Data for Good – Innovating with Passion and Dogged Determination

By Tim Maurer
April 5, 2014
General Foundation

All the excitement over the age of “Big Data” sometimes seems to champion numbers and raw information as the source of world-changing innovations. The thing is, data on its own does nothing. It is the people who take an insight gleaned through data and run with it through all the frustrating hurdles of the innovation process that turn a sound insight into a viable, groundbreaking application.

Innovation success requires hiring and nurturing skilled people who can access and mine data for gems; who can collaborate with others for mutual benefit; and who can muster the spark of energy, the passion, and the fortitude to drive the process from data to insights and invention to a systemic innovation or business model shift that takes hold in affecting a true, breakthrough change. This despite—and often persevering through—the inertia that will likely need to be overcome. Bleeding-edge stuff.

We can all be inspired by exemplary innovators who not only illustrate the art of mining data for innovation, but also model how to push the envelope in making an impact through research-based innovation. One exciting biomedical innovator to watch, Dr. Jim Olson, speaks on the importance of finding the spark of brilliance—like that brilliance in the center of a violet—and of having the passion that’s represented in a violet’s purple petals. Olson is a surgeon specializing in children’s brain cancer treatment.  He created Tumor Paint from scorpion venom to better differentiate healthy brain cells from tumorous cells.  This helps surgeons avoid the typical collateral damage that often comes from removing healthy cells during brain surgery due to lack of distinction between the healthy and cancerous cells.

When asked what gave him the idea to work with scorpion venom, Olson cited the data-related research work that a talented neurosurgery resident contributed. Patrick Gabikin had come into Olson’s lab to perform research.  Olson guided Patrick Gabikin to dig into Big Data, to review all the scientific literature and computer databases, adding that other scientists had examined differences between brain tumors and normal brains for years and had published their information—but typically only in the form of lists. 

After six weeks of digging and presenting various findings to Olson, Olson saw the basis for a solution that seemed promising. Gabikin had found articles where researchers were studying chlorotoxin, which is created by scorpions. This ultimately became the targeting agent in Olson’s Tumor Paint. Olson would soon attach a fluorescent molecule to it, grow a human brain tumor in a mouse, and inject the tumor paint molecule in the blood stream to determine if the tumor would glow. An hour and a half after injecting the paint, the tumor was indeed glowing, and Olson was literally jumping for joy.

Still, to grant-funding bodies and others in the field, Olson’s innovation initially seemed far too outlandish and improbable to fund or support. So, after his moment of brilliance, Olson had to muster the passion and perseverance to not only prove his theory, but also pursue and secure self-funding sources to make his seemingly inconceivable discovery a viable part of surgery. Passion and perseverance was the key. Fortunately, through innovativeness and persevering in fundraising, Olson succeeded in raising the capital.

In part to encourage and engage others, Olson has named his latest and perhaps most exciting initiative, Project Violet, after a patient who had suffered from incurable brain cancer and who, after she died, had arranged for her brain to be donated for science. Project Violet will use crowd funding to secure the help of the community to develop new class anti-cancer compounds derived from scaffolds of nature—chemical templates from organisms such as violets, scorpions and sunflowers.

OIson’s ultimate goal is to develop treatments that are highly targeted to kill cancer while sparing patients from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea and hair loss. His team is now pursuing the development of a fundamentally new class of anti-cancer compounds: molecules called “optides” that specifically attack cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells untouched and offer the potential to improve on current chemotherapies.

Collaborating for Innovation

As Olson and others like him are uncovering data-based breakthroughs, we can see that innovation is not a solitary endeavor. Working together, we have the potential to achieve much more than we could on our own. In short, we need to up our collective game in the area of collaboration.

In managing innovation through impeding inertia and barriers, it can be beneficial to team people who can identify a spark of brilliance together with established players across enterprises and industry ecosystems who have the equity, budgets and networks needed to affect institutional change. Identifying and marshalling multiple parties with the propensity to collaborate—as well as harvesting collaboration processes and technologies—is becoming more and more essential for success.

In Olson’s case, the key to taking innovative insights to fruition went well beyond data collection and analytics and involved collaboration and continual, concerted perseverance. Olson formed a team and is reaching across disciplines, and the team is not just working on developing improvements in brain tumor surgeries or finding a cure for a particular disease. And fostering even greater collaboration, they’re also creating a platform that can be used by thousands of scientists to address many diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and diseases that affect developing nations. 

According to the GE Global Innovation Barometer, 87% of senior executives think their company would innovate better through partnering than by working on their own, and 67% have “developed a new product, improved a product or created a new business model through collaboration with another company.” 

Fostering collaborations within companies and across disparate units and departments is also critical. Noted innovation expert, IDEO, was highlighted recently in the Harvard Business Review for its documentation of “mutual helping” as an essential dynamic within a truly successful innovation culture. Beyond workload sharing, “mutual helping” is the process of lending perspective, experience, and execution to improve the quality and execution of ideas. It’s the matching of help seekers with the helpers themselves. 

Mutual helping also means encouraging reciprocity, including through the recognition of the helpers. It also entails working to eliminate the perception that seeking help is a sign of weakness. According to IDEO, successful mutual helping entails fostering a collaborative innovation environment comprised of three measurable indicators: competence; trust; and accessibility.

Unfortunately, today, when it comes to collaboration, there appears to be significant room for improvement. In assessing their collaborative capabilities, a majority of WSJ CIO Network Conference participants (51%) would only give their organizations a “C” or “D” grade for collaboration. There are also concerns over intellectual property (IP), as well as trust and talent poaching, that need to be addressed.

In any innovative endeavor, motivating passion is essential for success, though the sources from which this relentless determination can arise are often unique to the innovator. As discussed in the next installment in this series, maintaining a focus on “purpose” throughout the innovation process is what can drive breakthrough discoveries. For Olson, his deceased patient, Violet, has become a catalyst for purpose and innovation. May we all find our Violets, seizing the moment when inspiration blossoms from the fertile soil of disparate data, and applying the passion and perseverance needed to see a discovery through to fruition. This is precisely what is meant by data for good. 

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This is the third post in a series on "data for good." Read the first and second posts.