

INCLUDE ALL VOICES

Naturally, a safe space isn’t just for ideas — it’s for the people behind them. Innovation can’t exist without diversity in thought, experiences, and environment. That’s why it’s so imperative for leaders to make space for all voices to participate.

When Cathy Critchlow, Vice President of R&D Data Strategy at Amgen, first started in biopharma, there were no good female role models. The lack of women in the field made it hard for her to push back. “I loved what I was doing, but it was hard to have confidence in it,” she says. Now, creating an inclusive workplace ripe for innovation requires leaders not only “talking the talk and walking the walk,” but also a bottom-up approach: “You’re trying to get people to see that change is going to be for the better, that it’s in their best interest to do that,” she says.

Aprille Ericsson, Aerospace Engineer at NASA, says she has been gravitating more towards diversity and inclusion in her work. Her favorite quote lately? “When diverse ideas collide, they spark innovation…There’s enough space for everyone,” she says laughing. “When you look out into the celestial heavens …it’s just vast. How could we not be … inclusive and involve everybody?”

The same goes for clinical trials, a diversity initiative that Amgen is committed to. Clinical trials are necessary to make sure treatments are safe and effective. Although 40 percent of Americans identify as an ethnic or racial minority, nearly 80 percent of participants in clinical trials are white. Certain diseases disproportionately impact African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, but they are severely underrepresented in clinical trials. And COVID “really laid bare, or just made that much more apparent, some of the health disparities” that affect those groups, says Critchlow.

It’s why Amgen strives for clinical trial diversity, in a patient-focused approach to reduce barriers to participation, bringing trials to patients in the midst of the pandemic, and looking at both real-world data and adaptive clinical trial design as key strategies in their clinical development program. Certain populations don’t have access to clinical trials, an entry to some of the most innovative medicines out there, Critchlow says. “There are lots of reasons why that has come into play in terms of systemic and individual barriers to participation,” she says.

“I really do feel fortunate to be at a company where there is incredible buy-in from the top down, and it shows,” Critchlow says. “There’s just a lot of resources that have been committed to [it] across the organization.”

START SMALL FOR BIG IMPACT

Of course, not every innovation ends up in a textbook. And that’s OK — it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the potential to make a big difference. Case in point: “Call me trimtab.” Confused? It’s a phrase by Buckminster Fuller, written on his tombstone, which Sproutel co-founder and CEO Aaron Horowitz notes. On the back of freighters and big tankers, there’s a huge rudder that has a tiny little rudder called a trimtab. Over time a tiny, one-degree adjustment of that trimtab will cause a massive steering adjustment of the whole freighter. It’s why Horowitz loves this phrase on so many levels. “I find this quote so empowering because it tells us that as individuals, we can all make an impact,” he says.

ENJOY THE RIDE

Of course, discovery and innovation don’t happen overnight, free of problems. Whatever your field, you’re bound to fail along the way. But those who face failure often and persevere are the ones who have “a philosophical joy in that process,” says Rusty Lipford, Director of Inflammation and Oncology Research at Amgen. That dedication “gives rise to the people who can persevere for years trying to tackle the toughest problems in biology and in human therapeutic development.”

Horowitz notes Damien Newman’s drawing that describes the design process, from the designer perspective: the design squiggle. “It’s saying the product development process always starts out here,” and then there’s all of this messiness, he says. “Being able to find the joy in going up and down and riding the roller coaster [and] finding the joy of the ride is the point.”

NEVER FORGET WHO YOU ARE WORKING FOR

Innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum; truly innovative solutions have a deep impact on people’s lives. When PK Morrow, Vice President of Global Development at Amgen, was asked by family members why she wanted to go into oncology, she knew her reason: Her grandmother’s passing from breast cancer. “I had the best of both worlds because I could actually work to help hopefully cure the patient,” she said. “If I wasn’t able to cure them, I could at least make their last days the best that I could. I really felt that being the bridge, and also hopefully helping to get them to cure, was …. so meaningful to me that I thought that was the best career.”

Sometimes, that impact goes beyond the personal: it’s institutional. Lauren Nwankpa, Head of Social Impact at the fintech startup Dave, is the first to really take on impact at a corporate level. Helping improve people’s financial lives, while going up against banks who Nwankpa described as sometimes “straight-up predatory,” fuels her desire to make a difference. “We have to recognize the systems [and] the barriers that were put in place by design, that … have negative impacts on so many people’s lives today. And then [we] start thinking about, how do we disentangle ourselves from that?” she says.

That desire for a better future also motivates David Reese, Executive Vice President, Research and Development at Amgen. “To me, it’s trying to answer that question, can’t you do better than this? What would be better? What does ‘better’ look like? How much better does it have to be to really change that endgame for the patient and for these families?” he says. “And so that’s what keeps me going through all of the setbacks, through the many years it takes to actually get the answer, as to whether a drug is going to have a big impact. That to me is just such a powerful motivator.”

TAKE RISKS

Big payoffs, like finding treatments for cancers, require some risk. That can be a challenge, depending on the circumstances. For example, pharmaceutical and technology companies face a lot of regulation. But with patients as the “North Star,” says PK Morrow, “we feel like we need to do whatever we can to get those molecules to them as quickly as possible. And that kind of forces you to break the glass a bit.”

Mike Pell, Director of The Microsoft Garage, says he has also had to overcome the aversion to risk. When Microsoft’s new CEO came in years ago, he encouraged employees to break the glass and pursue big ideas. “One of the very first things he said to everybody at Microsoft was, ’Everybody needs to go innovate. It’s not going to be a top-down command and control kind of structure. You know what the right thing to do is to go do it,’” Pell says. “And people really took that to heart.”

It’s why he likes to say that innovation is everyone’s business — now it can be yours, too.

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