In our recent Master Class, Peter Gardner moderates a conversion between Rishi Roongta of Bain Innovation Exchange and Tom Wagner of AstraZeneca, as they share insights on how to continue building necessary relationships during a period of distancing. During the call, they explore: 

  • Innovation agility in times of crisis

  • The increasing importance of local partnerships in ecosystem building

  • Gathering market intelligence to inform strategic planning

  • How to stay aligned when strategies are in flux, and the demand for new technology is increasing.

Peter Gardner is the CEO of Startgrid, an software platform that can accelerate the discovery of digital solutions and delivery of external innovation. Rishi Roongta is Founder and Vice President of Bain Innovation Exchange Center of Excellence, which builds relationships with the global venture capital and startup ecosystem. Tom Wagner is the Director of Competitive Intelligence and Scouting for AstraZeneca, a global, science-led biopharmaceutical company that focuses on the discovery, development, and commercialization of prescription medicines.

Make Use of a New Demand for Innovative Thinking

Rishi Roongta: This [pandemic] actually forced everyone to start to take on being more agile, being more innovative. And so a lot of inquiries [from our clients] have been around new ways of working. How do we support our clients through this pandemic time period, which is quite new for many folks, right? … A lot of the focus has been on supporting our CEOs and executives as much as we can during this time period, bringing our best frameworks…to help them. 

We’re seeing certain industries where they recognize that the way they’ve been serving customers or the products that they’re bringing to market are just not cutting it. And COVID is really forcing everyone to rethink. So we’re getting a lot of demand for just broad innovation. Just in the last six weeks, I would say, that things are really picking up in certain sectors. Others, it’s all been about: How do I retool? How do I leverage new technologies to make sure the core is protected?  

I have had a number of teams pulled back. We were having conversations about: Should we set up a venture fund? Should we set up a unit to work with the ecosystem? Some of these conversations that were going full speed ahead have slowed down depending on the business, but nothing has gone away. … I think everyone recognizes that innovation is super important. It’s just a question of timing. 

Use Urgency to Inspire Innovation & Positive Change

Rishi Roongta: I would say our message is to be bold within the limits that you can. There are clients that are recognizing this opportunity… They’re looking into…“Should we be doing M&A?” … “There might be an opportunity to buy a disruptive technology player that’s been in our market for a while.” … We are big believers [in] being bold during this time. And this necessity breeds innovation.

Tom Wagner: We’ve always had a three- to five-year digital transformation plan in some form. Coming into this year, COVID strikes and actually digital transformation has to happen right now. So there’s been interesting activities, particularly within the commercial teams around how do you redeploy resources and redeploy roles…that cannot actually do the job they used to do prior to COVID? … Our field sales organization…can’t be out in meetings with doctors or organizations, but what can they be doing? 

… We are highly active in serving the needs of patients and serving the global community in a time of pandemic, and we’re feeling very grateful that we have that opportunity to do that. … Not…every one of us involved in developing a vaccine, but we’re inspired by the way that work is happening. It is dissolving barriers that used to be very seen, very real, in terms of ways of getting work done, and also in the way that we’re thinking about connecting with external innovation teams and partners. We’re just really going at this with a new lens and a new urgency because we think that it’s important. 

Remote Innovation May Not Be Ideal, But It Opens Exciting Opportunities

Rishi Roongta: In many ways, technologies…have really enabled our innovation teams to still excel. … We did a workshop with a client. It was one hour, completely bounded, a client across the world. And we had multiple people from across the world on this one session, and we were able to run an ideation session, vote on some of the top ideas, and get into some [solutions] all within an hour. … [Before COVID-19,] that might have been a flight to that country for multiple people — maybe more time together, which would have been great — but we still got to some great results in a virtual setting. 

Now, that being said, I still miss the interactions of talking to people, the serendipitous run-ins that sometimes spark innovation. It’s a lot more planned. But I would say we are, in many ways, still driving as fast as we were before. We’re just doing it in a very different way. 

Tom Wagner: We happen to have been driving some changes…around adopting agile ways of working, looking at journey mapping, particularly for patients, and starting to use some of the tools [like] Miro…to connect teams a little bit more dynamically in quick sessions to ideate. Clearly, that’s the only way that we’re getting things done right now. 

But it’s been a  really interesting experiment…in really forcing us to think differently about how we communicate, how we operate. … It’s opening up windows into how we can create opportunities for engagement with folks that would normally have only been done physically and to see essentially how [that would] go because we have no other option. But so far, I think that the outcome has been quite positive.