What makes an innovator?


In the past few weeks, I’ve been to conferences and events which really immersed me in the field of entrepreneurship. I’ve talked to or heard from people who are at the heart of game-changing ideas and who had the drive to execute them. In this post, I thought I’d share some of the stories behind these people and their ideas. I hope this will add a touch of realism as we go through their journey, as opposed to just seeing the final outcome.

London is home to countless networks and communities that help to accelerate innovation. Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the TechNight London event held at the Shard – organised by UCLU TechSoc, WarwickTech and She++.

Blaze: simple, life-saving.

The opening keynote speaker was Emily Brooke, founder of Blaze: an urban cycling brand popular for its main product, the laserlight. Essentially, it projects a bike symbol on the ground 6m in front of the bike. The aim is to make other surrounding vehicles aware of a cyclist, especially near corners.

Her journey began after finishing a degree in Physics at Oxford University – no mean feat. However, she then decided to study Product Design at Brighton University (a big change), to explore her passion for the practical element rather than theoretical understanding. Although she wasn’t particularly into cycling, she developed a love for it after doing a charity bike ride with her friend. Importantly, she saw the differences in riding in the countryside and in the city. Increased traffic comes with many dangers: 79% of hits are from drivers unaware of incoming cyclists due to a blind spot. She felt that, what was then an early-stage prototype of the laserlight, could solve these problems.

As with all entrepreneurs, there were huge challenges she had to face. Firstly, she mentions that it was not a well-trodden route for people with her background. She believed in the idea and its potential, but never thought she’d be the one to actually bring it to market. After this, there is the challenge of reaching the intended market. There needed to be legitimate proof of the benefits of the technology, even though it seemed perfectly logical. Though they didn’t have any luck with TFL the first time round (bureaucracy in large companies impeding innovation is a common theme), TFL then initiated a study which showed a 25% reduction in the blind spot of an HGV. This was a springboard which enabled them to secure contracts with Santander Cycles (Boris Bikes) and disperse their products worldwide.

The key take-away message for me was her determination to execute a product of undeniable benefit. Her vision allowed her to see that 70% of people will reside in cities by 2020, and to work on solving the problems that come with scaling the use of bikes. Blaze is also looking at ways to take advantage of its widespread use, fitting it with sensors that track air pollution for example (big data!).

Flock: anticipate the future.

Another talk which highlighted the importance of vision was by Ed Klinger, the CEO of Flock: a startup that provides insurance for flights made with commercial drones. Using big data, they can identify and quantify the risks of each flight. Their algorithm takes into account a plethora of factors, from the history of the ‘pilot’ to the map of the area and weather in the immediate vicinity. Everyone knows about drones, but very little people have the vision to create a product in anticipation of its widespread adoption.

Of course, his journey to create the product hasn’t been an easy cruise. To take off, he mentions, requires a compatible co-founder and the willingness to go beyond normal convention. The panel talk I attended on the night also propagated a similar message: it’s important to have a cohesive team (often achieved with great diversity) along with a vision that easily comes across to investors.

Proximie: propagating surgery.

At UCL, I recently had the opportunity to listen to some short talks about innovation in surgery. Firstly by Dr. Charlie Davie, a consultant neurologist and managing director at UCLPartners: an organisation that helps to catalyse academic science partnerships that can transform healthcare. Then by Dr. Nadine Hachach-Haram, a Clinical Entrepreneur Fellow and co-founder of Proximie: an augmented reality platform that streams live surgery and improves surgical training.

Technician watches as a doctor in Beirut guides a surgeon in Gaza.

The idea for Proximie came about to address an area of need, using technology already widely adopted. She herself is a surgeon, and recalls an incident where she flew abroad to give a masterclass on cleft lip reconstructions – along with many renowned surgeons around the world. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the students could not be present to observe the surgeries. Witnessing operations done by experienced surgeons is invaluable – and her platform aims to propagate access to this through the internet. Proximie is currently being piloted at Royal Free London Hospital, with access granted to UCL students. However, it has already been used to good effect globally, training and guiding doctors in Gaza, Lebanon and Vietnam.

As she comes from a medical background, she found challenges in dealing with finances and the logistics of bringing her product to market. However, she mentions that it was extremely useful to have a co-founder with knowledge of accountancy, and that the support systems at UCL helped through the legal tasks. I very much admire that she pursued her entrepreneurial visions alongside a demanding career in medicine – something that’s becoming altogether more common (see prev. post).

AstraZeneca: large-scale innovation.

A week ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Luton headquarters of AstraZeneca, one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world. I thought I’d include it here because it is a prime example of an organisation built to innovate and efficiently bring its products to market – an estimated 14% of all NHS patients have been treated with an AZ drug. I had the chance to meet some of the people who help drive this and hear some of the attributes they consider to be essential.

For example, Dr. Jonathan Day is the Medical Director for AZ UK & Ireland. It’s fair to say he has had a hugely successful career, becoming a Specialist Registrar in Cardiothoracic Surgery before venturing into the world of pharma – working with companies like Takeda, Bayer and The Medicines Company before his current role. He mentions that there are leaders with different skills but that he recognises Emotional Intelligence as most important. That is, being smart enough to carry out your job effectively but also knowing how to orchestrate a team and communicate individually. Being a person who can influence others around you, he says, is crucial to move up the ranks to a leadership position. It’s also useful to be a generalist in these roles, as stated by one of the heads of Medical Affairs – he was a doctor but spent some of his career at a management consultancy firm to refine some of these skills further.

Lastly, as with any organisation or individual that wants to innovate, you have to be prepared for failure. It takes an average of 12 years to bring a drug to market, and only a minute % of all experimental drugs ever do. To be an innovator requires patience, forward-thinking and execution – in pharma, that perseverence could relieve the suffering of a small group of people, or revolutionise healthcare.

About the author

Medical student at University College London (1st Year). Passionate about science, design and photography.

1 comment

  • Yes, innovation and creativity are different. A musical swing bus stand or treadmills for electricity generation are more of creativity than innovation.

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