What 10 innovation teams look like

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Innovation can take many forms across an organization. Over the course of the past five years, the healthcare industry has experimented with different structures, including centralized, decentralized, and hybrid organizational models. Sara Holoubek profiles how 10 innovation mavericks are leading innovation for their organizations.


1. Verily

Name: Jessica Mega

Title: Chief Medical Officer

Team name: Verily

Origin: Verily is a new company that is focused on bringing together technology, science, and medicine in the places where we think we can have the biggest impact on the detection, management, and prevention of disease.

Purpose: Partnerships are at the heart of Verily's approach. Our model is to work on new, early-stage technologies and then partner with companies with deep expertise in medicine and life sciences. We bring three things to the table that complement our partners' expertise in turning scientific breakthroughs into medical devices, running clinical trials, and bringing them to market. 

Our strengths are: Cross-disciplinary teams in which physicists and electrical engineers work alongside oncologists and chemists; new techniques, like miniaturized sensors, new materials, and nanotechnology; and large-scale computing and processing power and storage capacity

Approach: Verily has built four teams that work collaboratively with each other and with external partners: software, hardware, clinical, and science. One of our strengths is the diversity of these teams — engineers, physicists, chemists, doctors, and more.

Advice: One of the things we focus on is building very strong cross-functional teams -- bringing together engineers with physicians and designers and business operations people. We try to get rid of friction between these teams about lots of different experts can contribute to solution early on in the process.


2. Boston Children's Hospital

Name: John Brownstein

Title: Chief innovation officer

Team name: Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator

Origin and purpose: Founded in 2015, Brownstein's team builds on a history of culture and thinking by establishing the mechanisms to bring new ideas to life.

There are currently two primary areas of focus: digital health in the hospital and an effort to embed the organization's collective know-how into hardware and software.

Team structure: This centralized team of 50 works out of a common physical space. The team collaborates with other innovation efforts across the hospital, such as a technology and innovation development office, a simulation lab, and the computational health informatics program. The team's head reports to Kevin Churchwell, COO of the hospital.

Point of pride: Established just six months ago, the team is proud of its ability to quickly stand up as a group, create pathways for engagement across the organization, and launch the accelerator program.

“We are open for business,” Brownstein proclaims. “We have groups across the hospital that know how to take their ideas forward to develop a viable, scalable business.”

Advice: “It's very easy to slap an innovation title on a group. It's easy to say you're doing it and check it off the list.”

This isn't enough, Brownstein confirms. Successful organizations always provide the resources for capabilities to build minimum viable products.

3. Health and Human Services

Names: Susannah Fox and Greg Downing

Titles: Chief technology officer and the executive director for innovation, respectively

Team name: HHS Idea Lab

Origin and purpose: In 2009, when it had been widely noted that government services were falling behind the rest of the business community in promoting open government, open innovation, and open data, a priority was placed on innovation. Following the development of an innovation council, the secretary of HHS established the Idea Lab in 2013 as a formal structure and place to improve on how the department delivers on its mission.

The team is anchored in three core beliefs: (1) every individual has the ability to improve the health and well-being of Americans, (2) people are more powerful when working together, and (3) there is a solution to every problem.

Team structure: The Idea Lab employs six full-time employees and 15 to 20 detailees. The team reports to the deputy secretary and collaborates extensively with HHS sister agencies on programs such as the ignite accelerator and the secretary's venture fund. The team also engages with other federal agencies and nonprofit foundations.

Point of pride: The Idea Lab is known for producing pilot projects, advancing to beta, and then encouraging business owners to take them from that point forward.

Advice: “Get to know your organization's pain points for innovators and get the highest authority in the organization to get behind your effort to take them on,” Downing notes.


4. Pfizer

Name: Wendy Mayer

Title: VP, worldwide innovation

Team name: Worldwide Innovation

Origin and purpose: Years ago, a team was formed with the end goal of developing new revenue opportunities. Upon Mayer's arrival, four years ago, she realized that more time was spent on organizational design than on demonstrating what innovation could do.

Today Worldwide Innovation has three pillars: (1) culture and capabilities, (2) building bridges to external innovation, such as academics, accelerators, entrepreneurs, and industry, and (3) execution of tangible demonstrations, and, specifically, the more disruptive, bigger, longer-term, and bolder ideas.

Team structure: This highly networked model includes 11 centralized team members and is amplified by 340 champions across the organization who contribute 10% to 15% of their time, as well as three to four fellows who join for six months for a specific detail.

The team coexists with specific near-term innovation efforts in areas such as technology or clinical trials, often serving as a scout for appropriate startups. Worldwide Innovation reports to Laurie Olson, EVP of strategy, portfolio, and commercial operations.

Point of pride: Dare to Try, a program to accelerate internal innovation, has scaled quickly across the organization, jumping the chasm from a “program of the month” to a dedicated capability serving a very diverse organization.

Advice: “Strike the balance between a centralized and a networked team,” confirms Mayer.

She is in favor of a dedicated, even if small, innovation group. Her second piece of advice is to let go of excessive competitive and confidentiality concerns.

“We can only be successful if we learn from the outside,” she adds.


5. UPMC

Name: Tal Heppenstall

Title: President

Team Name: UPMC Enterprises

Origin and purpose: The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center launched UPMC Enterprises 18 months ago as an effort to centralize innovation and commercialization efforts. The team focuses on four key areas: business services, clinical tools, consumer, and population health, with the end goal of improving the quality — and lowering the cost — of healthcare.

Team structure: The team — consisting of 200 members — also benefits from the opportunity of engaging with clinicians, executives, and technologists within the “living lab” that is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, including hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, an insurance division, and the supply chain group.

UPMC Enterprises is overseen by a special board committee, which is led by the center's board chair. Management oversight of the enterprises group is provided by UPMC president and CEO Jeffrey Romoff, along with a committee of other senior executives representing its provider and insurance divisions.

Point of pride: Despite launching just a year and a half ago, UPMC Enterprises has already forged business agreements with Health Catalyst, Lantern, medCPU, and Vivify Health.

Advice: “You need to have an appetite for failure and a robust strategy for recruiting and retaining talent,” shares Heppenstall.


6. UnitedHealthcare

Name: Vidya Raman-Tangella

Title: Head, UnitedHealthcare Innovation Center of Excellence

Team Name: Innovation Center of Excellence

Origin and purpose: In 2014 UnitedHealthcare (UHC) formed a centralized team to fuel strategic growth and pursue new opportunities. All innovations commence with an understanding of real customer need.

Between six and eight concepts each year make the grade to advance to a formal piloting process. Ultimately, the most successful experiments scale quickly by taking advantage of UHC's ability to introduce business units, commercialize, and protect IP.

Team structure: Among the 30 full-time members is a group of experienced human-centered design professionals. Matrix roles across the marketing, legal, procurement, and IT departments support the team, which also cross-pollinates with investment arm UnitedHealth Group ventures, IT innovation, and Optum Labs. The head of the Innovation Center of Excellence reports to the CEO.

Point of pride: The team prides itself on its ability to deliver experiences that are highly relevant, and therefore useful, to its customers. For example, a solution for new mothers has resulted in many enrollments — well before the pregnancy was communicated to family and friends.

Advice: Raman-Tangella recommends starting with human-centered design as well as engaging with external partners early in the process.

“First and foremost, pause to bring in the outside perspective. For innovation to have lasting value, you need to listen and spend time.”


7. Merck

Name: Susan Shiff

Title: SVP and head of Center for Observational and Real-World Evidence (CORE)

Team Name: Center for Observational and Real-World Evidence

Origin and purpose: The combination of the rapidly changing healthcare environment and the need to provide stakeholders with robust evidence that can be used for decision-making prompted Merck to form an organization focused on articulating the value of its medicines and vaccines. CORE leverages broad and novel data and innovative methodologies to answer complex healthcare questions.

Team structure: CORE is a centralized organization with a dual reporting structure to R&D and the commercial division, ensuring alignment with the company's pipeline and product portfolio.

Staff (pictured) hails from business, clinical medicine, economics, epidemiology, health policy, health services research, pharmacology, outcomes research, statistics, and sociology. And it is a member of several cross-functional teams, including a partnership with IT to help drive the development of innovative capabilities, and works with the applied technology and pharmacogenomics teams.

The team reports to the president of commercial, Global Human Health, and the president of R&D, Merck Research Laboratories.

Point of pride: The group has had significant success using and developing expertise with novel data sources and methods made possible through external collaborations. For example, its work with the Regenstrief Institute in Indiana led to the co-development of a natural language processing engine that extracts and codes clinical data, enhancing the group's understanding of disease.

Advice: Shiff stresses the importance of nurturing a culture that expects collaboration and innovation and removes barriers to change: “Build the organization around diverse leaders with different training, talents, skills, and mindsets.”


8. Johnson & Johnson

Name: Melinda Richter

Title: Head, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS

Team Name: JLABS

Origin and purpose: JLABS was born out of an experiment in 2012. Today the team supports young companies by removing business, financial, and operational obstacles. This allows entrepreneurs to enjoy access to core research facilities with educational programs, operational capabilities, and Johnson & Johnson's myriad expertise.

Team structure: This 25- to 30-person team reports to Johnson & Johnson Innovation. JLABS also works closely with the integrated and interdependent Johnson & Johnson Innovation umbrella of businesses, which includes four regional Innovation Centers (ICs) — located in Boston, California, London, and Shanghai — which house early stage deal teams; a venture capital arm, Johnson & Johnson Innovation; JJDC, which is housed within the ICs and makes equity investments; and the Janssen Business Development (JBD) teams, which do later-stage deals.

Point of pride: Richter points to Arcturus Therapeutics, “founded by two young guys who quit their jobs because — with JLABS — they believed they could make an impact, and within three years not only do they have a major collaboration with Johnson & Johnson to cure hepatitis B, one of the most debilitating, deadliest diseases in the world, but are also close to a $1.6-billion deal for rare diseases.”

Advice: Richter is direct: “Be a service. Be bold. Be courageous. Be prepared. Be a listener. Be a champion. Never take no for an answer.”

9. Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Name: Jill Balderson

Title: VP, healthcare innovation

Team Name: Healthcare Innovation

Origin and purpose: In 2014 the division was restructured to focus on future-facing and experimental projects versus standards and guidelines programs.

Today, the Healthcare Innovation team focuses on innovation in healthcare delivery, with an emphasis on piloting and scaling new models of healthcare, including delivery of clinical care through health, value-based care models, and strategic partnerships.

Team structure: Healthcare Innovation has 12 team members and collaborates with a number of innovation-focused teams at Planned Parenthood to create infrastructure, analysis, and tools for innovation.

The cross-pollination is both organic and intentional, sharing cultural beliefs and inspiration. Healthcare Innovation has a matrix reporting structure to Kim Custer, EVP of healthcare, and Dawn Laguens, chief experience officer.

Point of pride: Delivering essential healthcare services to women in rural and frontier counties via mobile phone/video consultations.

Advice: “Get the right people on the team,” says Balderson. “It's very sexy to have ‘innovation' as part of your job description or title. But leaders need to recognize that successful innovation is not always sexy or fun — it takes hard work.”

10. AARP

Name: Jody Holtzman

Title: SVP, market innovation

Team Name: Market Innovation

Origin and purpose: Previously known as Thought Leadership, Holtzman and his team spend considerable time on the road engaging the ecosystem, including entrepreneurs, investors, and industry.

The team has four platforms: (1) developing market awareness of unmet customer wants and needs, (2) engaging with startups via incubators such as Rock Health, Startup Health, and Plug and Play, (3) producing a showcase of innovative technologies, and (4) engaging AARP members to provide feedback on the above.

Team structure: Market Innovation is a team of three and coexists with a lab, called The Hatchery. Market Innovation reports to Terry Bradwell, EVP and chief enterprise strategy and innovation officer.

Point of pride: The team has produced four demo days, each featuring 10 companies focused on caregiving. Of the 40 put on their stage, half have raised $80 million in venture capital. This is in stark contrast to six years ago, when VCs did not quite grasp the magnitude of the caregiving marketplace.

Advice: “Err on the side of execution, not planning,” says Holtzman, who recommends taking an idea, starting small, and designing for success so that you can achieve a demonstrable result.

Sara Holoubek is CEO of Luminary Labs. Disclosure: Luminary Labs has commercial relationships with HHS, AARP, Planned Parenthood, and Pfizer.

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