Expert Insight: 'The Biggest [Innovation] Challenge Is Culture'

We spoke with Rajesh Aggarwal, Senior Vice President for Strategic Business Development at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital


Rajesh Aggarwal has an exceptional track record as a high caliber clinician in bariatric and minimally invasive surgery, a global academic leader in simulation technologies with respect to health professions’ education, a health care innovator through collaborative engagement with engineers, designers, artists and computer scientists, a sought after speaker and educator, and a successful fundraiser. 

In July 2017, Rajesh took on his role in strategic business development at Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, which through deliberate and purposeful engagement with industry partners, utilizes the health system as a living laboratory, to transform health care in its broadest sense. The underlying process is to embed, co-develop and translate novel tools, technologies and platforms, into clinical, academic, reputational and revenue-based impact at Jefferson, which may then be translated to other sites and settings.

Ahead of his presentation at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit this December 11-12 in New York, we sat down with Rajesh to talk all things innovation, from the corporate challenges it poses to collaboration with startups. 

How did you get started in your career?

Whilst I took the traditional route of medical school in London, followed by surgical residency at Imperial College London, everything else in my career was far less than following the pre-determined path to become a career surgeon. I got engaged in innovation when I began my PhD in 2003 at Imperial College London in virtual reality technologies for surgery. The technology was new, the companies we worked with were start-ups looking for clinical validation studies, and so we collaborated closely to determine the clinical value of this technology, specifically for training in laparoscopic surgery. I loved the interplay between the technical development of the novel technologies, their implementation in the clinical setting, and the consideration of commercial aspects, as well as the opportunity to underpin clinical value through a scientific approach. This multi-faceted approach really appealed to me, and is still what I enjoy about my role at Jefferson today.

What are the main challenges that companies face in delivering innovation?

The biggest challenge is culture – the concept of ‘we have always done it this way’, and associated with this is the concept of de-innovation which is far less talked about. There is only so much bandwidth for companies to undertake innovation, with respect to operational demands. It is thus necessary for innovation either to be the underpinning strategy of the company, such as for a new start-up, or for an established company looking for a major turnaround, or to be firewalled from the operational constraints of the company itself, so that the ‘innovation group’ can be nimble, opportunistic and take risks – which if successful would then be implemented across the rest of the company.

What are the key ingredients of a successful innovation strategy? What are the common characteristics of a failed innovation strategy?

People, people, and people.

Is open innovation worth the risk? How important is collaboration for effective innovation?

Yes – but it will not work for every aspect of very industry. For example, in scientific endeavors such as encoding the human genome – this is a great collaborative effort; or for space travel, etc.

In terms of collaboration for effective innovation, every group/party must bring something different and of value to the table. This sounds simple, and if it works, then 1+1 = 11, but if there are competing similar parts to the collaboration, then this can be most inefficient and ineffective.

How important is it to collaborate with the startup community? What are your thoughts on internal and external incubator programs?

The startup community has grown exponentially, not only in San Francisco, Boston, and New York, but now more so in Montreal, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Atlanta, etc.

The challenge is to maintain discipline when engaging with start-up companies, and at events too. Whilst there may be a number of fascinating ideas/projects, the majority will not succeed. My priority when I visit startup events, is to identify the people that I think are superstars, and then (literally) go after them. Even if their current product/technology is not the right one for me, getting to know them will provide me with the best bet for connecting with them and others too.

What can delegates expect from your presentation?

Healthcare innovation is a buzz word. There are now institutes or centers of healthcare innovation at every major medical center in the US, almost weekly conferences on health innovation on both US coasts, numerous published scientific articles and specific journals devoted to the topic, and commissioned reports from industry experts too. Whilst innovation in healthcare has doubled our own life expectancy in the past 100 years, enabled infertile couples to have babies through IVF, and pioneered organ and tissue transplants, the patient experience lags way behind the way we run the rest of our lives. 

My presentation will focus on how we can all work together to make health care so much better from multiple points of view – consider the design of hospital environments, the loss of independence for our patients, the lighting, noises and sounds, the challenges of access to care during weekends and night hours, the food, and so on. I have had the privilege to work with industrial design engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, musicians, a chef, human factors experts, in alignment with numerous clinicians, patients, and their families, to work on integrating new approaches to health care, all of which have been adapted from other industries, as opposed to waiting for health care to ‘catch up’ of its own right.

You can hear more from Rajesh, along with many other industry-leading innovation executives, at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit this December 11 - 12 in New York. To see the full schedule, click here

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