To Move Innovations Forward, Sometimes You Need a ‘Translator’

At biomedical research labs across the country, scientists with extremely specialized expertise work to uncover solutions to many of our most pressing medical challenges. Actually bringing those solutions to market, however, is a long, difficult process that requires a multi-disciplinary approach. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Mir Imran, Chairman and CEO of InCube Labs, discusses his role as a “translator” to help people from various disciplines communicate with each other in the pursuit of scientific progress.

As an entrepreneur with a background in science, technology, and business, Imran has founded more than 20 life sciences companies and has over 300 patents to his name. At InCube, he works to bridge the gaps between the business world and various scientific fields and find ways to facilitate collaboration. Imran explains that many companies have an overly punitive reaction to failure, which stifles experimentation. Instead, he advocates for an encouraging atmosphere that pushes people to get out of their comfort zones, cross disciplinary lines, and take creative risks.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Mir Imran (Founder and CEO, InCube Labs)

Saikat Chaudhuri: Tell us about what InCube Labs does and your role in it.

Mir Imran: InCube Labs is an applied research lab where we bring a dozen different disciplines together: scientists in biology, physiology, chemistry, engineering, and computer science. All these people are working collaboratively on complex problems that require a multidisciplinary approach. It is an amazing place where multiple disciplines come and learn from each other and contribute to solving some big problems.

Chaudhuri: In your role, how do you promote the science or the research work that’s going on and help it by identifying the potential ideas that could be marketable and then taking it through that commercialization process?

Imran: We have, over the last 40 years, been building companies and trying to innovate. It has led me to a clear understanding of what innovation is, how to practice it, and how to implement it in real life. We follow those principles that we have developed. My most important role that I play with my team, which is about 150 people, is to be the bridge or the translator to help facilitate people from different disciplines communicating with each other. That’s the most important role I play.

Chaudhuri: How do you do that? That doesn’t sound easy. Usually, I imagine scientists are very much specialists in their own domain and can find it hard to interact with others, or am I mistaken?

”My most important role is to be the bridge or the translator to help facilitate people from different disciplines communicating with each other.” – Mir Imran

Imran: No, you’re right. A lot of these people are very narrow but have deep expertise in specific areas. I’m a bit of a generalist. My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering. Then I received a graduate degree in bioengineering, went to medical school, never practiced medicine, but as a result I have this multidisciplinary background. Being an entrepreneur from a very young age forces you to learn about other disciplines beyond science and technology. Business, finance, and strategy (financing strategies and partnering strategies) are all things that one needs to master in order to be successful as an entrepreneur.

Chaudhuri: It’s no small feat. The reason I ask you these questions is because, as you will know very well, universities produce so much research, so many patents, but continuously struggle with trying to commercialize those. We’ve got so many scientists and researchers, faculty who do so well in coming up with ideas. But that next step — making the bridge and the connection to actually explore the feasibility of the patent applications and then take them forward — has been such a struggle not just for Penn, but in general. You’ve set up such a seamless operation where you can represent both the invention side and have the credentials there, but also the entrepreneurial and commercial side.

Imran: Right. I work very closely with several universities, and you bring up a very important point. Universities have some brilliant people. But they tend to be in silos. Each one of the scientists or professors are in silos in a narrow area and they rarely collaborate across multiple disciplines. By definition, they’re forced to work on problems that are very narrow, and it may not be obvious where the clear commercial angle is. That’s one of the things that is upside down in universities: universities focus on technologies, solutions, and looking for a problem to solve. In my work, I don’t care about technologies; I focus on identifying the problems that need to be solved, and then I let the problems tell me how they want to be solved.

Chaudhuri: I want to touch upon something that you just said, which is this idea that how one’s working environment is structured makes a difference. If you’re very siloed, for instance, that can be a big problem. You need to foster collaboration. You’ve set up an interesting model in your lab, and what I’m wondering about is, what would be the practices that can be transferred? What advice would you give to universities or larger established corporations so that they can foster more of that interdisciplinary thinking, more of the collaboration you’re talking about, as well as the seamless connection to the commercialization process?

Imran: There are several elements there. Clearly, you need to have an environment where people are encouraged to learn, go outside of their comfort zones, and are allowed to fail. That doesn’t happen in large companies. In fact, in most large companies, failure really has a negative impact on career paths. That’s one of the big challenges. In our world and at InCube Labs, we’re really pushing our knowledge boundaries of the problems that we’re solving. We usually go after problems that are poorly understood, or poorly solved, and we expect the failure rate is going to be high.

However, once we identify a problem that’s worth solving, and we understand the problem, leading to a solution that has commercial value and clinical value, we really create category-disrupting innovations. We have done it repeatedly over the last 40 years by following these very simple rules: focus on the problem, identify a big problem that needs to be solved, define it, understand it, and frame the problem correctly. That’s what leads to solutions. You can’t start with the solution or a technology and say, “I’m going to apply this nanotechnology to this particular problem,” or to a whole host of problems. That’s upside down. That’s backwards.

Chaudhuri: I hear a number of things from what you’re saying. One is that the structure, the process, is very important, but so is developing a certain kind of mindset and culture around how you approach these types of issues or challenges. Is there anything about the incentive system, perhaps, that can also be adjusted to promote a certain kind of thinking and collaboration?

“Focus on the problem, identify a big problem that needs to be solved, define it, understand it, and frame the problem correctly. That’s what leads to solutions.” – Mir Imran

Imran: Most startup companies have reasonable incentives in the shape of stock options and whatnot. It’s not so much the incentive; you must remove the punitive reflexes that companies have when somebody fails. It is the removal of those punitive reflexes that is important, rather than a monetary reward or other things. Most companies have those in place, but they’re very rigid when things don’t work out. Especially with young people, I like to engage people and force them to get out of their comfort zone.

About Our Guest

Mir Imran is a prolific healthcare innovator and entrepreneur who has been developing and commercializing breakthrough medical innovations for more than 30 years. Since 1995, Mir’s innovations, including Rani Therapeutics, have been developed at his life science R&D lab and incubator, InCube Labs. As an entrepreneur, Mir has founded more than 20 life sciences companies; 15 of his companies have seen “liquidity events” (IPO/Acquisition). Mir now holds more than 300 issued patents and is perhaps most well-known for his pioneering contributions to the first FDA-approved Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator. In addition to leading Rani Therapeutics and InCube Labs, Mir also runs a life sciences venture fund, InCube Ventures; VentureHealth, a healthcare crowd funding portal; and Modulus, a medical manufacturing company. Mir has received a number of industry accolades for his work including being named one of the “Top 50 Medical Device Inventors of All Time” by QMed and recognized as a National Academy of Inventors (NAI) fellow in 2015. He holds an M.S. in bioengineering and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Rutgers. Mir also attended CMDNJ/Rutgers Medical School.

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.