The Nobel prize-winning American chemist Linus Pauling once said, “If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.”
Generating more ideas for new drugs, devices and therapeutics; increasing the diversity of researchers participating in the innovation process; and helping more patients are key goals of the new Innovator Community Expansion Initiative (ICEI) from Mass General Brigham Innovation.
ICEI seeks to identify and eliminate barriers to the innovation process for women, individuals who are underrepresented in medicine (URM), clinicians and early-stage researchers. Mass General Brigham leadership has marked this as a crucial part of its systemwide efforts to increase diversity and equity.
“As far as innovation goes, we’re only as good as the ideas that come into the system,” explains Diana Schwartzstein, managing director of administration and co-lead of the initiative.
“Increasing the number of ideas flowing through our office from a diverse population is our highest priority,” Schwartzstein adds. “Expanding the pool of ideas means we’re expanding the possibilities for new technologies for a wider patient population.”
The ICEI is taking a structured approach to sparking innovation across the different populations of researchers, starting with women.
A Data-Driven Approach
The work group started by collaborating with their in-house operations team and Mass General Brigham Human Resources to create a data-driven gender dashboard. As expected, the dashboard showed a huge disparity between women and men when it comes to participating in innovation.
To get a better sense on the factors driving this disparity, a survey was developed in collaboration with Katherine Coffman, PhD, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School (HBS).
Dr. Coffman’s research focuses on gender dynamics in the workplace. Much of her work is related to the observation that good ideas are only valuable when they are put forward, and her studies have found that women are often more hesitant to share their ideas than their male counterparts.
The survey, which was sent to both male and female investigators, asked the following questions:
- What is your level of participation in innovation?
- What would you want your level of participation to be?
- Are you interested in working at a company, creating a new company or inventing a new drug?
- What is your education level on the fundamental steps of innovation?
Finally, the team asked investigators about their perceived barriers to participating in innovation.
The survey received over 635 responses with the majority of investigators indicating they wanted a larger role in the innovation process. When it came to barriers to participating, respondents cited a lack of education (for both genders but more so for women) and a lack of time and resources.
Planning a Response
ICEI is focused in three areas: networking within the external healthcare landscape including venture, start-ups, tech company leadership, education and awareness of the commercialization process, and data and reporting to measure improvements. It is developing a set of initial programs for 2021, with plans to expand based on the results.
To increase networking opportunities, they are creating a board of directors workshop for senior research leaders (mostly female) at Mass General Brigham. The workshop is designed to provide the education, knowledge and networking experience that could potentially get participants on a company’s board of directors, a key factor in advancing individuals pursuing funding and commercialization opportunities.
To improve education and awareness, the team is developing a one-day program at Babson College designed to build self-leadership skills, identify characteristics of an ideal candidate for a board of directors’ position and share the experiences of others.
Marc Succi, MD, a radiologist and director of the Medically Engineered Solutions in Healthcare™ (MESH) Incubator at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and clinician-in-residence for Mass General Brigham Innovation, is creating an online educational program on the fundamental skills of innovation as part of the effort.
The program has 22 introductory-level courses on the basics of innovation, covering everything from patents, conflicts of interest, the fundamentals of licensing and research agreements, company creation to primers on CRISPR, 3D printing and other advanced scientific techniques.
It will open soon to all investigators in the Mass General Brigham and allows each investigator to set their own course schedule.
“We want to make it convenient for people who don’t have a lot of time outside of work,” Succi explains. “You can choose which courses you want to take—or you can take them all.”
The program will also include a networking platform to connect researchers across the Mass General Brigham.
“I’m sure people at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have the same research interests but don’t know that they’re each working on the same topic,” says Dr. Succi. “Through this networking experience, you can see if there’s potential for collaboration on a system-wide basis.”
When it comes to data and reporting, the team will be actively tracking if and how participation levels by women change as a result of the new programs and workshops.
From the Lab to the Classroom
In addition to collaborating on the survey, Coffman interviewed 25 senior-level, female faculty members across the system to gather more qualitative data on the barriers to innovation.
She is using those interviews and the survey results to write an HBS case study that will also be taught as a classroom exercise. HBS students will be asked to put themselves in the role of Mass General Brigham President and CEO Anne Klibanski, MD, and try to identify opportunities to increase gender diversity in innovation across the system.
“We know that women have good ideas, but do they have the same beliefs about the quality of those ideas as their male counterparts?” Coffman asks. “Do they think about risk in the same way? Are they more worried about the downside? Do they face different penalties for coming forward and having something not work out in terms of how that’s perceived by colleagues or supervisors?”
“Hearing from people, there are explanations that fit into each of those buckets,” Coffman says. “I think we can make changes to address those factors that could make a real difference.”
The ICEI workgroup for gender at Mass General Brigham Innovation includes Tracy Doyle, strategic marketing manager; Jennifer Finefield, PhD, senior licensing manager; Meredith Fisher, PhD, a partner with the Mass General Brigham Venture; Madeleine Halle, innovation project manager; Sherene Shenouda, PhD, licensing manager; and Christine Taft, PhD, associate director of licensing.
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