AstraZeneca, the $44 billion pharmaceutical company based in the United Kingdom, is no stranger to R&D investment — like most global pharmaceutical companies. But Sara Kraft’s role as the Director of Innovation and Business Strategy is focused less on product development, and more on strategic roadmaps and idea management.
Kraft has always had an interest in entrepreneurship and innovation — but her career hasn’t always been directly focused on those areas. Even when she worked in operations within medical information at AstraZeneca, she worked to craft a strategy she would later use to stand up an innovation function inside the company.
As part of InnoLead’s Member Spotlight series, we caught up with Kraft about her role, finding her niche, and her advice about laying the groundwork for a new innovation function. Highlights from the interview are below.
Tell me about the day-to-day of your role at AstraZeneca.
I manage the strategic roadmap for what we call Veeva Clinical Vault. Our study and clinical trial documents are housed in this platform, and I was brought on board because… [AstraZeneca] wanted to have an innovation and business strategy department.
I was ready with an innovation strategy … I’ve worked at AstraZeneca for a while, so I compiled what worked, what didn’t work, and pulled everything together and created an innovation strategy. Anytime someone has any idea for the [Veeva] platform, they submit it and I go through and process it, pull innovation teams together, and then launch it into their project management phase. I manage a lot of innovation streams. …
My specialization is what I call exploitative innovation. … I focus on, once the product is actually embedded in the operations, how do we continue to innovate and improve that functionally?
How did you find your niche in innovation?
This started a long time ago for me. I went to school for entrepreneurship for my undergrad. … I somehow started working at University of Maryland Baltimore, in the School of Medicine. And I used that entrepreneurship knowledge that I got [to] develop an application there, and we streamlined the residency process at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. We created an application and then we ended up licensing it to other medical schools. That was a little intrapreneurship experience that I had.
I was very passionate about just student entrepreneurship, because a lot of the medical students have that business knowledge, and a lot of them go on to open up their own practices. So I advocated for more business training for medical students, and we opened up the Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. And then after that, I landed at AstraZeneca. I took all of that knowledge, and I still continue to teach a lot of entrepreneurship theories and innovation theories and methodologies within my job right now.
You just mentioned that you were responsible for standing up the innovation team that you work on now. What would be the advice you’d give to somebody else who’s trying to stand up a brand-new innovation team?
If you’re focusing strictly on exploitative innovation, make sure you have a governance structure in place. [Even] when you have a way that people can submit the ideas, you also need to make sure that you have a governance body that will make sure the ideas are in alignment with the company strategy.
If you’re focusing strictly on exploitative innovation, make sure you have a governance structure in place.
What’s something that you know now about innovation that would have been helpful for you to have understood sooner?
I think my biggest learning was the [importance of] stakeholder management and how to get that together. That was critical for me, because I think I underestimated it. Sometimes I would go in, and I would just come up with the solution, but I didn’t understand the full picture; I didn’t understand that I needed to get this particular person [or group] on board. But managing the stakeholders — and including them from the very beginning on an idea — that’s probably been my biggest learning, at least at AstraZeneca, for sure.
When you look back on your career as a whole, what’s something you’re most proud of?
When I first started at AstraZeneca, I started in medical information. I started creating this innovation strategy before I was actually in the position I’m in now. It took me a couple of years, because I had a lot of people that said no, or they didn’t want to do it, or they just weren’t ready to do it.
I’m the most proud of creating that innovation strategy, having someone say yes, and then having an actually deployed and then also teaching other people — because it works. Now I have other people that are actually being taught the same method. So that’s probably what I’m most proud of, is that I didn’t stop. I kept saying, ‘I’m going to move forward; I know this will work if someone just gives me the chance.’ My boss gave me the chance, and I was able to do it.
I’m also very proud when I see some of the people that I teach. I’ll see them doing a presentation and I’ll hear their elevator pitch coming out. And I love that — seeing what I’ve taught, and seeing them grow.
When you’re not working, what are some of the things you like to do?
I can say I do the normal stuff. I love cooking. I love gardening.
But I also do like to go to what we call Baltimore hardcore shows. When I was young, I went to a lot of punk shows, and then punk evolved into this hardcore scene, which is a lot of screaming. It’s like an offshoot of metal. I go to a lot of those shows in my free time, which I don’t necessarily look like I would, because I’m a very professional person.