The Voice of the Innovator: Inspiring Story of Dr. Will Li

Innovators often have succeeded beyond the pale of ‘WE’ mortals.  We put them in bronze, read about their accomplishments with reverence, and build monuments to them.  And even though their messages are poignant, we still make change, innovation and accomplishment the realm of the exceptional, and even stop ourselves on that journey before we begin, believing that they are exceptional, but we are not. 

In the next few blogs,  you’ll read about innovators who are creative and courageous, who have experiences and words to share that will bring us back to what is possible.

As you read, consider how you are like or different from these innovators.  Their lives, work and messages about being innovators are instructional and inspirational.  I selected them because they have all worked in different fields and have made a difference in the way innovators are viewed and acknowledged. 

I asked them to address the following in my interviews with them: 

 1) What motivates you to be innovative? 

2) What messages have you received over the years about being innovative?

3) Who influenced you the most?

4) What’s one of your most innovative ideas?

5) What did you have to do to get your idea accepted? 

6) What advice would you give to other innovators? 

 Dr. Will Li—Director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, Harvard University

www.angiogenesisfoundation.com

William W. Li is president, medical director, and co-founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation. Will trained in the lab of Dr. Judah Folkman, a pioneer in the field of angiogenesis, and has been actively engaged in angiogenesis (development of new blood vessels) research and clinical development for 22 years. Under Will’s leadership, the Foundation has developed a unique social enterprise model based on international collaborations with leading medical academic centers, biopharmaceutical companies, and government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, and the Food and Drug Administration. As president, Will has testified and presented before congressional and other government panels on the impact of angiogenesis in healthcare, and lectures widely on angiogenesis-related topics before clinical, government, and industry audiences.   

Takeaways from your childhood and life?

Will in his own words….

I am very determined to succeed.  I am very independent and respect rules, but I am not afraid to challenge them. I consider myself an innovator because I’ve stepped into several different business arenas that have traditional models and are generally followed  by others, and then I’ve  altered those models.  

To understand me, you need to understand my background.  I grew up as a child of immigrants.  And as a first generation, I had a drive for success.  My mother is a pianist and artist and my father is a biomedical engineer.  I came from a structured, academic environment.  Interestingly enough, both logic and creativity were prized within my family. The nature of my education was fostered upon the ideas of discipline, success and creativity.  As I think back, I was always encouraged to speak up for myself—take risks! I don’t think people encouraged me to be a risk taker, specifically, but the combination of science and arts and the blend of the two just created a natural risk-taking in me.     

The entire Angiogenesis Foundation that I lead is innovative. The organization was born out of a very pure vision: that impartial third parties could help speed health transformation by contributing something unique –a medical revolution is dependent upon this way of thinking.  I sacrificed a lucrative clinical industry career to pursue this direction.  I make my job every day.  The thing about the Foundation is that when we were created in 1994, my idea was met with skepticism.   People felt that I was not focused enough on the disease,  but on the process.   My mentor tried to discourage me; I would destroy my career, he said.  However, another thing about me is that I’m not daunted by external diversity.   I am up to the challenge of  finding a way around it. 

We are tackling 70 different diseases at the same time at the Foundation. The argument is that if the American Cancer Society can’t tackle it, what gives me the right?  Answer: I believe others are missing the forest for the trees.  The organization itself is a social enterprise.  It has to work simultaneously with the biopharmaceutical industry, Genentech, which is a $6 billion dollar industry.  We’ve had to figure out how to work with them, but retain our status and independence.   

 Will’s advice for being innovative and stretching your innovative capacity? 

  • People and money prevent things from happening.  During the process of implementation, it has been  my experience that you need to build the right teams and have the right people externally. 
  • There are few people willing to take the risk.  People want evidence before they are willing to invest.  Your appetite is always bigger than the processes to make it happen.  I wake up in the morning and think about how to balance the enormous appetite to create new things with the mundane for a process.  
  • In my experience, being innovative makes you lonely.  Yet, it is also true that if you are successful you have people gather around you.  Nevertheless, you still have that sense of loneliness as an innovator that never goes away.  You need to be okay with being lonely. 
  • Use a combination of experimental intuition and logic; both are necessary to achieve innovation.    
  • There is a consistent thread among innovators that includes persistence, imagination and stamina. They are all required.  Dr. Folkman was a  pioneer and an innovator in the field of angiogenesis. After reading his work, I went to the University of Pittsburgh, where they developed liver transplants, the polio vaccine and other remarkable innovations that changed the world.   I camped on the chair outside of Dr. Folkman’s office and watched him go in and out of his office every day.  One day he was leaving for the day, and he looked at me and said,  “Do I have an appointment with you? “  I said, “No, but I’m the guy who wrote you 20 letters that you didn’t answer.”  He said, “I will give you five minutes, ” and that five minutes turned into 20 years!”
  • A successful innovator has to develop an ability and tolerance for stamina. This is not just any marathon; it is a triathlon—you will not only be tested against yourself but against the asphalt and the ocean.  

  

 

 

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The Voice of the Innovator–Risk-taking and Self-acceptance

Risk-taking and Self-acceptance

I feel good about where I’m going.   I don’t have any regrets!”

Intuitively, it makes sense that risk-taking and self- acceptance go together.  People who take risks are comfortable with themselves and do not fear what others think or don’t think of their actions or ideas. 

How you acquire self-acceptance and seek self-understanding and self-knowledge is an important question. That journey is often very personal and requires you to look in the mirror. This includes understanding both your strengths and your weaknesses;  what’s important to you, how you define success,  and what you are willing to give up or not give up, including people, ideas, relationships, and money.

One of the amazing benefits that truly comes from understanding yourself and what makes you tick is an increased level of self-confidence.  We often think of confidence as bravado, but real confidence is understanding who you are.

People who are very concerned about what others think are often fearful of retribution—so they do not take risks.  People who are very concerned about failing are overly cautious.  People who are not self-accepting are often perfectionists and beat themselves up if something doesn’t work out. 

The old adage rings true for those self-accepting and courageous people: They see lemons and they say ‘let’s make lemonade!”   

Children try anything. Remember when you were a child and that judgmental adult voice wasn’t there?    That ‘little one’ in all of us is often lost because we make mistakes, and adults and other kids criticize us and call attention to what we did wrong.  We so often look for the ‘critical.” When we receive nine points on our paper or on our performance assessment, with one point off for something we could improve on, what do we tend to focus on? The one point for needing improvement! 

Three ways you can re-ignite self-acceptance in yourself: 

  • Look for the good in a situation
  • Believe a mistake is a mistake and not a life-altering event- ALL THE TIME!
  • Celebrate your successes and dwell on what you can do, not on what you can’t.    

The Voice of the Innovator–Risk Taking and Innovation: Being Authentic

Risk-taking and Authenticity

Well, you asked for my opinion. It’s better to be honest.”

Risk-taking and authenticity means being true to yourself, knowing that what you believe and think is not compromised by what others believe and think. But as you can imagine, people who will not compromise their ‘authenticity’ can be SO right, they can be wrong, hurtful and disdainful of the way others see things.  They can come across as arrogant and can actually end up having little or no impact. So, it’s important to understand in most risk-taking situations how much risk you are willing to take with your ‘authenticity.’  Who would you consider authentic and true to their ideas? Gandhi?,  Sandra Day O’Connor?,  George W. Bush?,  Oprah? 

Compromising your authenticity can be damaging to you.  If you aren’t authentic, people may consider you untrustworthy. 

We are lucky to have a couple of key thought leaders in the dialogue around authenticity: Kevin Cashman, CEO of LeaderSource (now part of Korn-Ferry), and Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and on the faculty at Harvard University.  Both of them view the discussion of authenticity as being comfortable with who you are and ‘how you show up’ in the world.  They specifically are addressing themselves to leaders, but in fact much of what they say applies to all of us. 

Bill George (author of True North) talks about authenticity as knowing who you really are and being able to inspire others around you toward a common sense of purpose.  

Kevin Cashman challenges us to think about leadership and authenticity in terms of how we go about expressing ourselves more authentically.  As he says, “ I constantly challenge clients to ask, Where is my leadership coming from?  Do our actions originate from deep within ourselves, or are they coming from a more superficial, limited place?” 

To take a risk requires us to being courageous! 

You can help re-ignite your authenticity by practicing the following three actions: 

  • Saying, “I disagree.”
  • Readily giving feedback.
  • Saying it how you see it, and then living with others’ reactions.

 

Ambiguity and Creativity–Re-igniting the Voice of Your Innovator!

Creativity and Ambiguity

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Let’s just do the best we can with the information we have.”

Imagine, for a moment, a blank piece of paper. It is much like that computer screen that appears in front of you every day challenges you to put something on it. It may be a report, a summary, a graph or chart, a poem or a picture—in other words, it could be anything. But you are faced with nothing on the screen—blankness=ambiguity. The opportunity, at the moment, is to see it as just that: an opportunity. And to ask yourself the question, what are the possibilities? So often, ambiguity creates anxiety and fear. But it’s from that release into the unknown that something spectacular can happen.

Often, in this situation, we try to decrease the ambiguity. We think about what else we’ve done before, what we’ve seen others do. What we could borrow from the previous report that we put together, or that a colleague put together, or from a best practice used by others in the industry. We try to narrow down the sense of ambiguity and create predictability or a known solution. Each of us, of course, handles this in different ways.

How comfortable are YOU, when that blank screen appears, with creating something out of nothing? Ask yourself, do I need greater predictability or structure, or can I be open to the ambiguity (the gray) that might create new possibilities?

When we run into people or situations that challenge us or ideas that we don’t immediately grasp, people we “can’t” understand, and other concepts foreign, inconceivable or counterintuitive to our accepted “norms,” we have a choice: 1) accept the ambiguity and see what comes of it, or 2) close down on it—what’s your choice?

How do you strengthen and re-ignite ambiguity in yourself and others? Here are a few ideas: Start:

  • Working with the information you have, rather than always needing and asking for more data.
  • Holding meetings without an agenda to create new ideas.
  • Asking, “How might this work?” rather than, “Here are the problems.”

The next blog–Independence and Creativity!