What if your Innovation Program Really is Rocket Science?

by Lou Killeffer

Rocket Science Innovation

Editor’s note: Lou Killiefer, Innovation Excellence Editor at large had this  “Innovation Conversation” with Ken Savin, Ph.D., Advisor, Innovation and Development, Eli Lilly and Company, and Cynthia Bouthot, Director of Commercial Innovation, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

We all know innovation is difficult. Simply agreeing ambitions, timelines, and resources can be challenging. Pipeline protocols can present added complexity. Your teams and partners, to say nothing of management, need your focused time and attention to navigate the process. And then, just when you’ve got everything running smoothly, of course, the business dynamic changes in response to the consumer, your competition, or the direction of your own company. Successful innovation means managing a host of people and moving parts through an elaborate and dynamic process, with no guarantees whatsoever…

But what if the routine degree of difficulty were cubed – and then actually surmounted? What if someone, somehow decided it was time to, well, reach even higher? And literally put one of their gates, and some of their bigger bets, in the hands of third parties in nothing less than outer space?

Yes, 250 miles above Planet Earth – embracing a wildly expansive view of open innovation – in an isolated laboratory better known as the International Space Station (ISS)?

Meet two people I know who have, Ken Savin and Cynthia Bouthot.

Ken Savin is Advisor to Special Projects and Innovation in Small Molecule Design and Development at Eli Lilly & Company. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Utah Ken came to Lilly as senior organic chemist from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center in 1998. At Lilly he’s worked as a medicinal chemist, a Lean / 6-Sigma Black Belt and held leadership responsibilities for the in-vitro labs, transporter biology, in-silico sciences, in the Lead Generation chemistry and isotopic chemistry groups. Ken’s also championed new knowledge management and idea generation initiatives and recently launched the effort joining CASIS, NASA and Lilly to develop experiments on the International Space Station; a result of the InnoCentive program and a remarkable “Lilly Innovation Day” event. Ken is an adjunct professor of Chemistry at Butler University and serves on the board of Centric, a community of business, education, design, scientific and artistic leaders focused on driving innovation in the community by developing networks of people and connecting ideas to produce value. He also somehow finds time to serve his sons and his community as a Scoutmaster!

Cynthia Bouthot is Director of Business Development and Commercial Innovation at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), where she heads a team generating flight projects for the ISS National Laboratory in the life science, energy, chemicals, materials, clean technology, and IT sectors. Cynthia was previously President of the Collaborative Innovation Group, providing the tools and methodologies to establish successful products, efficient routes to market, and strong brand positions. Cynthia regularly addresses and moderates panels about innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship. She earned her BS at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and her Masters in International Economics and Finance at Brandeis University. She is a mentor in the Boston University Kindle program.

Ken and I first met at a “Front End of Innovation” Conference two years ago (see also Predicting the Future in Big Pharma). We caught up this fall and scheduled a discussion by phone that Cynthia dialed into from Boston where she was presenting at the 2015 Awards Ceremony with our friends at the Mass Challenge (see also Mass Challenge: View from Largest Global Accelerator)

It proved quite an instructive conversation!

Lou Killeffer: Good morning everyone. Ken, briefly, how would you describe the primary areas you all are pursuing with NASA?

Ken Savin: Well, there are four. We’re looking at a molecule that we know has biological activity that works to build muscle and the best way to see how it works is to watch it without the resistance effect of gravity. We’re also looking at protein crystallization as we have several protein targets of interest and these proteins prove very hard too crystallize. We’re also investigating the process and effects of freeze-drying where we want to determine whether the characteristics we see in our experiments here on earth are the result of the freezing or the drying. And our last experiment concerns the mixing of a solid, a liquid, and a gas to see how long it takes for the solid to dissolve. The process of dissolving is impacted what’s called the “float effect”, which is what you see when you add Ovaltine to a glass of milk with the powder floating on top at the start. The float effect has an impact on how long it takes for the solid to get wet and dissolve into a solution. And Lou we thought this last experiment was by far the simplest one of the four and it’s proven to be the most complicated!

LK: How did you all settle on these four; what criteria did you use in your decision-making?

KS: The process was complex. We began by running a series of challenges for people to come up with ideas within the organization. We then put the ten or so most promising ideas through a Lilly Innovation Day to which we had invited both folks from NASA and CASIS, while also as expanding the Lilly teams. Through that process we actually added some ideas and then put them through the filters of simply nice to do versus significant to understand and then of course what was technically feasible to execute in space. And we concluded with the four we have, although we have others we’ve confidence in we believe these four have the best shot.

LK: How does space alter your approach; is it zero gravity that you’re looking for?

KS:Yes, we do science in space to utilize the special environment it affords us. In this case, all the experiments are utilizing the zero gravity environment, that’s primarily the effect we’re after which is very difficult to replicate here on Earth for anything but a very short period of time, say 30 seconds or so. We needed an extended and continuous stay at zero gravity and the International Space Station is simply the perfect platform and only opportunity for such scientific experiments.

LK: What do you hope for each as a result? What are the benefits you’re seeking?

KS: Well, of course we hope to learn a lot of things, running the experiments we’ve touched on, each of which will be compared with our findings here on Earth. We know that things don’t behave in space the way you’d expect them to on earth. So we’re really learning as we go; first answering can we execute the experiment and then what will we learn as a result. We’re not entirely sure what we’ll find out but we have great scientists, we’re great observers, and great science means keeping your eyes open to finding things you hadn’t and really couldn’t have planned for.

LK: So executionally, how does it all work? You brief the team of astronauts, give them a series of protocols to follow in each case, and they then execute your experiment in space?

KS: Simply put, yes, but it’s far more complex as you might imagine. CASIS linked us to contractors who know all of NASA’s requirements, what’s already in the Space Station and what would need to be brought up. Some of the work is pretty straightforward, like the mixing we’re doing, but in some instances the astronauts actually have to be trained. So we sent teams to Houston to train folks and make sure they could then execute without harming the experiment or themselves.

LK: Cynthia, CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, is the intermediary that puts corporations in touch with NASA to utilize the many benefits of the International Space Station?

Cynthia Bouthot: Yes, exactly right. We help corporations like Lilly work with NASA to further their own innovation agendas. And depending on their needs, the International Space Station is an extraordinary lab providing micro-gravity, the extreme conditions of space in terms of lack of oxygen and extraordinary temperatures, or simply as a vantage point for Earth observation. We find these are the three unique reasons- why people choose to get involved.

I must say that for us Lilly is simply the gold standard in terms of both vision and execution. Their enterprise-wide approach to innovation, from drug development to drug delivery, is truly remarkable. And perhaps best exemplified by their Innovation Day program where we all came together to brainstorm around what micro-gravity meant and then what Lilly’s priorities were to see what we could hope to accomplish together in space. I think Lilly’s commitment to their innovation infrastructure and their ability to manage innovation across the entire organization really sets them apart.

LK: Forgive my ignorance, but I’d no idea how robust and sophisticated your efforts are. How long have you all been at it? Who else are you working with beyond Lilly?

CB: Well, Lou, CASIS has only existed for the last four years. A lot of the early work on the Space Station, which by the way just celebrated its 15th anniversary, was done with leading universities who are the more traditional space users. Their focus has been looking into things like stem cells or new technology breakthroughs. Now over the last   two years we’ve gotten quite a lot of traction with the Fortune 500. Here the early adopters have been primarily life science companies like Merck, Novartis, and Honeywell. And today we’ve a whole host of companies on the horizon as our clientele expands to include physical science companies such as Dow, Cargill, Unilever, GGE, and BASF.

LK: Congratulations. How do you encourage corporations to get involved?

CB: Great question. We start from the premise that the International Space Station is simply the ultimate innovation platform. Period. From there our challenge is convincing new users that a laboratory 250 miles above Earth is far better for certain things than the lab down the hall. In that respect, it all boils down to education. Promoting our capabilities and encouraging people to think about what could be done. Clearly Lilly is one of the companies leading the charge; they’re really ahead of their time.

LK: Ken, Lilly’s Innovation Day sounds remarkable; both inspiring and productive at the same time. How does it work?

KS: We started Lilly’s Innovation Day five years ago to give our people time to think introspectively about why they come to work, what they’re passionate about, and what both they individuals and Lilly as a company can and should be doing better. It’s really gotten all of us to think about how we work, how we get things done and finding better ways to engage with everyone from our colleagues to our customers.

So at each Innovation Day we facilitate a process that dedicates a month or so to prep and then a day where teams of two to twenty or so people come together to run an experiment and then a wrap up day that brings everyone together to report on their results. And win, lose, or draw we go through every project with every team and everyone presents what they did and what they found out. And you get a pretty great view into what people are dreaming about through the process.

LK: Ken I take it in your pursuit of open innovation your project teams are made up of an array of employees that may or may not have anything in particular to do with the issue at hand, right? You’re simply pitting smart, freethinking people against thorny problems and opportunities?

KS: That’s right. And we also make a point of bringing people in from the outside, local business leaders, and artists, and designers who instinctively love a challenge and look at what we’re doing and ask, “Why do you do it that way; what about this?” And it’s proven remarkably successful.

LK: Ok, Ken, if that’s how Innovation Day works at Lilly why do you suppose it works so well? A lot of companies talk about innovation but I suspect only a few get to where Lilly is going; what’s the secret of your success?

KS: I don’t know that there’s any secret to what we’ve done but I do know that management backing is the key. Once people see that they’ll be supported, they really respond. And some of the best ideas come from the lower levels of research and administration that you might not have expected. Many people see the same problems, but the people living with it often have the incentive and the knowledge to address the issue. They just need time to think it through and try out some solutions. And the freedom to explore a little gives them a chance to show that they’re really good at what they do – and that they can make a difference. As incentives go that’s a pretty powerful combination.

I also think our culture plays an enormous role as well. In fact, Lilly’s been built on innovation since it’s origins in the 1880’s when Eli Lilly first commercialized the gelatin caplet. This has continued throughout our history as seen in our pioneering work with Insulin and Prozac to name only two standouts. So I think there’s an expectation that this is how you’re going to do things here, that you’re going to do things differently.

Finally, I think we came to Innovation Day and it’s worked so well in response to our management team asking, “Ok, what’s next? Where do we go from here?” And then having the wisdom to know all the best ideas weren’t going to come from management – they were going to be found in our people.

LK: How well does the three-legged stool of Lilly, NASA and CASIS work? How do you co ordinate to optimize such an extraordinary platform? How do you manage to success?

KS: Well we work with CASIS to enable all the paper work, navigate the bureaucracy, and manage the logistics. Once the project is moving along, it transitions to the contractor who enables the hardware and avionics package. Only then does NASA or the NASA coordinator, for example Boeing, step in and work with us. We had some early interactions with NASA to visit their facilities and talk to their scientists to understand the limitations of the modules and set expectations and understand what makes sense to do in space, and we still meet with them from time to time, but the real work is primarily done by our scientists, CASIS and the contractors who help us develop the hardware and the experiment.

LK: What would you tell other corporations about your experience? Are many more interested in following your lead?

KS: Well, I did not ask for permission, at least not right away. Clearly others companies are obviously getting involved as Cynthia said, but there are often difficulties with getting buy-in internally, sharing a vision that everyone can see. Right now doing something like this can take a little leap of faith. But in our case, we have a bunch of scientists who grew up dreaming about working with NASA and a CEO who is a scientist, a chemist, so we may have some advantages that others may not.

LK: I must say, your goals strike me as noble when so much corporate innovation simply seeks  to help the case rate in Cleveland or block a competitor’s access to the shelf at Wal-Mart. Do you see your objectives informing all your many decisions along the way?

KS: Again I’d have to say the Lilly culture drives this approach. We’re an innovation-based company and we simply see this as an extension of who we are, in line with the way we’ve come to where we are now. We obviously also see this as contributing to a larger overall effort and stretching beyond what we would normally consider doing; again, in line with our corporate culture. We’re also a company that looks at collaboration, with government, other private organizations, our customers, etc., as a great way to learn and become far better at what we do than we could ever become on our own.

LK: Do you all plan to share your findings; will there be no proprietary IP for Lilly from this work?

KS: Our contract with CASIS allows us to make the determination on what we want to share. And we will share most of what we find. Although not clear-cut yet, some of the work from two of the projects will be published with little or no restrictions. One project will be published without the key identifiers, the target related information will simply be removed and publication will be delayed. The last project is related to a potential product and as such will have restrictions on what we can present outside the company.

LK: Ken good luck with everything. As you look to the results, whatever they may prove to be, what’s the greatest reward to date from the Lilly-NASA collaboration?

KS: The look on the faces of my team members when they come out of meetings with the NASA and CASIS folks and it hits them that we’re really doing this! That and the fact that it’s forced us to really think hard about the things we believed we knew. It’s forced us to get back to basic understandings of the science we’ve been working at for years.

LK: Ken and Cynthia, thank you both very much and all success. We’ll all stay tuned!

KS: Thank you, Lou. I enjoyed it.

CB: Wonderful, Lou, thanks!

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How Companies Pursue GreatnessLou Killeffer is Editor at Large for Innovation Excellence, and Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.