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

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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