Chasing the Invisible in Business
– By Dr. Tom Grogan

Three Keys to a Start-Up Culture of Enthusiastic, Continuous Innovation

As a physician, a medical researcher and a pathologist who had devoted most of his life to understanding the molecular nature of disease, I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur or a candidate to found a biotech start-up. But that’s what I became. Because that’s where my obsession to improve the practice of medicine led me.

During the 1980s, when my pathology lab had all the work we could handle performing cancer pathology tests manually, the rising demand by hospitals for tissue testing that could help inform better and more personalized treatment decisions for patients gathered force like a giant wave that swept us to the land of automation. The cumbersome and time-consuming process we used, in which we examined glass slides to observe chemical changes in cancer tissue to diagnose the genetic characteristics of a specific patient’s disease, normally required 40 to 50 steps and took five or six hours to produce results with a failure rate of 5% to 10%. The new device we invented automated this manual labor in a novel instrument capable of processing 40 slides per run, eight runs per day, for a total of 320 slides – all in three steps that took an hour and 20 minutes and achieved a repeat rate of only 1% or 2%.

The Birth of a New Business

Our invention transformed cancer pathology testing and gave birth to a new business that I founded with a colleague in 1985 in Tucson, Arizona. Originally called Immunodiagnostics and later known as Ventana Medical Systems, our small start-up didn’t explode overnight, but it grew quickly enough and our small team of employees before long grew to a thousand. It became apparent early on that we were going to have a negotiate a steep learning curve if we were to build the kind of innovation culture that inspired our employees’ commitment, motivation, ingenuity and competitive spirit. That’s what it was going to take to sustain us in the diagnostics industry, where you’re only as good as your next three or four high-value innovations, and where obsolescence is always on your heels. In our industry, the name of the game is patents, patents, patents. 

Tough Lessons, Learned Fast

Learning the ropes of managing people in this field was every bit as challenging as my  toughest days of medical school, and the $20 million investors had bet on our start-up made the stakes even higher. So we had no choice but to learn fast. Here are three keys to building the high-innovation, high-energy, high-performance organization we needed to be to achieve sustained growth.

1. Finding YOUR Company’s “WHY”

“To improve the lives of all patients afflicted with cancer.”

The British author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek is famous for his book and popular TED talk titled “Start With Why,” which posits that instead of leading with WHAT companies sell or HOW they do business, the key to motivating employees and maintaining customers is the WHY – the core principles behind the business and the intrinsic reason for being in that business in the first place. Sinek has his fans and detractors, but it’s hard to argue against the power of an animating purpose.

For Ventana, it was “To improve the lives of all patients afflicted with cancer.” That became our mission statement, and we reinforced it with nine cultural beliefs that further articulated the tenets of our culture:

  • Innovate Now.
  • Think Customer.
  • Be Bold.
  • Deliver Quality.
  • Align to Shine.
  • Act on Fact.
  • Speak Up.
  • Everyone Counts.
  • Own It.

Each of these tenets had a reinforcing sentence to strengthen the way it was understood and put into action. For example, for “Own It,” the sentence was “I own our results, refuse to blame others, and embrace challenge.” Our driving purpose, fortified by the tenets of our culture and definition of how to live each one of them day to day, helped us to achieve unity of effort; it helped us create an organization that everybody felt affiliated with, loyal to and willing to do their best for.

Your business has its own WHY. If you can explain it in a way that gives your employees purpose, a reason to be excited about getting up in the morning, you’ll have achieved one of the keys to a winning culture.

2. Determining Your Company’s “HOW”

When your avowed mission is to improve the lives of patients with cancer – essentially, pledging your work life to the humanitarian cause of saving people whose lives are in jeopardy – you’d better be careful about HOW you go about doing your business; your professed mission itself is practically an invitation to criticisms of profiteering off the backs of the helpless. 

A case in point was our test for Mycobacterium Tuberculum (M.Tbc). It could immediately identify the bacterium in the cerebral spinal fluid of a comatose emergency room patient presenting with tuberculosis meningitis patient and lead to lifesaving treatment and cure. But the test, which cost us a million dollars to develop and bring to FDA approval was never going to make us a dime. 

Evaluated as a business case, and viewed as one among our menu of over 300 tests, the majority of which were carrying their weight to keep us in the black, the M.Tbc test was a poster child for the argument against orphan tests. But viewed in the context of our mission, failing to provide a test that could be life-saving for a precious few would be hypocritical at best.

So I made the case that we were not selling tests and instruments, but rather the high-level practice of medicine for patients’ benefit. To hammer the point home, I used the analogy that selling tests was like selling the alphabet. From a purely business and financial perspective, it would make sense to sell mostly vowels, and to abandon infrequently used consonants, like j, q, x and z. But that would only be true if we were just selling letters. If, however, we were selling the ability to compose words, write sentences, create paragraphs and write a whole book, then we needed to sell the whole alphabet. Anything less, especially if the justification was purely the potential for profit, would be antithetical to our WHY. Thankfully, my argument prevailed.

Sometimes making the ultimate business case is not the same as staying true to your mission and purpose – your company’s WHY. If your decisions are always based on business considerations, independent of how they square with your reason for being, you’ll lose in the end, and your employees will lose faith in you along the way.

3. Tapping the Double-Edged “E” in
CEO (Chief Enthusiasm Officer)

At Ventana, we were fortunate to have a succession of strong CEOs, but one stands out for the sheer number of essentials he was able to marshal to keep all levels of our organization motivated, dedicated, hard-working, hungry to innovate, accountable for their decisions and actions, and feeling appreciated and recognized for their achievements.

He was a quirky Australian named Chris Gleeson whose inimitable Aussie dialect would require its own Google Translate app to understand. But even though it might take a while for employees to catch on to his lingo, they knew beyond doubt in short order that he didn’t tolerate bull, accept excuses, abide complaining or tolerate analysis paralysis; he was all about action, accountability and, above all, ENTHUSIASM.

Chris liked to manage by walking around and talking to people – not just shooting the breeze, but having non-intimidating but probing, pointed conversations. He wanted to know three things of every employee he encountered:

(1.) What’s your job?
(2.) Do you have what you need to do your job? and
(3.) If you were me, what would you do to improve the place?

The last question, in particular, made everyone feel connected, included and important. Moreover, in our business, we needed to refine, improve and innovate every day or we wouldn’t survive. And everyone was quick to oblige.

Chris was also a fan of the Japanese continuous improvement process known as keizen, which simply means improving. By devoting time to this process, which unleashed production workers to observe manufacturing processes around the plant, we were able to elevate the minds and approach of rank and file workers and get them thinking more like conscientious contributors who instead of just doing began thinking and creating and refining our processes. 

It would have made Yogi Berra proud. The old Yankee quipster once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Well, Ventana employees from the cubicle to the plant floor to the executive office observed enough to transform their observations into a wellspring of patents – more than 900 of them over 30 years, as a result of the culture we built.

Our remarkable patent portfolio, representing the “keys to the kingdom” in a biotech company, was the consequence of our intellectual diversity and egalitarianism. At least 40% of our employees with patents lacked advanced degrees. But what they did possess was the power of an animating purpose, the values of a company that stayed true to its mission and put patients first, and a culture that cut the bull and gave everyone a reason to take pride in their work and achievements.

If you’re growing a start-up, whether it’s in biotech or micro-banking, the dynamics are the same: Talk straight; take an interest; treat everyone like an owner; tackle tough problems with straightforward accountability and action; and toast everyone’s successes and contributions with enthusiasm and appreciation. The results will follow.

Tom Grogan is the author of the soon-to-be released memoir, Chasing the Invisible, from which this article is excerpted.
To order the book, click here.

To inquire about Tom’s availability as a speaker, click here.