Delve Talks featuring Will Biederman, Verily | Delve
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Innovation

Delve Talks featuring Will Biederman, Verily

September 26, 2019
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Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our first season focuses on what it takes to create a corporate culture that supports innovation.

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Dave Franchino: Hi, my name is Dave Franchino. And I am the host of Delve Talks, a podcast focused on creating a culture of innovation and I'm really excited today. My guest is Will Biederman, head of emerging projects for Verily Life Sciences. And if you don't recognize Verily, you’re probably going to recognize the family tree. It’s formerly known, if I'm correct, as Google Life Sciences, which was a division of Google X. Verily is Alphabet’s research organization devoted to the study of life sciences. And, Will, I did just a bit of searching before this conversation. I found your name on over 25 issued patents, hundreds of citations, and more than a half-dozen or so pending applications. So, clearly a pretty strong personal focus and pedigree on innovation. I’m really excited to have you join us. Thank you very much.

Will Biederman: Yeah, thank you very much. Dave. Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

Dave Franchino: Great. Well, maybe you could start by telling our listeners just a little bit about your background that I just described. Kind of your pedigree and how you came to your current role. I think that will provide some nice context for the rest of the discussion

Will Biederman: Absolutely, sounds good. I think I'll start by telling you a little bit about myself and then transition into my journey and how that led to where I am now. So, I guess as a child, and historically, I was always really interested in two areas –

health and electronics. And so, growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. I was fascinated by medicine. I wasn't grossed out by blood and guts, but at the same time I also would like to take apart things in the house, build devices. I built computers at home. A super- curious mindset. So, going into college I had to make a decision between medicine, pre-med, and engineering and it really kind of tore me up for a while. Ultimately, I chose to take an engineering path and resolved to apply myself to health and medical problems.

So, I studied electrical engineering and after doing some internships and doing a bunch of research during undergrad in the health and medical space, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. so I could ultimately research more novel applications of electronics. So, from academia, I was actually directly recruited into Google X after a presentation I was making at a research conference. And so, I've been at Google X and then subsequently Google Life Science, as you mentioned, the transition there which has been rebranded to Verily after the Alphabet restructuring. So, I've been there for the past seven years, mostly focused on developing novel devices for diabetes and other miniaturized biosensors. And now I lead the emerging projects team at Verily, where we focus on developing the next pipeline of device projects and partnerships.

Dave Franchino: Will, I was really struck by something you said in that your personal journey and debate as to whether or not you wanted to pursue a career in medicine or a career as an engineer. I really think that the intersection between health and innovation is almost the perfect frontier for innovation, but one of the things that makes that so challenging, I think, is that they tend to be two kind of wildly divergent tracks. You know, it takes so much effort to become a physician, MD, and so much effort to become an engineer that you don't often find people that can seamlessly cross both paths. What would you say to that? What have you learned about the similarities between the mindsets that it takes to perhaps be a practitioner, a clinical individual, an innovator, and how can we help drive innovation to be a little bit more seamless across that really important frontier?

Will Biederman: Yeah, I think that's a great point and it really kind of speaks to the healthcare industry as a whole, where it's not just kind of a health focus industry. More that it’s really pulling multiple disciplines in to solve some of these bigger problems. And I think it's actually a really interesting time for healthcare as there's an increasing national attention on health and a shift in focus from reactive to proactive care for people. And what this really means is a shift from treating the symptoms of a disease to treating the underlying cause or even preventing the disease itself. And so, of course, as you might imagine, these are typically huge and multifaceted problems that require many new disciplines, require EEs, software engineers, and it's not just some new app that's going to solve a problem or some new wearable or some newfangled sensor, but it's a focus on comprehensive disease management platforms. And maybe a kind of a good example of this to illustrate it for the listeners is diabetes.

Diabetes is a large and growing worldwide problem that's affecting over 400 million people, which consists of pre-diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, and Type 1 diabetes. And without proper management, many of these people progress from prediabetes to Type 2 diabetes or the severity of their Type 2 diabetes worsens. And so, historically, the approach has been very reactive, treating the symptoms as the disease progresses. But now, more recently there's been a push by several companies including Verily to create these Type 2 diabetes management platforms, which are really virtual care platforms that are pulling in personalized treatments and includes like custom devices, custom delivery mechanisms for insulin, coaching, clinical support, all this all these different disciplines are really coming together to address sort of the root cause and provide more proactive care.

William Biederman
Will Biederman, Head of Emerging Projects, Verily Life Sciences
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Dave Franchino: Interesting. Well, maybe to step on a topic that's completely different. I noticed that you with a deeply technical PhD. I'm assuming you gave some thought to a career in academics and maybe that's not true. But I'm just kind of curious if he did, tell me about the process of deciding to work for a commercial organization and maybe how you'd contrast to the innovation process you saw in academia versus the process you've been exposed to, have tried to help foster, within industry. How are they the same how might they be different?

Will Biederman: Yeah, so I certainly did debate between being a professor, staying in academia, and going into industry. I think for me, there are a lot of benefits that a larger organization provides. There's a lot more resources, a lot more connections, that can be made throughout industry kind of get ideas out into the market. And so, when it comes to similarities in innovation, I think it comes down to a few things. So, its first the team. It's a group of people. It's the mindset. And in academia, people are very unconstrained by sort of lack of experience and so the sky's the limit. But you can also build this creative team in industry as well. So, you kind of have to start in industry by hiring a really great team, looking for really smart and creative people. And to kind of speak to that, don't be afraid that the hire people smarter than you, but kind of secondly, it's a culture, you know, and in academia people are focused on doing research and doing things haven’t been done before. Building that culture in industry is very important.

Dave Franchino: I noticed in preparing for this, I looked at the background of Astro Teller, who I believe is the leader of the Google X or X as I think it's called now, that you're under and I noticed in his background he’s listed as entrepreneur scientists. Which is I think a is background that could describe your background as well. So, you work for commercial organization, but you have a deeply scientific background – what advantages do you think that deeply scientific background brings to your current role? I would assume that you deal with a lot of the same issues that a lot of managers deal with, but you come to that with kind of a unique benefit of having a deep academic and scientific background.

Will Biederman: Yeah, I think spending a lot of time in academia really helped me kind of focus on thinking a little bit bigger. That's kind of one of the biggest challenges that I think people suffer from when thinking about innovation is actually not thinking big enough. And kind of speaking to Google X’s culture, it's almost cliché at this point. People frequently focus on incremental improvements rather than 10x improvements and I think actually Astro gives this analogy pretty frequently, but, you know, if you tell an automotive engineering team to improve the fuel efficiency of a car from 40 to 50 miles per gallon now, they may tackle the problem by trying to squeeze out some optimizations from the engine or you know, improving the manufacturing line slightly to eke out that, you know, small, small incremental improvement. But then, if you tell them to improve the fuel efficiency from 40 miles per gallon to 500 miles per gallon, then you have to completely rethink the problem and the challenge and challenge old assumptions. 

So, you have to go back to first principles and that's where that scientific kind of an engineering background kind of takes you back to these first principles and challenging the assumptions from the last generation, which may not be true anymore because of technological advances. So, even if this team ends up falling short of the 500 mile per gallon goal, in the process of trying they've innovated. And they could end up doing a lot better than 50 miles per gallon.

Dave Franchino: I think that’s really brilliantly stated. I appreciate that. Let me build on that for a second, because there's a lot of our listeners that might right now be listening to this and thinking, yeah, that's great, but Google has an unfair advantage when pursuing this type of innovation. But I'm guessing that many of them probably may have more assets and more opportunities than they realize and some of their constraints are more self-imposed. What would you say to the leader who feels kind of like their hamstrung by circumstances and not able to be as innovative as they'd like?

Will Biederman: Yeah, so I think I would probably tell them to focus on three things. So, first, make sure you have the right team in place and, you know, and independent of compensation benefits, etcetera, that Google can provide and that maybe feels like an unfair advantage to some startups, like these startups can still attract talent through a strong mission. So, attract the talent. Make sure you have the right to in place. Surround yourself with people with different sets of experiences and skill sets who are really passionate about building amazing products. I think this is really step one of innovation, is having the people. Then, you know, make sure these people are supported and empowered. That essentially directly comes from leadership. So, make sure your team feel psychologically safe to fail because when you innovate, you're inevitably going to fail, but then you can iterate until you're successful. 

So, it's not just, you know, fail fast. I think in Silicon Valley you hear that cliché a lot. It's, you know, fail fast, but it's fail fast and then iterate, prototype your way forward. So, the path to success is filled with experimentation and then probably the third thing is maintain your focus on your user, customer, the patient, and everything else will kind of come to fruition after that. So, build products that are useful and relevant and provide new solutions for old problems or find new problems that no one sees yet.

Dave Franchino: I think that's really nicely articulated. I hope our listeners take that to heart. Will, in this conversation a couple of times you've talked about managing and motivating your team. Just kind of a personal question. How has the transition been from sort of being personally innovative to managing teams and individuals underneath you that are doing innovation? I'm sure you continue to innovate. Obviously, your patent track record speaks for itself. But I would assume that part of your responsibility now is less than about kind of being on the frontline of that innovation more about motivating teams of individuals who report to you to be innovative. How have you found that transition to be one of your lessons been?

Will Biederman: Yeah, so I found it to be pretty rewarding and as you're calling out is definitely a shift in thinking and responsibilities into a leadership role. And really, I find that my focus is on enabling and empowering the team to succeed. So, building a mission that matters for the team, creating that unified vision, and helping the team kind of understand why it matters to them and why matters to the patient or the customer. That's a big part of the role and then kind of eliminating all the roadblocks to help them. Any way to help them move more quickly and really making them feel kind of psychologically safe and create the culture and environment to help them succeed.

Dave Franchino: So, what are your thoughts then on motivating, rewarding, and incentivizing innovation? You're obviously in a high-risk environment. There's expectation of needing to pivot or failure or iterate. How do you incent and motivate and reward writ large innovation within your organization?

Will Biederman: Yeah, I think as you're as you're calling out, you know, there's a kind of like a shotgun approach, where you're not looking for every idea to succeed but you're kind of looking for one or two ideas that are going to be billion-dollar ideas that are really going to take off of make a big difference for the bottom line of your business. I mean, at the end of the day, the R&D units, innovation, etcetera, shouldn't be losing money. It should be generating future revenue for the company. And so, you have to strike a balance between rewarding technical accomplishments and, you know, rewarding results rather than a specific success or failure of a project or idea. So just because an idea or concept doesn't make it to market or is proven unfeasible doesn't mean there wasn't really good technical work and really good output that the team got from pursuing that idea. So, you have to kind of tease out the success of a project from the output and the team.

Dave Franchino: I understand. Maybe we'll to build on that just a little bit. I know a lot of organizations experience tension between the desire to invest in kind of higher risk/ high reward innovation efforts and then a desire to kind of contribute to the frontline business. My sense is that Verily probably has the luxury of being able to take a slightly longer, maybe more strategic view, than a lot of companies do. Maybe that's not the case. What have you learned about the opportunities and challenges associated with working on efforts that can contribute in the short term versus efforts that can contribute in kind of longer term and maybe larger ways? How do you go about prioritizing your efforts on kind of short-term business success versus longer-term, more blue-sky innovation?

Will Biederman: Yeah, I think probably similar to most companies out there, Verily kind of takes a portfolio approach to their projects. They have a kind of a spectrum of risk and a spectrum of timelines to bring these projects to fruition. Some of them are very near term – have been delivered, will be delivered soon – others are very long-term, high risk, but high reward opportunities. And so, I think maintaining that balance from a business perspective, of course, is very, very important to a successful company. But I also think that kind of there's a little bit of a misconception out there that innovation is kind of only really the responsibility of one person, one group.

But in my opinion, innovation should be everyone's responsibility as a it really doesn’t come from one place. So even though there's teams and a grinding away at you know, the final iteration of a design, getting ready to go for FDA submission or whatever, it may be. Like carving out some time, making sure that team has the ability to carve out some time to kind of think about the next, sort of next version, the next thing, what the problems are for that the project they're working on that can be solved.

And maybe one thing to highlight, which I'm a big fan of, is this concept that Google has called 20 Percent Time and for those that aren't aware of 20 Percent Time, it's time taken to work on something other than your primary project for up to 20 percent of your total work time. So, this is a really important component of Google's culture. Twenty Percent Time was developed to encourage innovation, specifically for this reason in product development, foster team communication, and enhance employee skills. And so all kind of engineering employees regardless of job function are encouraged by the highest levels, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, to think about 20 Percent projects and this is actually where some of Google's biggest products—Gmail, Maps, etcetera—have come from while from these employees were thinking about these other things while working on search or whatever the, you know, the primary focus was at the time.

Dave Franchino: I really like a lot of what you said there, Will. The idea that innovation is the responsibility throughout the entire organization is one that I think I firmly agree with. One thing that's interesting in these podcasts that I've been recording, Google is the second one of the companies that I've spoken to who has elected at least to some extent to intentionally segregate very high-risk, very high-reward innovation efforts out of the mainstream, I'll call it money-making part of the organization and business. I'm curious if you have any advice for other business leaders at firms who might be considering whether or not to break off an arm of their organization to focus more specifically on higher-risk, higher-reward innovation versus trying to bake that innovation throughout the entire organization. What have you learned that might be able to provide some guidance to leaders of organizations who are trying to debate that within their own firms?

Will Biederman: Yeah, I think I don't want to opine too much on the reasons for Alphabet restructuring, but part of my understanding was out of kind of shareholder transparency and to spend for these different efforts, which, of course, is very important. I think when considering to segment out a kind of a branch for R&D and innovation, it could make sense for the company. Obviously, it did for Alphabet, but I think it's also important to consider the cultural impact that may have and how it could potentially stifle employees that are not in that division from feeling empowered to innovate. And, ultimately, like playing off of the 20 Percent Time concept, I think that, you know, the next great idea could come from anywhere. It doesn't have to just come Labs, they have Verily, but they still also do Google research, as well. So, it's not that they're not restricted. Like the Google employees aren't just working on search. They are still actively doing 20 Percent Time, actively coming up with the next great thing for Google. It's just a different business unit.

Dave Franchino: You touched on this earlier, but I'd like to maybe ask you to dive into it a little bit deeper for a topic that's of great interest to me. And that's the concept of failure. Its intuitive that the higher the degree of risk, the higher the probability of failure, and our listeners can't see it, but I'll put failure in finger quotes here. My understanding is a Google X seeks to celebrate failure. I'm sure the reality is nuanced relative to that. What roles do you or what thoughts do you have, Will, in the role of failure in helping drive innovation? And what have you learned that about how it helps drive innovation?

Will Biederman: Yeah, I think failure is important and I don't think I'd go as far to say that failure is celebrated at Google, but it's not feared, either. And I think that's part of creating this culture of psychological safety for people to feel empowered to go out and try something new, try something different and risky. I think that failure is important because you can push the limits as long as you learn something from the failure. If you fail and don't learn and you're not able to iterate, then the failure should not be rewarded, and it was not productive. So, I mean, I think that's the key differentiation is that it's not just failing to fail. It's failing to learn, and you know, as I mentioned earlier, you fail, and you iterate, and you experiment, and you grow, and the path should never just end on a failure.

Dave Franchino: Great. Well, maybe one last question before we wrap it up and that's I'm curious, you know, you've obviously gained a tremendous amount of experience in helping both drive innovation with your own personal efforts and then lead an innovative organization. What are the major pieces of advice you might give to somebody who wants their company to be more innovative, would like to try to find a way to build on perhaps some of the methods or tools or successes that you at Verily have been able to experience? What advice might you be able to give?

Will Biederman: Yeah, so I think I'll probably focus on two things. The first is focus on your users or patients. It's very common for companies to focus on the competition or to focus on people's opinions in the board room or in the meeting room. So really know the user, generate empathy within the team. Increasingly, researchers recognize that actively taking the perspective of others encourages employees to develop ideas that are useful as well as a novel. So, you know, with empathy you can find inspiration, real human needs and motivations to invent and innovate meaningful products and service solutions. So, get out there run the UX studies, get everyone hands-on with the customer, get the feedback about the product in the field. Like, get out there, get that data, make data-driven decisions that at the end of the day are from focus on the user and patient. 

And then, second, something that I don't hear talked about very often, when it comes to culture creating a culture of innovation is about how to generate the trust required for that innovation. So, set the stage for these big ideas by being transparent within the organization. Transparency in the workplace builds trust. And, in my opinion, that trust is a prerequisite for innovation. So, everyone should feel comfortable expressing themselves without the fear of being judged, ignored or reprimanded. So, that trust is kind of like at the very foundation of building a culture of innovation and all of this can be done from leadership at the top.

Dave Franchino: Will, that’s very impressive and, to be candid, very inspiring as well. So, I really appreciate your comments. It's been fantastic of you to come on share a little bit about yourself and your background and then talk a little bit about some of the innovation efforts within Verily that I know our listeners will be fascinated to hear about. Once again, my guest was Will Biederman. Will is the head of emerging products for Verily Life Sciences. Will, I really appreciate your time, your thoughts. I know our listeners are really going to enjoy this podcast.

Will Biederman: Well, thank you very much, Dave. It's been a pleasure to join you today.

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