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How diversity and collaboration within life science are drivers for innovation

Innovation is one, if not the driver of progress. And although the term is a somewhat elusive catch-all term, one thing is certain: no innovation without cooperation and diversity. To explain this, Health Campus brought together experts during the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.

Based on their experience, they shed light on connecting and steering international innovative networks.

Clusters or ecosystems, and certainly those related to life sciences, must first and foremost reflect society. Diverse, in other words. That is the conviction of all members of the international panel. But why are they convinced of this. “Because innovation is driven by diversity,” explains David Whelan, CEO of BioscienceLA in addition to being a start-up mentor and advisor. “Especially in a field like life science and healthcare, which touch very strongly on people personally. So, the more diversity you build into research, clinical trials and services as an organisation or ecosystem, the more we will be able to develop solutions that reach and help people worldwide. And by diversity, I don’t mean mere ethnicity, but also the different types of companies you cluster in such an ecosystem.”

Betting on diversity
That human capital is crucial within life sciences and healthcare is agreed by Steven Ceulemans. He is CEO of Baton Rouge Health District, a non-profit coalition of healthcare organisations. “Now to relate it specifically to healthcare: healthcare providers are the key differentiators and key drivers because people receiving care tend to connect faster with healthcare providers who have the same background. So, the more diversity, the more effectively you can organise services, and the more impact they have. Moreover, let’s not lose sight of the fact that diversity is very important for the younger generation: if you want to present yourself as an attractive employer to new talent, you must bet on diversity.” It is therefore also an absolute must in the context of the war for talent.

Cluster organisations can play an important role in encouraging that diversity. “Look, in the US today you have two major biotech hubs,” explains Simone Fishburn. She is vice president and editor-in-chief at business intelligence platform BioCentury, which helps entrepreneurs around strategic questions about business growth. “I.e. Boston and San Francisco. But how do these avoid missing out on innovation talent that can be found in the rest of the US, for example in Louisiana? Answer: by creating networks. In other words, it is not a matter of finding talent, plucking it away and then dropping it in your hub: much more effective is to collaborate with national and international companies and organisations. An added benefit of this is that you diversify your patient population that way, which can be very useful in clinical trials in medical centres, for example.”

$36 billion in value
“Diversity is also crucial to install a culture of innovation,” Wouter Piepers, CEO of, picks up. “A good example is the VIB (Flemish Institute of Biotechnology, ed.). Within it, some 1,800 scientists, accounting for 78 different nationalities, work in nine research institutes on ten different topics, which has also resulted in 60 to 70 spin-offs over the past 30 years. Since its creation in 1996, VIB has created some 36 billion euros in value. For a small country like Belgium, that’s impressive. And so, it is thanks to diversity and cooperation. Cooperation between different companies, between clusters, between government, industry, and education, and so on.”

“The primary responsibility for facilitating that collaboration lies with the board: it has to embrace diversity and collaboration as a cluster organisation and ensure that this is really a topic among its affiliates – so there is definitely a bit of education involved as well: it often has to be instilled in people and companies.”

Measuring ecosystem quality
An innovation culture cannot exist without diversity and collaboration: that much is clear. But what defines such an innovation culture? What are its main characteristics?
“A first key component is strong leadership,” he says. “By this I don’t just mean someone’s talent to become CEO or chairman, but also the quality to take decisions and risks, to be a role model,” Wouter Piepers points out. “That’s why at we created the CEO-Buddy system, within which we connect young CEOs with seniors with a track record of up to 40 years. In addition, a leader must have an eye for the individuals. I sometimes say that the quality of an ecosystem can be measured by how it treats its people. In good times and bad.”

Open innovation
The view of the CEO of is primarily a Flemish/Belgian view of innovation culture. But how does Steven Ceulemans look at it, a Fleming who has been living in the US for over 20 years anyway? Does he see substantial differences with innovation in the US of A? “Flanders has a real knowledge economy – also in terms of life sciences, there is a very strong base there – which shows itself in IP (intellectual property, red.), implementation, and engineering, among other things. But the people themselves there have a tendency towards modesty, while in US people show more guts to take risks, drive to achieve goals and sense of competition. Americans can also really sell themselves; they are very strong at that. Belgians have much less of that. That is why a cooperation between those two regions and a synergy between those cultures can be of gold value.”

Cooperation that can also literally be of gold value, because a lot of investors find it an important factor in their decision-making process. “This can then be about cooperation between companies, but also, for example, between companies and academic centres,” says MyungSoo Song, CEO of PEN Ventures. “Above all, there needs to be a culture to appreciate other parties, and the right internal structure to evaluate KPIs. A willingness to share your R&D methods and results by engaging in open innovation. This is not as obvious as it sounds, which is why it often needs to be actively encouraged.”

“So, can a culture of innovation be measured? An interesting question for BioCentury, which very often works with data. “There are things you can easily measure, such as seed and series-A funding rounds,” Simone Fishburn replies. “But for the rest, you must look mainly at the context. A large company can raise a large sum of investment capital, but does that make it innovative? I like to compare it to this academic question: should a professor be valued on the number of publications, or the number of people who came out of his lab to then start their own? One big company that raises a lot of capital does not represent an innovation culture or ecosystem, companies from which new companies emerge do. So, you can’t derive everything from data, although it should always be the basis.”

Deep understanding of the market
Installing an open collaboration culture, encouraging diversity … Crucial building blocks for innovation. But how do you then go about building this concretely, is the logical question that follows. In other words, how do you achieve innovation?

“You have to get the right people at the table,” says David Whelan. “People with new insights, new capital, and new needs, who start from a deep understanding of the market – in the case of healthcare and life sciences: consumers, patients, healthcare providers … With that understanding, you go to that table and develop ideas. Around those ideas you build and finance a company, which in case of success can be sold or go public. You then invest those resources back into that cycle of market knowledge and ideas. With the CEOs of those sold or listed companies acting as mentors or investors for the next one. That’s how you create a flywheel of innovation.”

Innovation that must also allow for failure, Simone Fishburn stresses. “Trial and error,” she says of it. “You shouldn’t see something that doesn’t work as failure, but as experience. Or, as we say in England, failure is building character. Moreover, failure can lead to serendipity: finding something unexpected while you were looking for something completely different. This is how several medicines have been discovered throughout history. That said, serendipity cannot and should not be a strategy. You cannot build a business on the fact of we will try all sorts of things, and something will come out. That’s just unreliable and inefficient. But you do need to create an environment where people feel safe enough to be allowed to fail. Although that often poses a difficult balance with discipline because time and money are obviously not infinitely available.”

“Serendipity is not a strategy,” adds David Whelan. “A strategy is: creating conditions that enable serendipity. Such as connectivity between people that encourages conversations outside silos.”

Finally, whether any of the interlocutors have any advice for a young or even slightly older entrepreneur looking for those connections – both local and global. “Identify role models,” Wouter Piepers replies, “and then dare to make the connection with them. Don’t be shy, since most of them are open to helping and sharing their know-how and vision, and they are often even waiting to be allowed to give you advice. And further: collaborate with government agencies from around the world, network as much as possible and be ambitious. But guard the road and keep looking at the stars, so you don’t get lost.”


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