The fall and rise of the LEGO Kingdom: A review of “Brick by Brick”

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

When people ask me what I did growing up, they expect me to say “surf.” I know this because when I tell them what I did for fun their next question is always, “What, you didn’t surf?” I didn’t. Still haven’t learned. Instead I did a lot of the things boys all over the US did. I watched TV. I hung out at the mall and at fast food restaurants. And I played with LEGO.

The brick fundamentally hasn’t changed since I was a kid. My son has a bunch and the basic essence is still snapping things together with that satisfying “click,” and the gradual accretion of form and function from individual, generic elements. Kind of like how life evolves, you know? And yet at the same time LEGO has undergone great changes in packaging, themes, toy categories, and target audiences. Today it’s one of the most respected and recognized toy brands in the world. But something I hadn’t realized until reading “Brick by Brick” by David Robertson and Bill Breen is how close LEGO actually came to crashing and burning in the 90s and early aughts, before recovering to once again become a commercial powerhouse.

Continue reading

The Aussie pipeline to the slopes of British Columbia

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

So this past Christmas, I decided to go downhill skiing.  I’ve gotten away from the sport for a few years, and felt it was time for a reintroduction. The slopes are full of older skiers, so I know skiing is something I should be able to keep doing for a good while longer, as long as I don’t get too rusty. Also as long as my knees hold out. And to get back into it I figured a trip to Silver Star in British Columbia would be ideal. I last visited this ski area over ten years ago, but remembered being very impressed by the slopes, the snow, the people and the facilities.

I booked a trip and that was my first hint of an Aussie connection.  Everyone I spoke to on the phone had that distinctive twang that’s mangled in so many Outback Steakhouse commercials.  When I arrived on the 21st of December, almost every Silver Star employee I met had come from Down Under. Continue reading

Genetic counseling at Illumina

All opinions of the interviewer are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Illumina is the industry leader in high-throughput sequencing platforms and over the past decade has employed a fascinating mix of innovation, creativity in approach, community engagement and aggressive exploration into different business areas. I recently had the opportunity to interview Erica Ramos, who works as a clinical genomics specialist and certified genetic counselor in the professional services group within Illumina’s CLIA lab, about Illumina and genetic counseling.

Kyle Serikawa:  Can you describe what Illumina is doing in the field of genetic counseling? That is, are you creating a genetic counseling service, or advocating an increase in training of genetic counselors, or creating materials to facilitate counseling?

Erica Ramos: So Illumina has four full time genetic counselors as part of their services group. We don’t provide direct services to patients; Illumina’s model is to provide support to the providers, the physicians. We support what’s being done in the genetics core at Illumina. As for training, we offer opportunities for that. Every year we welcome a second year student in genetic counseling for a 10 week, part time rotation. We’ve done about 5 of those so far. It’s an opportunity for those students to see how genetic counseling skills can be applied to a non-clinical setting. We see the internships as a way to engage these people who will go on to become genetic counselors. Illumina is also a very active in the genetics community, including membership in the American College of Medical Genetics and other organizations.

KS: Given the current landscape of, for example, exome and whole-genome sequencing, it seems like genetic literacy will become an increasingly important skill—both for understanding how genetic variants can be interpreted and also how genetic information will be communicated. How is Illumina thinking about educational needs in genetics?

ER: The genetics community as a whole is concerned about the need for wider understanding of genetics to help inform medical practice. From Illumina’s standpoint, one of the things we can do is to support the internships I’ve described as a way to provide exposure to non-clinical roles for genetic counselors, which broadens the potential market. Also, we’re providing a training option that maybe not all academic programs can support. At the same time, the universities themselves can see the developing need, and through supply and demand we hope to see an increase in the number of genetic counselors being trained.

There is also need for the education and updating of other professions. Physicians, nurse practitioners and others. Illumina has put on the “Understand Your Genome” symposia to work with providers who don’t currently have as deep an understanding as they would like.

KS: How do you see genetic counseling as synergizing with Illumina’s business interests? Continue reading

Batman, Blockbusters, and Biopharma

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

This blogging thing is interesting.  I’m discovering one of the challenges with blogging on a regular basis is the back and forth tidal pull between length/quality and speed/relevance.  There are measured, thought-out, lengthy pieces I’m working on about things and concepts I am interested in exploring.  But at the same time I find myself responding to current events that spark a thought and connection, an Aha! moment, with quick reaction pieces.  Finding that balance is tough, especially since I like both kinds of writing and think they add to the general blog environment that I’m trying to create.  And time is limited.  In a given week I shoot for maybe 3+ posts, in an effort not to get too burnt out or disenchanted in the way described by Chuq van Rospach.  Sometimes, though, a combination of thoughts, articles and other bits of information come together and I find myself staying up to pound out those 500 or 1000 words to capture an idea in the moment.  All for the benefit of the 3 or so people who will skim this post, plus the random butt-click registered by some poodle sitting on an iPad.

But whatever.

So, Batman. Continue reading

Are market cap and present cash flows the best way to measure innovation?

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

Forbes, with the help of the folks from The Innovator’s DNA recently published their coverage and rankings of the 100 most innovative companies.  I’m particularly interested in their ranking method, as it contains elements that are near and dear to my heart–namely, metrics and crowdsourcing.  In a nutshell, they describe how they use a company’s current market capitalization, along with it’s current net present value based on cashflows, to extrapolate how much the market feels the company has in potential.  The method nicely incorporates crowdsourcing in that the market cap measures how much investors as a whole think a company is really worth, now and in the future, and if that’s higher than expected based on cashflow, that suggests investors are factoring in a bonus to value based on future expectations.  Higher future expectations are interpreted as investors seeing a particular company as innovative and having the potential for great leaps forward in offerings and/or income.

I really like using the crowd in this way, and would love to see an analysis that retrospectively looks at these kinds of values over, say, 1970-1990, and combines that with a mature assessment of which companies have been adjudged by business historians to truly have been innovative standouts, which is not the same as business successes.  We say now that Bell Labs was one of the most innovative places on the planet in the 1900s.  Would the same have been said at the time?

At the same time, I can’t help musing if this process couldn’t be made even better.  Recognizing innovation when it’s happening has obvious advantages for anyone looking to get into the next amazing thing, whether as a participant, an investor, or a policy maker.  So let’s start by examining where there might be shortfalls to the Innovator’s DNA method. Continue reading

Why Derek Jeter being a lousy defensive shortstop gives me hope for innovation in industry

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

Hat tip to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com for the article that sparked this idea.

It used to be we knew what a good defender was in baseball.  And Derek Jeter was a good defender.  He had balletic grace, he scooped up balls and threw them with flair and panache, with an all-but-patented jump-throw that made announcers gush and coaches shake their heads in awe.  He was the complete package, a player who could hit, field, throw and lead, a first ballot hall of famer.

Except that, when you look closely, it turns out his defense is lousy.

Defense used to be measured (still is, by many) via the eye test.  How does a player look when catching balls in play?  And this was backed up by the statistic of fielding percentage.  How many balls did a player field cleanly?  It makes intuitive sense.  The more balls a player fields correctly, why, the better defender he must be, right?

Except that’s only part of defense.  It’s nice if a player can catch a ball well.  But what about balls that get by him?  In the last decade or so, baseball analysts began studying the concept of range.  All things being equal, the realization came, range is actually more important than errors or how a player looks.  It’s one thing to catch everything that gets to within a few steps to the shortstop’s right and left.  It’s another thing entirely to catch 98% of everything spanning the third baseman’s left pocket to the grass on the far side of second base.  When you consider the huge number of balls that are hit in the vicinity of the shortstop every season, and the relative value of a hit versus an out, those extra feet of range translate into saved runs.  And saved runs contribute to wins.

Just as an aside, current defensive metrics suggest Derek Jeter has cost the Yankees over a hundred runs relative to an average shortstop over his career.  Still a hall of famer.  Not a great defender.

However, those saved runs and that increased range come with a cost.  By definition, the best shortstops will have more chances to make a fielding play, and if you make more chances, you are likely to make more errors.  Indeed, the very fact that a great fielding shortstop is able to get to more hard hit balls on the edge of his range may well lead to a lower overall fielding percentage as well as a higher number of errors.

Fortunately for those shortstops, baseball teams are getting smarter and are realizing the tradeoff is worth it.  Scouting reports regularly cite range in addition to how a player looks, and fielding percentage is low on the list of statistics an organization cares about in evaluating a player.

And that gives me hope for innovation in two ways.  The first is the point above about the eye test.  We trust what we see and feel.  However, that’s not always the complete story.  Often in trying to implement innovation, there’s a gut feeling by those doing the evaluation–this is innovation, that isn’t, I can tell.  Only anecdotal evidence suggests that no, in fact, often people can’t tell.  Just ask Kodak.  However, if baseball can come to realize that the eye test, while important, is just one part of the evaluation package, industries can also learn that lesson and look for other, possibly less subjective ways to measure innovation.

The second relates to two contradictory things that are often said about innovation, sometimes one right after the other.  We need to innovate.  And we need to de-risk it to make sure that it will work.  Unfortunately, there can be no real innovation without the very real risk of failure.  In an interview with Wired magazine, the inventor James Dyson is described as having worked his way through 5127 prototypes of his bagless vacuum cleaner before hitting success.  But if baseball can come to realize that a decreased probability of fielding success is actually a good thing when it means a shortstop is reaching defensive heights few others can, maybe industries can finally realize that failure, in the right cause, is something to be celebrated and embraced.