The Magic of Converging Medical Technologies

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This perfectly sensible quote comes from Arthur C. Clarke, who was best known as a science fiction writer (including 2001: A Space Odyssey) and as an inventor and futurist.

Innovation often happens at the edges – where two ways of working or ways of thinking connect and co-create something truly novel.  In converging medical technologies, we see different disciplines coming together: experts in biology, pharmacology, neuroscience and other medical fields are developing new innovations in partnership with experts in engineering, IT, materials science, nanotechnology and more.

An inspirational piece of magic here is bionic prosthetics, which we can now see being driven by thought alone because the false limb is wired right into the user’s neuromuscular system.

How about electroceuticals?  Traditionally we tackle disease with drugs, which are chemicals designed to control our cells.  But big pharma are already investigating a radical alternative – using tiny implants that control our problem cells by electrical signals instead of chemicals.  This might be used in the future to control insulin production in diabetics, or to treat epilepsy in a far more targeted way than current drugs allow.

Or imagine a future scenario where you have a heart problem and your cardiologist attaches a special tissue patch to the surface of your heart to help monitor problems.  This is one potential use of ‘cyborg tissue’, which is half living cells and half electronics.

I was at the Converging Medical Technologies conference at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst this week, and I’ll be blogging more on what was discussed.  In the meantime, here’s to more magic.

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Ideas Are Cheap

Innovation is often confused with just having an idea, but innovation is of course having the idea and doing everything else – the R&D, the testing and re-designing to develop a new product/service/process, and then successfully getting it out to the market or putting it into use, so that it’s not just an idea but an applied result.

One way of looking at it is that there are only two problem areas for innovation: having the idea, and everything else.

Some organisations get stuck on ‘having ideas’ and need some help to re-imagine what they could be doing for their clients, from innovating the business model all the way to developing new products and services.

In other organisations, ideas can be cheap and plentiful – but it’s the development and implementation that get derailed, thanks to any number of innovation barriers:

  • Lack of variety in the skills and mindsets available in-house
  • Silo working or communication breakdowns
  • Transactions with supply chain members, instead of relationships
  • Not understanding the customers’ habits, needs, and preferences
  • Too much process and bureaucracy – causing delays and ineffectiveness
  • Not enough process or structure – chaos doesn’t have a deadline or a focus
  • Leadership that doesn’t help the team to balance innovation activity with other everyday tasks
  • A workplace culture that works against employee engagement with innovation
  • Lack of a diverse external network that would provide ideas, knowledge, alternative views, skills and business opportunities.

It’s a good thing for any organisation to ask itself: “In our workplace, what’s ‘abundant and cheap’, and what’s ‘rare and expensive’”?  How does that question apply to ideas, connections, effective cross-department working, efficient processes, a knowledge-sharing culture, mutual trust between the leadership and the workforce?

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Is Open Innovation Being Embraced Yet By The Pharma Industry?

Open innovation in the biotech and pharma sector was the hot topic at the recent Open Innovation in Action conference at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst.

The key points raised at the event can be found in the article ‘Open Innovation in the Pharma Industry‘   by Sue Pearson in the Dec 5th 2012 issue of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.  There are quotes from Stefan Lindegaard, Patrick Vallance of GSK, and Clare O’Neill of Original Ventures.

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Vexation and Entrepreneurship

A few days ago I came across an intriguing theory about how Silicon Valley first developed.

I was watching part 3 of Jim Al-Khalili’s BBC science programme “Shock And Awe: The Story Of Electricity” and it got on to how semiconductors and transistors were developed.  William Shockley was a research group leader at the famous Bell Laboratories and was one of three Nobel Prize winners for pioneering the development of transistors.  Shockley then left Bell to set up his own company in rural California, recruiting the brightest graduates he could find.  The problem was that he was excessively controlling and paranoid, which made him a terrible boss.

Bad bosses

The theory is that he was such a monumental pain in the ass to work with, that’s what made his employees leave in droves and set up their own companies – and that was the birth of the Silicon Valley business-fest that continues today.

There’s the old phrase ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, which I’m sure we’ve all witnessed happening from time to time in work and at home.

So if necessity is the mother of invention, does the Shockley story tell us that vexation is the mother of entrepreneurship?


How many people have been made into entrepreneurs through being annoyed with a boss who just won’t see the potential of a new way of working; being frustrated with the plodding corporate committee-based progression of a new product; being impatient with a finance director who wants all the resources for a 5 year project in place before it starts? (As noted before – entrepreneurship is “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”.)

Wanting to run when others are walking must surely be a driver of entrepreneurial activity, just as it is a springboard for innovation.

The next time you’re annoyed with your workplace…you know which question to ask yourself.

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Connectivity, Collaboration, Challenge: 3 Principles of Open Innovation

I think it’s inevitable that if open innovation is to be successful, there are skills and practices we must all try to improve constantly.

Here are three fundamental aspects to everyday work that I think are essential to open innovation:


Connectivity is the mothership from which everything else originates.  We’re inspired by what we see others are able to do, and what they’re not able to do.  If we are well connected in a diverse network, we can translate problem-solving methods from one business sector or specialist area to another.  People who are connected with several, different, diverse networks are at higher risk of having a good idea, because they’re familiar with several different problem-solving cultures: they can re-mix and adapt all those different approaches to find an answer.  (For more on this phenomenon, see Prof Ron Burt, University of Chicago Booth School of Business).


As Annalee Saxenian famously said, innovation is a contact sport.  One person might have an idea on their own, but it always takes a collaborating team of people to turn it into a product – researchers, investors, advisors, manufacturers, end-users and so on.  To be a great business partner, we need to deliver what we promise, and never over-promise; we need to give credit where it’s due; we need to give something away in order to get something back.  And the better connected we are, the more likely we are to find the right collaborators each time.


Challenge in two senses.  Firstly, the value of open innovation challenges to generate ideas – the crowdsourcing competitions that are often at the heart of open innovation in practice.  Secondly, the fact that if you’re connected to a diverse network then you can make sure that a promising idea gets challenged from multiple angles – and that’s how we turn a good idea into a great one.

These three aspects of everyday work are our supply depot for everything we need to make open innovation work.  Our individual success will depend on the extent to which we make a conscious effort to always improve our skills at opportunity-spotting, problem-solving, and collaborating with other people in a way that makes them want to work with us again.  Connections, collaborations and challenges are all fundamental to that success.

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