Steve Jobs, Innovator

The legacy of Steve Jobs is breathtaking. In many ways, he remade our expectations and experience of technology. In many ways, that is, he remade our path to the future. As researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who dedicate our lives and careers to innovating in our own fields, I think we have a special appreciation for this remarkable man and his accomplishments. And we have a special opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to learn from the aspects of his character that allowed him to achieve what he did. It feels like a fitting tribute to do exactly that.

Among Jobs’ iconic traits — along with brilliance, vision, an incredible appetite for risk-taking, and a passion for success — was what I call intellectual adventurousness. Carmine Gallo digs into this beautifully in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success. Gallo describes Jobs as having “spent a lifetime exploring new and unrelated things” and argues that this was a major contributor to his inventiveness.

That this interest in seemingly disparate ideas — and of course, the ability to bring them together — was key to Jobs’ abilities as an innovator aligns closely with my experience with some of the most interesting and successful entrepreneurs in the life sciences.

In our field, the intellectual adventurers are the innovators who’ve pushed through the boundaries of the serial-science paradigm of life-science research. They’ve redefined life sciences as interrelationships and systems — it’s a perspective that allows for solving problems on a much bigger scale. These life science innovators pull ideas from biology, of course, but also from high technology, physics, math, and engineering. This “Think Different” mindset has allowed them to originate, recognize, and act on new ideas.

One of the most successful “Jobsian” thought-leaders in life sciences is Jay Flatley. He was a major force in the genomic-tool revolution and has consistently stayed at the forefront. Jay is CEO of Illumina, a company founded in 1998 and with a market cap of ~$5B. Jay has several traits reminiscent of Jobs. He has the same “out-innovate-all-competitors” attitude. And of course, a passion for technology: he’s frequently seen presenting his personal human genome sequence on, naturally, an iPad2. It’s a demo that comes complete with annotated personalized information and a great screensaver shot of his wife. Significantly, the similarities also include an orthogonal background. Jay has a BS in Economics from Claremont McKenna and an MS in industrial engineering from Stanford. It’s a grounding that lets him see both science and business opportunities others might miss, such as acquiring Solexa and investing in Oxford Nanopore.

An innovator-hero with an even longer history of new ideas and Jobs-like breadth of intellect is Leroy Hood, MD, PhD. Not only has he led in the fields of automated genome sequencing, microfluidics, systems biology, and personalized medicine — he created those fields in the first place. Along the way, he’s co-founded at least 13 companies, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, and Rosetta Inpharmatics. That might be enough for most of us, but Lee Hood, 72 this month, is still pushing, still inventing, still shaping the future. Even while running his Institute of Systems Biology, he launched Integrated Diagnostics, which is creating blood-based diagnostic tools for the early detection of cancer. There’s a satisfying symmetry to his having led the development of molecular tools decades ago, and his now deploying those tools against devastating diseases such as lung cancer today. It all seems to fall under his ultimate ambition: to usher in a genetic-based era of what he’s named “P4 medicine” —medicine that is predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory.

A younger innovator in the Steve Jobs tradition of intellectual adventurousness is tenured Stanford professor AtulButte, MD, PhD. In 2002, I had the pleasure of working with Atul at Flagship to launch Selventa (then Genstruct). Back then, he was completing his PhD at MIT/Harvard and, already a board-certified pediatric endocrinologist, he was running the Computational Biology Group at Children’s Hospital. Atul has a wonderful, multifaceted perspective grounded in his background as a physician, scientist, and software engineer. Fittingly enough for this reflection about Steve Jobs, Atul’s software engineering resume includes several stints at Apple. Who knows? Maybe Jobs was a direct influence … In any case, Atul’s career has encompassed seemingly divergent disciplines, and the result, as with Jobs, he has inspired ideas. In the past year, he has launched two separate new companies, Personalis and Numedii, that use genomic data to drive pharma pipeline development and clinical success. As with the idea of using Tagamet for lung cancer, Atul continues to be a source of the unexpected.

Steve Jobs said he “wanted to put a ding in the universe.” Obviously, he did, and it’s an honor to be in a field that allows us to strive to do the same. So thank you, Steve Jobs. And I think your own words speak for all of us today: Insanely great.

© 2020 The Sonder Group