January 14, 2020

Innovation: exploring cyborgs, jugaad, and inside-the-box thinking

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Innovation: exploring cyborgs, jugaad, and inside-the-box thinking

Follow Dodi as she dives into the world of innovation. More specifically, the difference between talking innovation and being innovative. Meet Tobias the cyborg that likes thinking inside the box and learn what Goud has to say about the concept of jugaad in India.

DODI: Hey Conor, we're going to talk about edgy stuff in this episode. And it's going to be the difference between talking about innovation and actually being innovative.

CONOR: And that is easier said than done.

DODI: Yeah. I met a guy recently named Tobias, and as we made our way to his office I watched as he opened the door with just his hand.

CONOR: Okay, I'm really sorry but that is how I open doors. How have you been opening doors?

DODI: No no, okay so, without turning the knob. He just had a chip in his hand, and it unlocked the door.

CONOR: Ah okay. So, kind of like a cyborg.

DODI: Yes, for all intents and purposes, Tobias is a cyborg.

TOBIAS DEGSELL (TD): Yeah, that's true. I am also a big fan of doing experiments on, I do them on myself. So, it's about trying to try out things and see what happens.

CONOR: So, what was his decision process here for like implanting a chip in his hand?

TD: Well the first time I saw it I hesitated of course, but I did some research about it and then I figured out that this could be actually be something really interesting, and since I'm a big fan of innovation, I think it's not enough just to think about it. It's about acting on it and it's not very - if you want to push innovation, you need to act on it. So that's why I injected the microchip in my hand.

CONOR: So, this is fascinating. Is it just his office door that he can use this chip on or other capabilities?

DODI: There's more there's more, he can pay for his train trips here in Sweden with that chip.

TD: The conductor he scans my hand, he sees the number, he checks with the cloud and then I don't need to show a ticket. The good thing is it's a great conversation piece, because I also have my business card -  and especially when you're abroad and people ask if you have a business card, and I said, yes, I have it in my hand. And then it always opens up for discussion about innovation.

DODI: So, this is what I kept thinking about after my meeting with Tobias the cyborg. The topic of innovation, how we can think both inside and outside the box. And that is what matters on today's episode. 


CONOR: So, tell me more about this cyborg-y man.

TD: My name is Tobias Degsell and I am the founder and owner of the company called Combiner.

DODI: Before he started Combiner, Tobias used to be the curator at the Nobel Prize Museum. One day, to kill some time, he started a little game with himself using the previous Nobel laureates.

TD: And I wanted to see, could I see like a pattern, how many of the Nobel Laureates emphasized the importance of persistence? How many of them emphasized the importance of courage? How many of them emphasized the importance of, like, communication and then I created my playful systems in order to track them down. And today what I can see is that there is something that connects each and every Nobel laureate, and that is that they have been able to think different, but that's something that everyone can do.

To think different that's not rocket science, but they have also managed to execute on their ideas. And it doesn't matter if it's a literature laureate or if it's a medicine laureate, a literature laureate has started with ‘let’s write a book’ and they actually wrote books, which is like a really hard work and they got published and they got nominated and they received the Nobel prize. But in medicine maybe it starts with an idea. Is it possible to find a cure for Alzheimer's? You spend years doing the research and hopefully you find the cure and hopefully you are nominated, and you receive a Nobel prize. For me it's about looking upon the Nobel prize from a different perspective: looking upon a problem of almost like success stories.

DODI: And specifically, Tobias thinks there are two qualities that are shared by most Nobel laureates, communication and perseverance.

TD: So, there are a lot of Nobel laureates that tell us it's not about being the smartest person -because you can be super smart, but if you can't communicate your ideas in ways other people will understand them, you will not succeed. And that's why communication is a very important part of the innovation process, but also perseverance for example, it takes time. You don't get the Nobel prize for working like five minutes. It's a very long procedure and sometimes you need to have a huge amount of perseverance. Maybe you work for like, you need to spend like 10 or 20 years before you get the end result.

DODI: Which is why so many of the laureates are pretty old. In fact, Arthur Ashkin won the prize in physics in 2018. He was 96 years old when it was awarded to him and he is still active.

CONOR: So, Tobias seems to really understand scientists really well. Is he a scientist himself?

DODI: No, but he looks and talks like one and he reminded me of Dick Van Dyke in the old movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. 

DODI: Anyway, Tobias isn’t a real scientist, but he's pretty science-y and he says he always thought of becoming a scientist.

TD: But the problem is for me perseverance. I get bored within like four years and if you want to be a really good scientist then you need to have more perseverance. So, I thought that I was doing, going to do my PhD in Scandinavian languages many years ago. I was analyzing different names of plants in Northern Swedish dialects, but it didn't work out. And then I was working in the corporate world for a couple of years, four years, and then I got bored and I went into education and I worked with education for four years, and I got bored and I ended up working for the Nobel Prize Museum. And I worked there actually for eight years, but I after four years I was little bit bored and I did something else. I'm quite analytical and I love to analyze data. So that's what I do, and I use that information that I have from different industries and in helping others, large companies and organizations all over the world, on how to think and act new.

DODI: One of the phrases Tobias hates is “thinking outside the box”.

TD: When I went into this rabbit hole of creativity, people were telling me that creativity is about “thinking outside the box” and I said, well, “is it really?” Because there are always like limitations and boundaries that you need to rely on so it can't be, and I think by telling people that creativity is about “thinking outside the box” you actually, you don't help them. It's the opposite. Because when you tell people you can do whatever you want to, people don't know how to do it. But if you tell people that creativity is more of like “thinking inside the box”, there are some boundaries that you need to understand. For example, you can I want you to think differently within these areas. Once you have established those boundaries, this box, then you can move this box around, but I think we need the box in order to be truly creative.

CONOR: And when it comes to innovation in the Life Sciences industry, what is Tobias’s advice for, here’s another cliché, I'm sure he's not going to like it, but how can companies push the edge of the envelope?

DODI: Well, it kind of comes back to those Nobel laureates again.

TD: I think that the key to any progress is collaboration, and it's maybe a cliché, but the thing with the cliché is that they're often very true. And the thing is that if you look upon the Nobel prize, especially the prizes in science, they are very seldom going to one person. They are most often going to two or three people according to those very old rules. You're not allowed to give the Nobel prize to five people. And then people tend to think okay the Nobel Prize, for example in chemistry, those people they must be super smart, and they are really good in chemistry. But when you start analyzing those teams, you will see that sometimes there are two of them who are really good in chemistry working with someone really good in physics and not all of them are really good in communication, maybe one of them is really good at communication and someone is really good at perseverance. So what the Nobel laureates tell us is that collaboration is the key, but you need to start working with people that are not exactly the same as yourself. And that's why transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary research is so important. And it's also really complicated, because of course if you start working with people that don’t have the same background as yourself, then you have the issue about trust. And you need to overcome that, because we need to understand that as I said, collaboration is super important, but so is diversity. And in order to make collaboration work, especially when you are emphasizing diversity, we need to spend some time on the trust issue.

DODI: All right, so Tobias talks about innovation inside the box, but I started wondering if innovation, is there a geographic element? I mean, you know Silicon Valley and how innovation is -- I guess it's in the water there. It's like the world capital of innovation. And people think that it is there that good ideas actually become businesses. But you also start to see places pop up around the world that claim to be the next Silicon Valley. And so, I started wondering is it really something that can be grown in a neighborhood? So, to answer that, and to get another perspective on innovation, let's go to Bangalore, India.

RAGHAVENDRA VAGGU (GOUD): It’s a very humble city, there’s a lot of people who like you,  you don't find yourself as an alien here so, there's lot of cooperation. People are ready to help you. If you are, if you come from outside, I know there's a lot of you know, the friendliness that actually helps you to be here. So, you know, you gotta ask somebody they're more than happy to help you out. So that's I think something fundamentally people like here and then of course apart from that, you also have a great ecosystem in terms of the technology, in terms of this, is supposed to be the Silicon Hub of India and then of course, apart from the biotech you also see a lot of IT, big IT giants having their companies here. So that's one of the reasons why people want to come back and settle here.

CONOR: And who are we talking to now?

GOUD: So I'm Raghavendra Vaggu. People fondly call me Goud. I've graduated in genetics, master’s in biotechnology. I was a researcher in Indian Institute of Sciences then moved into the commercial world. I started my career as an application scientist way back in ’96-‘97 and then moved into the commercial field. I've started the commercial journey as regional head for West, western part of India. 

DODI: Well today Goud is the head of our company business in India, and recently he had a couple of customers he was working with on monoclonal antibodies, but it wasn't going so well. Now the customers were flexible enough to try something that Goud suggested. And this is where thinking outside of the box, sorry Tobias, but it's where this kind of thinking comes in. His suggestion was to try something radical something that might have even seemed like going backward technologically. 

GOUD: We went to this couple of customers and said: “You know what, there is this great opportunity in plasma,” you know the plasma fractionation is something that India doesn't have enough... India has a huge market, but they do not have the products, so India imports from the other countries. So, there is this huge scope. (We asked…) “Are you interested in getting into the plasma, are you interested in getting into the (Fondaparinux) very high costly molecule? So, when we toss ideas, we’ve had these brainstorming sessions and the first question that they asked that they had in their mind was “We don't know the technology. We don't know the know-how.” So, then that's when we said: “We know the technology. We know the know-how of how do we fractionate the molecule the plasma especially.” So when we went to them so we did the PoP, is what we call as a PoP, proof of principle concepts. So we took our equipment, one of our experts went into his lab with our equipment with our resins, took his sample - did a proof of principle saying that you know, this is as simple as doing it in your lab and then it's just a question of investing, and then extrapolating what we've done in the lab to the manufacturing.

So, when we went to them about like six or seven years back, we said this is what we can bring in for you onto the table. So, when we started working with them, we started with the simple 5ml kind of a sample. The customer gives us a sample, we took our equipment. We took our resins with our columns fractionated the plasma for him, and showed it that it has four components and we've done it for you in the lab. And then that again with our experts views from a full of 5 from a 5ml to be vented, 50 ml, and then to 200 liters and then to do the you know the one like you hits this is how we have scaled it up for him and then he was convinced on the concept, he was convinced on our technical capabilities that we can actually hold his hand and take him to the next level and he was completely convinced on our capabilities of holding him, right in front of the whole technology. So that's when he got convinced. He's invested now, he makes tons and tons of money on the plasma other than… So, he just left the mABs, he feels that this is a market that he could to serve because that is where India needs. 

CONOR: So, innovation here doesn't always have to mean the latest and greatest and newest sometimes innovation means going right back to basics.

DODI: Exactly! And that, in its own way is thinking outside the box. In fact, Goud says, this is a quintessential way of thinking in India. There's even a special word for it.

GOUD: J-U-G-A-A-D. Jugaad, it's a Hindi word. What it means is you don't you just have to figure out a way to do, you know to settings. It's like you don't need the rocket science here. It's like, you know alternatives for everything. So, with that mindset I think you know, the thinking is that how do we find…How do we how do you bring in this new perspective? I think it's more of an Indian kind of thing, you know go that extra mile for the customer, go that extra walk. You just have to walk along with the customer. Make him feel that you are with him in his journey.

I think it's more of a family kind of a bonding that people have here, even with the customers. It's like, you know, you go that extra mile, you help him at midnight, you do not allow his batch to fail. Realize him that, make him feel that you know you’ve solved his toughest problems. So, that's where the confidence comes in and that's where the customers are ready to bet on you for everything that they think of. I think it's more to do the Indianized kind of a mindset, that extra mile, working for more than 10 hours, 12 hours, 15 hours with the customers, you know, sleeping there overnight doing the experiments for them proving that you know, we are the most dependable guys. So, some of those things I think it's more of an Indianized, I don't see this across the world.

CONOR: So Jugaad is an innovative fix or simple workaround, a bodge, or a life hack basically.

DODI: Exactly.

CONOR: Like having a chip in your hands to open doors. Or take the train or pay a bill.

DODI: Yes, and I'm glad you mentioned our cyborg again because as we were talking, it became clear that his chip was more than just a life hack, more than as Goud would say, a jugaad.

TD: Something that's going to be really, really important in the future. It's about data and it's also actually owning the data. And having the data inside their own body makes you somehow get some kind of control over your own data. And if people have like advanced chips in their bodies that collect especially maybe like specific health data, then you would probably be able to share the data with the hospital or a medical doctor. And I think that's where healthcare is leaning towards today, that will get much more individual treatments, not based on random people.

CONOR: So, science and medicine could really benefit from this concept of a cyborg?

TD: Yeah, of course, of course, I'm not…when we are speaking about cyborgs, we already have people, with, like pacemakers or like hip replacements. So, when people speak about cyborgs, you often picture some kind of Terminator, but I guess that most cyborgs today they are really old, and they are walking amongst us. This could be excellent for a person with for example Alzheimer's, because if you have Alzheimer's you tend to forget things, and you tend to misplace things, and something that people often tend to misplace, even if you don't have Alzheimer's, is your keys. This will replace keys, for example allow you to access your home or your room where you're living and it's only you that will access this place.

So, I think this could be really good for people with Alzheimer's, but I also think this could be really good for healthcare, for example with donating organs. It could be really good if you go to the hospital and they have this procedure at the hospitals, that every person that is hit by car,  that you scan and maybe their hand you see I am I allowed to harvest the organs? Yes, and you do it, you don't need to wait for anyone else to make that decision because the person has already decided.

DODI: And this question of Alzheimer's is kind of the Holy Grail right now in the biotech industry. Looking for a cure and you know, all of the clinical trials that are ongoing the investments that are happening to try to find a cure for Alzheimer's. So, I asked Tobias if he thinks a chip like his, could help bring a benefit in this search for a cure for Alzheimer's.

TD: I believe that there is not one specific… It's not just one thing that will solve anything else, but it's about exploring, and I think exploring the possibility to use for example chip implants to track health data could be really an interesting thing for Alzheimer's, because we're today now you can do testing and you can test yourself from, I think it's age of 40, and you will probably know ‘I will get Alzheimer's when I get older.’ If you keep track of your own health data, maybe there is something in that data, that could be very useful for the researchers.


CONOR: Wow, so from cyborgs to India and maybe even the cure for Alzheimer's. This has been quite a ride in 19 minutes.

DODI: indeed. And aren't Jugaad you were listening.

CONOR: Oh lord, you actually said that. I didn't think you would.

DODI: You can't keep a good pun down, Conor.

CONOR: No, you can’t and that’s why I’m glad that, I don't know. I don't know.

DODI: You're not glad it all, is the truth. Thank you for listening to this episode of Discovery Matters.

CONOR: Thank you and goodbye.