If you think these Challenges are Trivial Problems, You are not in the Right Place

Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver Tzvi Aviv
By Paul Arnold
During the early stages of his career, IdeaConnection problem solver Tzvi Aviv made key discoveries that uncovered the molecular mechanism of RNA recognition by Smaug and Vts1 proteins, while a PhD student at Mt. Sinai Hospital Toronto.

He then went on to develop new drugs for brain cancers at the Hospital for Sick Children. His career is now focused on bridging the worlds of science and business to bring brilliant ideas into medical markets as new drugs or medical devices.

In this interview he talks about his work, his experience of problem-solving challenge teams and how he first discovered IdeaConnection.

 Tzvi AvivCurrently, I’m finishing an MBA and one of the courses I took was around innovation. This was the first time I was exposed to the open innovation concept and as soon as I heard it I knew it was a great platform for me to explore. My interest in IdeaConnection is not only the science, it's more about the communication between people and how to make great ideas practical and profitable. The academic world is full of great ideas, but the ability to execute them and bring them into completion or into the marketplace is where I think academia is challenged.

I am looking at the interface of science and business, particularly with pharma and medical devices. I’m involved in multiple initiatives. One of my favorites is ApoMed, an early startup looking to provide better therapeutics for Alzheimer's disease. It's one of the areas where there's a clear need for new thinking and innovation.

Recently, pharmaceutical companies failed quite miserably in clinical trials for some new ideas for Alzheimer’s therapy and the current clinical standard is not providing a cure. The people I’m working with have good ways of looking at the problem and some of our ideas have worked in mice models. Now we are looking to fundraise and expand and hopefully bring our research into clinics.

Actually, my experience with IdeaConnection is not that dissimilar to the work I’m doing, in that a team is looking into a problem, analyzing the problem, coming up with new solutions, and even more importantly presenting the solution in a framework that fuses science and business.

What do you think the academic world can learn from models of open innovation such as IdeaConnection’s challenge teams?

I think there is something to learn in terms of the ability to communicate as a team. In the academic world there are teams, but they are not exactly the same. You work on your projects mostly in isolation and you get some input from collaborators. Occasionally, successful academic teams share similarities with successful IdeaConnection teams when people can actually interact and leave their egos aside.

In the academic world, like everywhere else there is also ego and self-promotion. But when you work in a team environment it is very important to keep an open mind and to be critical but also respectful. It is a very delicate balance to maintain.

Some collaborations just don’t work because people don't want to change their minds. But when you have a successful team, it is like magic, because when people are interacting with each other to learn and teach each other, a great trust develops. These are teams of equals and there is less hierarchy.

What types of challenges have you worked on with IdeaConnection?

The common theme has been challenges at the interface between biology and chemistry where the seeker is in the agricultural or pharmaceutical industry. My grandfather was a farmer and my mum is a plant geneticist so I always feel drawn to these sorts of challenges. One challenge was related to agriculture and finding scientific solutions for problems that companies are encountering when looking for new and environmentally friendly ways to control bugs. Another challenge was related to finding better ways to diagnose the quality of grain seeds. And another one was a formulation challenge for an over-the-counter medication.

So there is a personal interest for me, not only the intellectual stimulation, because there are farmers relying on solutions for their livelihoods, or patients that need these drugs for their health. Now I’m venturing into areas that are away from my comfort zone. So I am participating in teams with more of an engineering focus, looking at solutions to make ice, to produce better gums and so on. I love learning new things and interacting with people from different backgrounds and areas.

And you feel you are getting that?

Yes. These are not trivial problems. If you think they are trivial you are not in the right place because you have to dig deep to find out what is actually bothering the seeker. Sometimes even the seeker doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the challenge.

Obviously, they should clearly define the problem to set you on the right path.

Yes, and I thoroughly believe in spending some time on analyzing the problem because the solution doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes out of looking deeply into the problem, the context, what has been done in parallel industries or what has been done before. The more information you have the easier it is to hone in on the right solution. I find the meeting with the seeker a very important part of the solution, because we really need to listen to them and try to learn from their experience. As a team we have experience, but not experience of these direct problems. Therefore, the more we can learn from the seeker the easier it is for us to come up with a solution that will match their needs.

And once you’ve heard from the seeker do you have a pretty good idea of what the solution might be?

For me, it is more accurate to say that I don't necessarily have a clear idea of the solution when I start, or if I do it often changes. Sometimes, you may be in love with the first thing that comes into your mind and you say to yourself ‘Oh, I’m so brilliant’. But you have to be critical of yourself as well and try to find the holes in it. I have done one challenge on my own and the rest have been in a team environment. One of the values of working in a team is the critique. It is better to hear the critique from your colleagues before you submit a solution than hear the critique from the seeker.

You don’t mind if your ideas are critiqued or challenged?

That’s a fine line. Your ego can suffer because you might think to yourself, ‘OK, the other team members don't value me or don't value my solution’. But if people are conscious of these feelings and provide clear argument that comes from a sound base, then we can tolerate criticisms. We are rational people in this industry. If it's just hand waving and you say it's not going to work and don't tell me why, then I might get offended.

And finally, how much success have you enjoyed with the challenges?

Well, of the two challenges I’ve heard back from, one solution was rejected and the other was successful. So, you can say that’s a 50% success rate. For the two other challenges I've submitted I am waiting to hear, and now I have already started on two additional challenges. So, I'll have a more accurate picture about my success in a few months.

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