From Mindset to Practice: How to Build Innovation

To deliver life-changing medicines, we have the courage to be imaginative in our approach and we are convinced that change must be our constant.

by Andreas Harstrick, CMO

What does it mean to foster innovation? As the Chief Medical Officer of Affimed, the biotech company committed to giving patients back their innate ability to fight cancer, innovation is at the core of what we do—which is to find new and better ways to address certain diseases and to optimize treatment. This can only be achieved if we try new things in the ways we develop medicines and the approach we take with patients.

For innovation to truly function in a company, it needs to be nurtured as a mindset before it becomes a process. To create an innovative mindset, organizations must create an environment that supports risk-taking, an environment where people look for the unexpected and discover unforeseen needs and ways to address those needs.

The most challenging aspect of innovation is maintaining that mindset in the face of adversity. Herd mentality and conformity are death to innovation, so it is essential to create an environment where people believe in themselves, their ideas, and their judgments instead of relying on outward approval.

There is often a push to tie metrics to innovation, but that is like trying to capture magic in a bottle. The three biggest threats to innovation are attempts to plan it, predict it, and put it on a timeline. The minute you start to “administer” innovation, you risk killing it.

Any organization succeeding in innovation knows this and aggressively fosters an environment of open-mindedness and self-confidence. It’s an environment that challenges its employees to embrace data or experiences that go against what they expect, and then use that information to guide them. Overly critical, fearful environments are anathema to innovation. To champion innovation, you must lead by example, showing your team that you are willing to pursue new ideas often despite real obstacles. Innovation in a company will evolve over time with the right attitude and mindset.

A good way to measure innovation would be to ask, “Are we creating more value with our work in terms of new opportunities, new knowledge, and new possibilities in comparison with our peers while taking into account comparable financial and capital resources?” Beyond metrics, innovation comes down to three words: curiosity, courage, and confidence—and if you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded in a variety of ways and outcomes. This has been my experience.

Let me give you an example.

Earlier in my career at another company, I had been tasked with leading a new drug to approval. This drug shared many characteristics of another competing drug, including its mechanism of action, which had been developed and studied by another much larger company. This company had just published the results of a phase 3 study involving approximately 600 patients, and the study indicated that the specific mechanism of action that was shared by our drug and the competitor drug was not working for this type of cancer.

However, I was convinced otherwise. I knew this cancer well from my earlier clinical work, and I was confident that the mechanism could work. My team and I revisited the big pharma company’s data, and though there were no glaring errors, we were able to identify several factors in the design and conduct of the study that did not take the specific characteristics of this cancer into account.

Our hypothesis was that if we addressed this shortcoming, we would be able to prove that the mechanism of action that existed in our drug—as well as in the competing drug—would work. Because we were going against popular opinion, we faced considerable pushback, but fortunately, we succeeded in convincing enough people of our hypothesis, and we were given the green light to run our trial. The result was a positive phase 3 trial, global approval for the company, and more importantly, the addition of a new treatment option for patients.

This is only one example of many, and innovative companies know this; therefore, they foster environments that lead to similar kinds of openness and exploration. The takeaway is this: don’t let innovation be driven by consensus. Consensus feels safe, so be open to taking risks. At Affimed, we start with creating the mindset, and from there, innovation can follow.