How do you make life-changing ideas a reality?

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If the covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that breakthrough innovation can happen quickly when circumstances demand it. The swiftly developed mRNA covid-19 vaccines are a prime example. But breakthrough innovation often butts up against a factor that holds back its spread: trust. In Episode 2 of our Take on Tomorrow podcast series, Ken Gabriel, chief operating officer of Wellcome Leap and former acting director of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), talks with Leo Johnson, PwC UK’s head of disruption and innovation, about breakthrough innovations, the obstacles that may be thwarting them, and what it takes to make life-changing ideas happen.

“What I mean by breakthrough innovations,” Gabriel explains to hosts Ayesha Hazarika and Lizzie O’Leary, are “innovations that change the game.” Think of the technology behind the slower and less maneuverable—yet nearly invisible-to-radar—stealth fighter and bomber, for example. It overturned the long-held view that only faster and more agile planes give a competitive advantage to a nation’s defense strategy.

How many innovative ideas are tabled, though, precisely because of a reluctance to disrupt or give up ingrained mindsets? Such obstacles—which are often internal, Gabriel notes—can derail the best of plans. After all, if you’re disrupting a product or a service, you’re disrupting an existing business. “But if you don’t do it, you risk dying,” Gabriel says. “Look at the difference between Netflix and Blockbuster.” 

Then there’s the thorny issue of trust. Few of us question rapid changes in Wi-Fi, internet, or phone technology. But what about something like medicine? “Wait a minute. You developed a vaccine in five months instead of three years?” Gabriel says, characterizing a common public response to the mRNA shots. “Now, you create all this vaccine hesitancy…. So, I think there is an amount of education that has to happen in healthcare.”

Government can play a large role in shaping and unlocking innovation, Johnson adds. “I think, for me, it also amplifies this crucial question around intent, technology as the amplifier of intent.” Looking at the response to covid, for example, Johnson points to “the extraordinary, unexpected spin-offs from it, that we’ve now got the potential for an mRNA vaccine for cancer, malaria. For all this technological potential, are we going to deliver it with the intent to solve the problems that are out there?”

Breakthrough innovation often butts up against a factor that holds back its spread: trust.

For that type of innovation to happen, it takes “disciplined innovation,” Gabriel says. In other words, simply wanting to try something and seeing what happens isn’t the best path. What’s required are bold but believable objectives, strong technical leaders and program directors, and fixed duration and budgets to create a sense of urgency and focus. Johnson says it also takes power. “Who’s holding the means to innovate? Because that will shape what that technological innovation is deployed to do.”

Tune in here to hear the podcast in its entirety.

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