The human face of innovation

I was at Wired Health this week, taking advantage of the opportunity to listen to experts talking about the impact of new technologies as they apply to modern medicine. As you might expect, it was informative and inspirational in equal measure, and I have come away equipped with a deeper understanding of correlative imaging and citizen science (check out @EtchACell), the real role that AI is already playing in helping patients understand what their symptoms might mean, and the disease-modifying potential of microbes in the human gut.

But as a communicator, what really struck me was the humanity of what was being presented, because underneath all the sexy science and cutting edge technology, lay very personal experiences which had been the catalyst for innovation.   Bruce Levine (@BLLPHD), who kicked off the event, proved to be a powerful communicator, explaining CAR-T therapy in the most compelling and clear way, using everyday language to bring extraordinary science to life. Not just that, but I loved the way he thanked the patients who had participated in clinical trials for their contributions and courage, telling us their stories alongside the story of the way in which this new cancer therapy was developed and approved.

The Hon. Dorcas Makgato, Minister of Health and Wellness, Government of Botswana (@DorcasMakgato) spoke without notes and held the room spellbound – not just by the content of her speech and the refreshing clarity of approach she’s taking, to drive change through investment that must deliver robust economic returns, but also by the force of her personality. She was utterly human and totally authentic.

One of the projects her department has invested in is the work being done by Peek Vision (@PeekTeam).  Founder Andrew Bastawrous told us how the experience of being labelled lazy at school when in fact all he needed was a pair of spectacles had inspired him first, to qualify as an eye surgeon and second, to go out and deliver eye-care in sub-saharan Africa. A few statistics that really caught me – did you know that worldwide, 1 in 3 people can’t see just because they can’t get spectacles? And, one of the key factors that led to his developing a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic tool that’s revolutionised the diagnosis of reversible blindness in remote, hard to reach rural areas, was the realisation that 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone, where only 50% have access to clean running water.

And Tania Boler (@taniabeeb) of Elvie (@helloelvie) spoke eloquently about now being a special moment in the evolution of the femtech industry when three factors are coming together to drive change: first, the growing empowerment and activation of women through the #metoo and #timesup movements – we’re no longer content with the status quo and are prepared to fight for what we deserve; second, the revolution in technology itself; and third, the paradigm shift currently taking place whereby individuals are now taking much more responsibility for their own health. And that’s quite apart from the incredible success she’s having using biofeedback technology to help women support their pelvic floor.

I can’t do justice to what was a very full day at Wired Health, and there are plenty of people who’ve blogged in greater detail about the content, but for me the unifying thread was not the technology, but the personal stories behind every breakthrough. Every single one of those entrepreneurs and pioneers had a story to tell about their own experience, or the experiences of someone they loved, and that’s what drove them. It’s easy to get lost in all the whizz-bang of AI, VR, spatial genomics (have a look at humancellatlas.org) and forget the humanity behind extraordinary innovation, but this year Wired Health and its speakers did a really good job of reminding us. Can’t wait for next year.

Fake It Until You Make It

I’ve read quite a few articles recently about Imposter Syndrome, something that apparently many women in particular suffer from. The theory is that regardless of how successful you are, on the inside you regard yourself as something of a fraud – even though to the outside world you seem to be a high-flyer.  It is rooted in low self-esteem, and it can get worse the more successful you become, and the more you mix with other talented individuals.

It’s all about comparing yourself with others and finding yourself wanting – not a pleasant place to be.  Instead of being able to accept that you might, just possibly, be good at what you do, Imposter Syndrome means that you tell yourself that no matter what you achieve, those achievements are somehow fraudulent compared to those of others.

Well, I’d like to propose a different approach. How about, instead of deciding you’re successful despite your shortcomings, why not just decide to be successful and then worry about whether or not you deserve to be afterwards. In short, I’m recommending the “Fake it until you Make it” approach. Act as if you are already a winner, already on the path to success and soon enough you probably will be.

Last year I went to a masterclass on how to write a bestseller, run by The Guardian. One of the speakers was Clare Mackintosh, whose first novel “I Let You Go” hit the bestseller lists right off the bat. I’m over simplifying this, obviously, but she talked about how she’d essentially just “decided” that she was going to be a writer, quit her job and then got herself work as a freelance journalist by telling editors that she was already working as a freelance.  What Clare did was to become a writer through the power of living a writer’s life, rather than wait for someone else to tell her that she was one.  I found her really inspiring because of the clarity of her vision and the decisiveness of the actions she took. Also, her books are incredibly well written and definitely worth reading.

When my business partner and I set up our own communications agency, we didn’t agonise for months about whether or not we would be successful, we got stuck in and acted as though we were already there. That confidence meant that clients were able to trust that we’d deliver, right from the off and I am sure was a huge part of our ultimate success. We used to talk about it being our “field of dreams” strategy – you know, if you build it, they will come (and they did…).

I know this sounds obvious, but if you’re feeling like an imposter, try not to give in to the self-doubt. When you’re not feeling confident, try acting as though you are until you’ve developed the skills and tools you need for that confidence to be real.  You’d be surprised how quickly that can happen.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are all of us to one extent or another playing roles that we feel are expected of us, so spend your energy making sure you’re performing with confidence instead of agonising about what others might think.  It’s like wearing a dress that you secretly think is a bit too short. Style it out and nobody will know that you’re worried it’s too short, they’ll just be wowed by how fabulous you look.

Getting real about entrepreneurship

Last night I went to a talk given by Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, otherwise known as The Black Farmer, founder of a company that produces award-winning gluten-free sausages, burgers and other meat products.  He’s a fascinating man, born in Jamaica and brought up in inner-city Birmingham (he was refreshingly frank about his early life and the disadvantages he had to overcome growing up) who spoke about his childhood dream of owning a farm, and how he managed to achieve it.

Along the way and despite dyslexia and a lack of qualifications, he became a BBC producer working on the Food & Drink programme, married and raised a family, and built a well-respected food and drink marketing company. He spoke eloquently about the people who saw something in him and offered a helping hand when he needed it, and of the importance of believing passionately in what you do.

His energy as he spoke reminded me so vividly of the early days of building my business, when my business partner and I were so driven and focused on creating an agency we really believed in. We lived it 24/7 and I wouldn’t swap those exhausting days when all we thought about was how to bring our vision to life for anything. Emmanuel-Jones’ evident desire to challenge, his dissatisfaction with the status quo and his level of self-knowledge was extraordinarily inspiring.

If you’re expecting to achieve a work-life balance in your first three years of running your own business, then you’re never going to succeed, he said. It has to be your absolute focus, and you have to be absolutely determined to make a go of it. It’s incredibly hard work and whilst it’s exhilarating when it’s going well, founding, running and growing a business from scratch is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Looking back, I’d say that’s bang on from my experience, and I wasn’t alone.  As I sat there with fellow entrepreneurs, some of whom had built and sold businesses, others who were still in the development phase, the energy fairly crackled in the air.

Entrepreneurship is a state of mind, he said – and he’s so right. It’s about being prepared to take risks, to innovate, to cut through all of the clutter to get to the heart of an issue and make decisions (then make another one quickly if the first one wasn’t right).  It’s about listening, understanding and, most important of all, taking action. Those things don’t have to be unique to independent businesses though, and bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to bigger organisations is possible if you can create the right environment for your people.

Be open to challenge, encourage lively minds to identify new approaches to problem solving, try not to feel threatened by new thinking, but above all else, enable people to ask the question: “why not?”.  If you’re the one with the ideas, you don’t always have to go it alone, so long as you’re in an organisation that welcomes innovation. If you’ve spotted a gap in the market or have an idea that could elevate your business to a higher level, give yourself permission to imagine it and then bring it to life, even if that’s a single sheet of A4 paper capturing the germ of something great – then share it. In my experience, real leaders find a way to open the door to novel thinking rather than feeling threatened by it.  Passion is infectious and in the right organisation with the right leadership, anything really is possible.