August 22, 2021

Innovating with intent

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Innovating with intent

We adore happy accidents. But is that the only way to innovate? We talk to an innovation guru who's all about structure. Then we meet a scientist whose goal with innovation is to scale up. Enter the Testa Center™ in Sweden. Hear how it all comes together in this episode with Dodi and Conor.


DODI: Conor, you know how often we talk about serendipity? How a lot of discoveries are made, just by chance?

CONOR: Yes, I think we have a bit of confirmation bias in this stuff. Yeah, because we like the stories on that one. But yes, we could admit that a lot of discoveries are made by chance.

DODI: That's true. And for 37 episodes, you're right, there is a bit of a confirmation bias. So, we keep talking about how discoveries are accidental. Now, however, I have met somebody who works with Cytiva. And he says, we can organize discoveries and hack serendipity.

CONOR: I guess that's what matters on this episode of Discovery Matters.

RENE BACH: Most revolutionary dreams, they need an evolutionary step to make sense.

DODI: This is Rene Bach. He helps people make discoveries.

RENE BACH: I'm a partner at Implement Consulting Group in a very small, sleepy surf town, also known as 'Cold Hawai'i'.

CONOR: So 'Cold Hawai'i'?

DODI: Yeah. It's called the Klitmøller. I don't speak Danish very well, but that's the way I would pronounce that. And this used to be a fishing town that had really big waves on the ocean. So, it attracted a lot of surfers.

CONOR: Oh, I get it. So cold Hawai'i. Okay. Makes sense. So, it's not as hot as the real Hawai'i.

DODI: Have you been there, Conor? You're a surfer.

CONOR: I have not been there.

DODI: Put it on the list.

CONOR: It can be on the list. I don't think I have a thick enough wetsuit for the North Sea.

DODI: Anyways, so from cold Hawai'i, Rene told me that innovation does not just happens spontaneously.

RENE BACH: It doesn't have to be, you know, all fireworks, it can also just be structure and rigour.

DODI: He has worked with innovation for 20 years. Most recently, he and his team are also helping Cytiva with an innovation project.

RENE BACH: If you kind of look into some of the biggest inventions, not only in recent times, but also probably if you go back in history, you just start to discover that the rules that people have amended, those are the ones that set them free.

CONOR: Okay, so inventions are created only because there are rules, right? It feels like the opposite of the story we tell where people should go and be free and be creative and not feel bound by the laws of physics and realms of possibilities. Yeah, so what's going on here?

DODI: Well, that's what I thought too.

RENE BACH: Actually, the I think the world's best restaurant, Noma in Denmark, has been created from a set of rules, almost like dogma rules.

DODI: Have you been to this restaurant Noma?

CONOR: No, I haven't. Um, it's kind of been difficult to get anywhere in the last few years.

DODI: I haven't had a reservation. Just getting into my local pizza joint is tough at the moment. Indeed, the founders of Noma wrote a manifesto without realizing that staying close to home would be so necessary for the past year and a half.

RENE BACH: Constraining them so much that they had to reinvent the Nordic kitchen, the Nordic food, also called the Nordic Food Revolution. One of the rules was as far as I remember that, you know, you can only have ingredients on the plate, that you can collect 100 kilometers away from the restaurant. That's a pretty almost insane rule. But its constraints you in a way where you really need to sort of reinvent everything, because you cannot just import it tomato from Italy. So, you really have to think hard about what is it that we can get out of this?

CONOR: Okay, so I can see now how forcing people to think really hard about what they're doing and using in the kitchen, could make them excel at the use of what they've got. I get that.

DODI: That's right. You know, Rene's advice is also not just focus on what you're good at when you are innovating. But consider a problem from outside your comfort zone or your sphere of knowledge.

RENE BACH: Great innovators start to think about ''what is it that I believe in, that most people would disagree with?'' And need to think hard about what is it that will actually create enough friction in the world to also create some traction and tension. Those are just observations when I look at sort of great innovators today.

DODI: So, it is not just about challenging yourself.

RENE BACH: For me, it's the intersection between being a surgeon and being an artist. Of course, you need to sort of master your craft, but you also need to accept that the artistic part is a deep personal journey. And it is a sort of a profound way of dealing with the fact that you don't know when a good idea will come to you and you need to sort of a little bit rely on not necessarily round luck, there's a bit of that, but rely on that the timing might be uncontrollable.

CONOR: It sounds like he's going to say something like, sort of a bit hippie-ish, like innovation is a state of mind. And here is my surfboard.

DODI: Yeah, a little bit religious. But Rene says this process forces you to train your mind to just be sensitive to innovation. So, when you see a change, or a mistake, could that actually be something positive? Could it be an innovation?

RENE BACH: You know, those mistakes that you tend to say, ''Okay, let's get rid of them and let's write them and, you know, we're not repeating them'' or whatever it is, but being able to pay attention to those as a source for inspiration and new ideas. So, and again, it's back to the conscious level, if you can kind of create that state of mind where that sensitivity is institutionalized in the individual and the organization, then you can actually start to turn those mistakes and learnings into something very valuable.

DODI: I think people assume that innovation is like a firecracker, like, boom, there's a great idea. But sometimes just changing a process, changing a step, can be an innovation that makes a big difference, that kind of, you know, drop in the ocean with the ripple effect. Rene actually defines this as four levels of innovation.

RENE BACH: What's important is that you start to talk about innovation on different levels, or different types of innovation. You can have operational innovation, that's what you're talking about process improvements. You can have product and service innovation. This is where we normally would say ''okay, this is what innovation is all about''. Some people also talking about business model innovation. This is where you also sometimes play strategy. Some people are talking about platform innovation, how can you actually create a platform or an ecosystem and start to connect partners and whatnot.

CONOR: Okay, so you've got these different levels of innovation, I get it. And depending on where you put your focus, you can kind of increase your success rate of changing things for the better and making new discoveries.

DODI: Exactly. So, let's get concrete here. We're going to give you a for instance. Cytiva has this innovation hub in Uppsala called Testa Center™ it's co-funded by the Swedish government. And Testa Center™ is dedicated to helping Life Sciences companies improve their processes so they can scale up. So, they get to come, they use a lab with bigger machines that they don't have room for in their research areas. That in itself is innovative. So, the small innovations equal big wins.

ANGELA VAASA: So, this is difficult to convince the client that actually Estonia also can make very cool products.

CONOR: So, who's this?

DODI: This is Angela Vaasa. She's the Chief Operating Officer at a company called Solis Biodyne.

CONOR: So, I assume they're based in Estonia.

DODI: Well, like she said. Uh huh. They are.

ANGELA VAASA: In February, when the COVID-19 arrived in Europe, we understood that we need to increase our production capacity significantly.

DODI: And when the pandemic hit, they pivoted their production to create these PCR and cue PCR tests. I mean, everybody knows how many how many PCR tests have you had by now Conor, you've had...?

CONOR: Yeah, I know it's getting a bit boring. I'm really good at it. I'm very good at testing negative.

DODI: Just letting people shove that q-tip way up your nose. Anyway, so Solis Biodyne, came to the Testa Center™ in innovation hub. And they wanted to make this step after discovery. And that is scaling up.

CONOR: So, trying bigger things that you can't do at home.

ANGELA VAASA: This enzyme, what we're trying to scale up here, is one component, ribonuclease inhibitor, which is one component of COVID mixes.

DODI: So, projects rotate in and out of Testa Center™, because at a university or in a small startup, maybe you can only do experiments with say a one-liter bottle. At the Testa Center™, you have a 50-liter tank.

ANGELA VAASA: Yeah, we had the chance to use this 50-liter bioreactor here, and they got the quick result, we got a lot of our protein. And I think we were going to think about that maybe we need this kind of reactor at home also. And also in the purification step, we got a lot of knowledge about using different media for different provocation steps. I think it will make our production and purification a lot of lot more efficient, we can release a lot of resources.

CONOR: So, innovation is not just about discovering new things. It's about creating the environment and the infrastructure where people can make those discoveries and then lift them up, scale them up and make them available to the world, right?

DODI: Exactly, because you can have a great idea and you stay in your basement and it doesn't reach anybody, or you can't make it, you know, scale to reach more and more people. So, let's go back to Rene, Rene's four levels of innovation. The Testa Center™ that Angela used was a type of operational innovation. I feel like I'm teaching you now Conor, every day's a school day, are you with me?

CONOR: I'm with you, I'm on operational innovation. I'm holding it together.

DODI: Then there was product and service innovation, business model innovation, platform innovation, so many words, there's one layer that can enable all four of these at once.

RENE BACH: And all of these types of innovation are real. But there's something that I think that we need to pay more attention to. And that is what we call leadership innovation, which is kind of putting leadership at the focal point of innovation in itself, you start to sort of innovate how you lead, when you start to innovate your future leadership model. And what is interesting about that level, is that actually enables the four other layers to innovate in a much, much more interesting way.

DODI: Here's a warning sign, Rene has seen a lot of innovations killed by bad leadership. Times where leaders ask the wrong questions or haven't paid attention to what we said earlier, mistakes as a source of inspiration.

RENE BACH: Yeah, so a very good example of that would be, let's say, I have a very good idea, you tend to be a leader that I trust, and I go to you and I present my idea in the most vulnerable way that I could do, then you can kind of go about it in two ways you can start to sort of ask for, ''what kind of evidence do you have that can back it up? Or were sort of the solid business plan that will prove that we'll get a sort of a consoling customers from your idea?'' Whatever it is, ''can you show me some data points that will prove that I need to invest in you?'' That is judgmental. And if I can't answer those questions, I will not present the idea to you next time. And by that you will limit my creativity.

CONOR: Yeah, and this makes total sense, because the way that you like to help people work through their problem is almost as important as them working through the problem itself, right? And leaders can be a bit difficult here because leaders by definition got to where they are by doing what they did. So doing what they did is what made them successful. So why would they do something different in the future, which can be kind of a constraint on innovation.

DODI: Utterly. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, as the saying goes.

CONOR: Exactly. So, what would a good leader do?

RENE BACH: It might be that you don't like the idea. But you can say interesting, what would have to be true for that idea to actually be an interesting idea, and I can share my personal perspectives also. And when you do that, you start to actually ask for experiments. And you also ask the person to go and experiment on behalf of me as a leader. So, these are the assumptions I need to believe in as a leader to support your idea, please go out and experiment, please go out and show whether those assumptions can be validated or not. That's a different leadership style. And it accepts the fact that the idea is good, until you have done an experiment that will either show it good or bad.

DODI: Rene talks about fostering a test and learn mindset from the start.

RENE BACH: I've also seen a lot of innovators that are not collapsing in that but are actually truly curious about where we can take this idea if we focus on the right assumptions, that the toughest part as an innovator is going from zero customers to one customer, it is not going from one customer to a billion customers.

CONOR: Okay, so this is where something like the Testa Center™ comes in, right?

DODI: And we're back there. Exactly. So, you can use the Testa Center™ when the discovery has already been made, you want to make your idea accessible to the world.

CONOR: So, this is a really interesting way of framing things. The biggest challenge is to go from no customers to one customer. I like that it's like convincing just one person. So, you know, it's kind of like it's harder creatively maybe to go from your idea to a phase one clinical trial than it is to go from, you know, a phase three, although it's still complex, and operational to approval. But how does really think about discoveries during this pandemic year, right, because lots of things have happened a lot faster, and were people being intentional in the way that he talks about.

DODI: Rene says that a lot of the discoveries made during the year were not in spite of the world being in lockdown, but because we were in lockdown. So, loving those guardrails, again.

RENE BACH: When I started working with innovation 20 years ago, the main belief was that give people all the freedom they can imagine and then magic will happen. I remember these innovation labs where we painted them green. And we had the coffee machine, we have everything sort of making that space, look creative, and the door was open, and you can just go in, and then suddenly, some creative thought will pop up because you were given all the freedom in the world. Then we started to learn that most creativity will actually come from constraints, or you can also call them darkness that are either forced on you or done by design, by yourself, maybe. And I think what the past year has taught us that those constraints, those dogmatic limitations, almost, they initiate an anonymous source of creativity.

CONOR: So, like Noma, the restaurant he was talking about in the beginning, if you're constrained to only use certain ingredients, or certain ways of thinking or certain sets of tools, this is kind of like jugaad innovation that we see in India, right? Where people are constrained by their resources. So, they have to find incredibly creative ways to resolve problems, like do you remember the little nanocar where they solved...?

DODI: I thought you were going to start to talk about clowns in a car, Conor, I don't know.

CONOR: No, no, no. Most cars have four-wheel bolts, and they needed to reduce costs. And they realize if they just had three-wheel bolts on the car, they could, they could save a quarter of the costs on wheel bolts.

DODI: It’s incredible.

CONOR: But anyway, it's kind of like you jugaad innovation, where the constraints that you live in and that you operate in, in a low resource area, mean that you have to be really creative about how you solve your problems. So, I like that, you find new solutions.

RENE BACH: So, when the world starts to open up again, awfully soon, I think we should be aware of how we can put these constraints on ourselves to make sure that we feel limited enough to release energy to be creative and break free.

DODI: Alright, so we've gone from, you know, serendipity that good ideas sometimes happen accidentally, to now learning that if you have the right structure, in your environment, that you can turn a mistake into a good idea and an innovation.

CONOR: And so, you can kind of structure you’re thinking and put, you know, process around the work that you do and the mistakes that you make so that you nurture the innovation rather than kind of hobbling it. Yeah, I really like that. I think that's maybe something that I feel we kind of do that naturally. But this is something that ought to give us a way of thinking about it, which could be really useful.

DODI: Did what Rene said, is it going to make a change any of the conversations that you're having Conor?

CONOR: I think it probably...Yeah, I think it might make me ask questions differently.

DODI: Right?

CONOR: Um, you know, it does remind me of Brian Eno's 'Oblique Strategies' where, you know, you run into a problem, and you set a constraint on the problem at random pulled from the deck of cards, and that kind of nudges you forward because you think about the issue in a different way. I think, you know, that's something that we could actually, you know, bring into our leadership and the conversations that we have with people, as we're helping them see through the difficulties or the issues or the problems that they're trying to solve.

DODI: The best thing we can do is try.

CONOR: Indeed, indeed.

DODI: So, thank you for listening to this episode of Discovery Matters.

CONOR: Give us a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts and thank you, our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery Matters is produced in collaboration with Soundtelling. Production, this time was by Tanvir Mansur, it is our last episode with Tanvir. Thank you very much for all your work over this series. Our theme song was written by Thomas Henley and additional music is from Epidemic sound.

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