Why asking questions is essential to success

particularly when you think you already know the answers!

Active listening (also know as reflective listening) is a fundamental approach to understanding another person’s concerns in any conversation, whether it’s a negotiation about material transfer agreements or research partnerships or hear-to-heart about daily relationships. It extends beyond just asking questions and notably includes repeating what you’ve heard. The speaker knows they’ve been heard and can correct or fine-tune their message. Another great technique called appreciative inquiry is a communications technique that envisions possibilities and works toward best outcomes. Together, these techniques go beyond trying just to find what’s wrong and then fix it. Combined, such techniques are important to successful innovation management and are also powerful productivity tools.

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One of my favorite TED talks is by Ernesto Sirolli, a compelling advocate and consultant of economic and community development. He talks about his experiences in international development. And shares a very funny story about hippos who like to eat tomatoes. His experience is a great reminder to ask questions, listen actively and don’t presume to know the answers.

Innovation Strategy — It’s More Than Moving A Product From Point A to Point B

An effective strategy takes you from where you are now to a predetermined goal. The planning process requires a candid assessment of what’s at both ends of the path so you know where you’re starting, where you’re going, and how to get there! In business, the assessment is usually fairly detailed and iterative.


In contrast, when your objective is part of a personal strategy for achieving self improvement, for instance, working mindfulness meditation into your daily life, success is mostly under your control as long as the universe cooperates.For instance, finding the time to make something a new habit is often a mission critical component of implementing a “personal” strategic plan. Yet even this can be a challenge, and we all know that. My most recent success was actually doing 108 days in a row of yoga, with inspiration fromTravis Elliott, the ultimate yogi (available on DVD), and thanks to my cat, Raven, for keeping me company on some late night workouts! There are plenty of great self-help guides. One of my current favorites is “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” by Gretchen Rubin (2015).

In the technology innovation context, however, simply being intentional about getting from “point A” to “point B” isn’t enough. For instance, a competitor might get there first. Witness the epic patent infringement battles between Apple and Samsung. Or if the goal is developing an effective pharmaceutical product, it may not be worth the effort (and cost) involved if the therapeutic space is too crowded when you arrive. Your product has to be better enough than the alternatives so that the health care system will pay for it. Here’s a news story about states that won’t pay for a blockbuster drug to treat hepatitis C.And that’s just the developed countries’ perspective — how to make a given product available globally often adds a seemingly confounding layer of strategic and financial complexity to the process.

Successful strategic planning thus requires knowing way more than just the location of “point B” and heading in that general. One also needs to evaluate the lay of the land at “point A” and to understand the hurdles likely to be encountered and plan for them — including obtaining financing, hiring and retaining the right people with the right intellectual capital and effective teamwork skills, gathering research materials, securing patents, avoiding the infringement of patents owned by others, navigating the regulatory system and qualifying for reimbursement by third-party payers.

This integrated kind of evaluation is referred to variously as landscape analysis, competitive assessment, due diligence and is also known by a few other labels. It can be quite complex, and is done best with a multidisciplinary approach and team.

This is one if a series of posts that will dig into various aspects of that “competitive assessment” process. It’s intended to be provide some basic “how-to” guidance in evaluating the translational potential of a given research product and offer some useful tools in assessing the commercial potential of a developmental product.

FLC’s Technology Transfer Desk Reference — Useful Background Info (FLC, 2013)

FLC logo

The Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer (FLC) is a national network of federal laboratories that are involved with the patenting and licensing of inventions. These labs include, as examples, the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology. Moving technology from place to place, usually from innovator to commercial developer, is a major part of an overarching strategy to manage innovation.

I was involved in the early 90s with the FLC while heading up the NIH technology transfer office, and appreciated very much the networking and information sharing with colleagues. As an historical footnote, the Association of Federal Technology Transfer Executives (AFTTE) was also very active in this space. I was involved in its launch along with a few colleagues and good friends, Joe Allen, Jon Soderstrom, Mary Ann Guerra, among others. Members were later encouraged to move to the FLC and to the Association for University Technology Managers, another excellent professional society.

The FLC publishes a very helpful reference book (linked to this post’s title), which is free to download. I recommend Section 3 for anybody looking for a general overview of the considerations involved in the technology transfer process. And, particularly, the graphic on page 20 of the book. Section 7 about marketing and communications could also be useful to skim. Overall, it’s mostly useful for the staff of a federal technology transfer office as it gets a bit granular about how to do what they do. But there is some great background coverage that could be useful as various stages along the path arise. However, it doesn’t have much by way of practical guidance. Look to up-coming posts in this blog for some “how-tos” and best practices!

Two Essential Questions to Ask BEFORE You Start a Negotiation!

One of the best ways to accomplish something with other people, including business negotiations, is to communicate effectively. That doesn’t always happen despite one’s expectations and best intentions.

Shot of two young men having a discussion indoors

Shot of two young men having a discussion indoors

Last month, I negotiated a very simple and conventional material transfer agreement (MTA) for a client that wanted to give some pharmaceutical compound samples to an academic scientist for pre-clinical studies. My assumption — proved wrong — was that the scientist (and his legal support) were familiar with similar transactions and documents, and the way we communicated wasn’t helpful.

The basics. A material transfer agreement generally is a simple contract, of a few pages in length, that sets out rules for the use of materials that someone is providing. Usually, it serves to retain various rights (ownership of the material), prohibits some uses (like transferring the material to others, using the material for therapeutic purposes), confirms that the recipient can publish the results of their studies using the materials, and gives the provider an opportunity to review publications before submission to consider whether patentable discoveries might need to be protected. Usually there’s no charge for the materials and academic research is facilitated. For more information, the National Institutes of Health has some useful model agreements.

In this instance, the marked-up document returned by the university reacted to unmentioned and unintended issues that went beyond the scope and language of the MTA itself. For instance, the draft MTA said the university owned the results of its research although it didn’t explicitly say that such results included patent rights. This was perceived as overreaching on the part of my client. The markup also truncated customary periods of time to review a draft manuscript describing the use of the material from 30 days to 5 days, which simply is not enough time.

Shortly after I started working at NIH, I learned an elegant and effective conversation and negotiation approach from Josh Kalkstein and Paul Armond, both then at Pfizer. They started a negotiation with a question: “What’s important to you about this transaction?” I’ve used their approach with appreciation for almost 30 years. Ask that question and you might hear about institutional policy concerns, timing and deadlines or even hopes and dreams for the underlying research!

Back to my MTA kerfuffle of last month, I should have asked another question about the scientist’s familiarity with deal negotiations and the patent process. As it turns out, he’s never been involved with a patent application. So he truly didn’t know that reviewing a manuscript for inventive content takes time — more than five days — and involves multiple people at the material-providing enterprise (that is, management, scientists and IP attorney). And his familiarity with contracts like this MTA also was very limited.

To sum up: ask both of these questions as you start negotiating a transaction rather than just sending a draft agreement by email. And tell me what works for you in a comment below?

IOM conference

I am honored to be a panelist, speaking about the Sharing of Data and Reagents, Intellectual Property and Liability. The Institute of Medicine has organized a study to recommend an effective global architecture for recognizing and mitigating the threat of epidemic infectious diseases. The workshop will focus on strategies to facilitate the development of medical products.

Date: August 19, 2015—August 21, 2015
Event: Global Health Risk Framework: A Workshop on Research and Development of Medical Products
Sponsor: Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
Venue: University of Hong Kong
Public: Public
More Info: Click here for more information.

Teaching the Innovation Management Course for Johns Hopkins’ Biotech Masters Degree Program this Fall

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I’m very pleased to be teaching innovation management for Johns Hopkins (Rockville Campus), along with my good friend and colleague Jill Sorensen. Its official title is “Managing Innovation in the Life Sciences.” Several sessions will focus on planning and strategies for innovation. More information about the course and this excellent graduate program are linked.

What’s All This Talk About “Innovation Management”?

-- the launch of my new blog!

“Innovation Management” is a complex process that starts with research advances that could have practical applications. And then, for the ultimate benefit of society and various stakeholders, it continues with development that translates discoveries into commercial products.


This happens in a context of team work and collaborations, often with the academic community or other partners. It’s not necessarily a one-way street through traditional patent licensing, because the goal isn’t always just a hand-off from the lab bench, but, rather, an expansion of attention and resources, both internally and externally, at many stages of the innovation process. In the life sciences, this involves an interdisciplinary network of “specialists” in science, law, IP, marketing, regulatory, manufacturing and sales. The strategy component — half the name of this blog — arises when we select and manage a path to achieve the innovation’s potential value. But why should we talk about innovation management? I think it’s a better way to understand a “system” where basic research, clinical trials, intellectual property and marketing really have to interact synchronously! It’s an emerging discipline and the folks who find this blog are making those kinds of connections. More on this in later posts! And as Isaac Newton essentially “re-tweeted from the work of an 11th century monk” in 1676, we’re all standing on somebody else’s shoulder to see where we’re going.