Image shows a hand touching a stream of light representing a spark that ignites innovative ideas.

Igniting Interconnectedness to Drive Health Innovation Across Teams

Ian Marks VP R&D Innovation
Robert Sarrazin, VP Global Head of External Innovation and Direct Investments

Innovation has no set formula nor guarantee. It has no “golden” process that ensures desired outcome and is held to no predictable schedule. The drive to innovate results in costly failure far more often than it does bankable success. And yet, because of its potential to transform people’s lives through new paths to health and medicine, we are compelled to pursue innovation energetically—even with the likely prospect of disappointment.

Mission-critical to all industries, innovation takes on added urgency in the healthcare sector. People—patients—are literally waiting for innovative solutions; their wellness, and even survival, depends upon them.

In the past, confronted with an idea that created friction, at most health companies, the natural inclination was to say “no.” This isn’t surprising: where there is an absence of disruptive innovation, it’s easy to find reasons not to do something. 

To change the culture of “no,” we need to innovate the process of innovation. And one of the most effective ways to do that is to drive health innovation across teams.

It might seem ideal for a company’s innovation to come entirely from within, but the fact is, like its inspiration, innovation’s source is variable. If you foster it correctly, innovation comes from your people—but it also comes from other, unexpected sources as well. This dual nature of innovation should be recognized and leveraged.

Internally, a culture of curiosity, investment and risk encourages employees to self-disrupt. If properly supported, this type of innovation, which we’ll call ‘sustaining,’ delivers advancements—steadily and reliably—in innovative increments. Achieving with this internal approach provides a baseline of success. It’s the fuel that makes a company’s innovation engine run.

But, a percentage of effort must also be spent on innovation from other sources. The reason: while a company’s appetite for risk will be more modest, a start-up, individual or academic innovator has a higher tolerance with a greater potential for benefit. The ideas, which we’ll call ‘disruptive,’ can be thrilling, unlooked for and truly new. By working with these smaller, nimbler partners, we add higher octane to the innovation engine.

Taking this dual approach requires the willingness to go into new territory without a roadmap. And, it’s true that when sustaining and disruptive teams come together, there can be differences of opinion and conflict. But, in our experience, the dual-team approach achieves greater results than investing in simply one approach or the other. For maximum potential, there must be a path that supports both. 

In our case, a combination of internal and external teams—entities from outside the company—have become critical to innovation success. When we started the GSK/Novartis joint venture, 90 percent of the programs we oversaw were wholly internal. We have great teams, the best and the brightest, and they are responsible for great advancements in self-care. Since then, our horizons have widened. We have created an external network with incredible access to partners.

Now, it’s a new innovation era: we are nearly at the point where 50 percent of our projects are run by external teams. With innovation coming from within and beyond our corporate walls—there is a richer, more complex series of choices to make. We’re talking to incubators, startups and our own teams; you cannot survive today without developing and accepting diversity of ideas and innovators. It is a real competitive differentiator in our mission to transform the future of self-care.

When we think of rapidly evolving self-care, we may think of digital impacts that allow consumers to make better decisions, access meds and treatment, and leverage the use of AI. Everything is building up to a revolution, with a tremendous amount of innovation coming from practical need. 

To meet that need, we must adopt a culture of curiosity—one that supports investment, encourages risk, rewards failure and recognizes value in teams from within and collaborating with those from academia and entrepreneurs of all scales and approaches. Our is an expansive industry, one that keeps its eye on the ultimate prize—people’s lives improved, sustained and extended. When we approach the innovation that gets us closer to that prize, why would we limit ourselves?