When you work in life sciences, R&D could comfortably stay within the science domain, and never become a part of working life.

But comfortable has never been enough to disrupt in a constantly evolving industry.

So how do you shake off that ‘never fail’ notion, to build a culture of experimentation outside the lab and throughout the value chain, from R&D to sales and marketing through to production?

Julia Hitzbleck, who designed and implemented much of Bayer AG’s corporate innovation agenda across more than 100,000 employees, shared her journey at innov8rs Paris – from programs she led, and company-wide platforms launched, to stories of prototypes and fresh-to-market products which are now opening up new streams of value.

‘It’s all about connecting people and elements which wouldn’t naturally or otherwise come together – but should’, Julia explains.

And the first bridges to be built are between corporations and customers:

‘How do you take yourself out of your day-to-day bubble to better understand what customers are looking for? Take an individual example; one of my colleagues made a mental switch from selling an animal health product to providing peace of mind to pet owners.

Prevention was really what customers were looking for, and so ‘prévention’ was a program our colleagues launched in France, diving deeper into the ‘why’ to offer people a package for peace of mind rather than just a product for their pets against ticks & fleas.

Prevention, delivered to a customer’s door at the right time, for a simple monthly fee.’

Bridging business islands

But this isn’t enough. You need a huge team of enthusiastic people eventually supporting your program to roll it out countrywide, and even globally.

Not everyone can be at the bleeding edge of incepting cool new ideas and technologies – but everyone is involved in implementing them. Nothing can be achieved alone. And in this way, it’s everyone’s job to innovate:

‘Many of our people work in production or in sales, so not only out of the office. These guys have really good knowledge, work directly with the customers, but are rarely asked to bring back information about our customers to help us innovate.’

Bayer’s Innovation Agenda brings several interconnected initiatives together, within the business and outwards via open innovation:

‘The agenda goal ranges from fixing small problems locally in mini-sessions to working with senior management to break down larger issues with a range of methodologies, which focus on three core principles – creativity, customer focus, and experimentation, and manifest across several pillars or initiatives.’

A network of 700+ coaches, ambassadors, and full-time innovation managers

Starting locally – expanding, shape-shifting minds need to be continually stretched, lest they go back to their original shape. The innovation network members are in a way also cultural change managers, who operate by function, or by country, help to inspire and encourage employees within their area to tackle the most critical problems, break them into manageable pieces, and set priorities.

Mini-sessions, roughly hour-long ideation sessions spent with the problem owner in groups of between 2-6, fuel creativity, combining field expertise and fresh perspectives from elsewhere in the organization, to break down the challenge and define potential solutions.

The innovation coaches also serve as catalysts to create the most pressing solutions. No innovation program is short on ideas, and yet lack of implementation can leave teams feeling frustrated; the key challenge is to enable problem-solvers to be pragmatic, leapfrog the right hurdles, and bring the greatest ideas to life.

While innovation coaches facilitate creative processes to generate implementable ideas, they also create a common understanding of what is really needed to do so and offer guidance on existing tools & platforms to access a wider audience for problem-solving or get support addressing bigger challenges such as de-risking of new business opportunities.

Crowd-sourcing platforms

How can raw concepts and notions really take root, and turn into actionable ideas to move the business forward? Not within a vacuum.

Crowd-ideation helps innovators to share, collect feedback, ask questions, vote on ideas, develop the ideas into innovations and make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Looking for a solution instead? WeSolve is a crowd-sourcing platform seeking to connect employees with business challenges to colleagues with specific knowhow & solutions and in some cases even customers across the world, to collaborate with the less-likely corners of the company and countries, to cross-pollinate, validate and redefine problems and solutions.

Chances are, if you’re trying to solve something, you’ve talked to your colleagues already. But someone else on the other side of the world? They might have an answer for you – or at least a first direction.

‘In the pharmaceuticals industry, you’re not allowed to reach out to your patients to validate your problems – so the process of building solutions can become cumbersome and restricted.

Colleagues looked at a percentage of women who had a specific physical condition they wanted to address. Instead of hiring an agency and getting people to interview, they hypothesized that this portion of the population should be reflected representatively within the company.

And they were right. Working alongside legal, a sample of patients from within the company was willing to answer questions confidentially. Observations were made by the team and the next steps were taken to prototype phase, saving valuable resources.’

That’s the power of crowdsourcing.

A fast-growing intrapreneur program

Not all challenges can be directly solved through the wisdom of the crowd. For more complex and unknown questions, Julia places emphasis on fast experimentation in the business context. Another mindset shift triggered throughout the network – with a consciousness of balancing ambition with controlled testing, to de-risk concepts.

If you are pushing beyond familiar terrain, at the beginning risk is increased, and there isn’t enough awareness of de-risking and the natural way risk ebbs and flows from idea to implementation:

‘Just because you have a cool idea, it doesn’t mean you can say you now need 200,000 to implement a blockchain solution. It’s about making sure you are progressing, de-risking your concept, and then if you can really demonstrate this – land the investment to make it happen.’

What does the program setup look like?

The 1st phase occurs over a period of 14 weeks, where a number of teams work together part-time to come up with solutions to business challenges which are not a nice-to-have, but something they are truly struggling to solve. With a killer combination of compelling data and high team spirit, the individual teams have a high chance of going through to the incubation phase, where outlined solutions are prototyped with some initial investment. To launch proven solutions, the project is either handed back to the business or owners look into alternative ways to scale activities.

Over 1200 employees have been involved in the Catalyst Program so far, and Julia explains that this is the organization’s means to scale it:

‘Six of these projects are in implementation and having their first returns already – it’s been a huge success and more are on the right track.

We also have a leaner version of this program, called the catalyst box, adapted from Adobe. Here, teams don’t get as much support, but projects still go straight to market and seek to save costs, or generate new revenue.’

Doing the right experiments, or doing experiments right?

Evidence-based decision making outside labs wasn’t a well-known practice before, but now we have the technology at our fingertips to scale for greater participation, increase frequency for more ideas, create engagement platforms to evaluate those ideas, and encourage diversity to get more kinds of people contributing.

Of course, as a science corporation all about R&D, technology is at the core of problem-solving.

But it’s not everything.

What technology does is enables the brightest minds inside and outside of our organizations to meet – escalating and accelerating the best solutions and making sure we’re focusing on the right aspects.

‘Technology and experimentation find truth in unlikely places: they expose unheard parts of the value chain and tap into hidden sources of know-how we would never have previously considered. A number of truly breakthrough Life Sciences technologies show promise to become real. To manage risk beyond the core, you need to explore and invest differently, building on startup know-how.’

This is how we push the boundaries of science, technology – and people – even further.