• “Everybody can make a contribution”

    Interview with Kemal Malik & Dr. Monika Lessl

In its more that 150 years of history, Bayer has produced numerous groundbreaking developments in science and technology for the good of mankind. How will the global Life Science company continue its innovation success story in the 21st century? research talked to Kemal Malik, member of the Bayer Board of Management responsible for Innovation , and Head of Corporate Innovation and R&D Dr. Monika Lessl.

Off the top of your heads, what would you say were the biggest, most important innovations ever?
Kemal Malik: For me, innovation has above all contributed to the increase in life expectancy worldwide. Back in the 1860s, when Bayer was founded, the average life expectancy in the west was 40. 150 years later, the average life expectancy has doubled to 80 – thanks to innovation, science and technology. So when people say, innovation only benefits big companies, I say to them: it has made us live longer and better. What could be better than that?
Monika Lessl: The biggest innovation that comes to my mind is the mobile phone revolution, which has hugely positively impacted our daily lives. Take for example mobile-based money transfer systems, which are used by millions of people in all corners of the world. You can now use your mobile to deposit or transfer money. Imagine someone in Kenya, a husband, who can now very easily transfer money to his wife living in the countryside, and she can then take the phone, go to the shop and get cash. This kind of progress really helps people all over the world be part of society.

What innovations in recent years could change our lives most dramatically?
Kemal Malik: I spent most of my professional career as a practicing physician treating diseases. But we now stand on the threshold of actually curing diseases, using a technology called gene editing, where you can edit bits of our genetic material and replace them with good bits using the CRISPR-Cas method. That’s revolutionary.
Monika Lessl: From my perspective artificial intelligence – meaning the intelligent use of big sets of data – will have a huge impact on our lives in the future. These learning systems form the basis for cars without drivers, novel facial recognition systems but also novel image analysis techniques or diagnostic tools in healthcare.

Companies like Google are planning to expand into the pharmaceuticals market in the future. How is Bayer reacting to these new developments?
Kemal Malik: I’m incredibly confident about the future of our pharmaceuticals business. I like to think of it as the three ‘Ps’ of Pharma. First of all, there are our products. Second, we at Bayer have great people who’ve done a fantastic job in bringing these products to the market, manufacturing them and then commercializing them. And the third ‘P’ is our great pipeline, with new products to replace the ones that are now coming to the end of their life.

Experts say that in the agricultural business, Bayer’s second mainstay, the future will definitely be digital or will belong to the smallholders. How are you responding to these trends?
Kemal Malik: We’re entering a really interesting time in the agriculture market. The focus of the world is changing towards how we can further increase yields. One good way to do that is to use digitalization to advise farmers on the best way to plant their crops, when they should use crop protection, and how they can make the best possible use of their land. Equally helpful are integrated solutions.

Does innovation play a role in Bayer’s Consumer Health business as well?
Kemal Malik: Of course it does, but in a different way. Consumer Health may not be involved in any revolutionary research and the focus there is not so much on pioneering technologies. But it can use the opportunities offered by big data, for example, to understand our customers better, increase our customer centricity and interact with them better.

Will Bayer’s innovation power be enough for the company to survive?
Kemal Malik: Bayer employs more than 100,000 people. But there are 7.5 billion people on the planet, a number which is expected to rise by an additional two billion by 2050. So we are obviously part of an ecosystem, and – in order to survive in the next century – we want to take maximum advantage of external innovations and collaborations all over the world. With academia, with other large companies, with universities, with start-ups.
Monika Lessl: To promote this dialog is one reason why we set up our open innovation platform www.innovate.bayer.com. With our Grants4 initiatives which you can find on the platform, we are looking for partners along the value chain and in all our businesses. Beyond this we are looking for innovative digital solutions in our businesses or the latest robotics technologies.
We have also established an internal platform which will help us to collaborate better within the company. It’s called YOUniverse, and it’s all about providing a platform for our employees to be inspired, to collaborate, to learn and to connect with other curious minds across the company. For me, that’s very important. We have also developed an innovation network of about 50 innovation ambassadors – senior business leaders. These ambassadors will be supported by about 500 innovation coaches (who provide consultation and guidance on innovation) so that we have a clear organizational structure and clear accountability for innovation as well.

How can managerial staff at Bayer promote innovation?
Kemal Malik: First of all, we should think about what is holding innovation back. Every day, we all have to deal with a huge amount of work. Is there any time left for us to try our something new? To experiment? Managerial staff should give their colleagues the time to be innovative. And they should also be more tolerant of failure. Trying out something new always entails a risk of failure.
Monika Lessl: We asked our employees what they need to drive forward innovation. We basically came up with four key elements. First, it’s important that people are very clear about what they want to achieve. There’s a saying that goes: “don’t fall in love with your solution, fall in love with your problem.” So first of all you should be really clear about the challenge you want to solve, and also have really good ideas about how you want to solve it. Second, it’s important to have the right environment and culture to allow you to work on this. The third step is to expand these initial ideas through both internal and external collaboration. And finally as the fourth step, you need the right kind of governing system and the right organizational structure to really translate your idea into a concrete innovation.

Mr. Malik, how do you respond to people who have reservations about the prospect of constant change?
Kemal Malik: The glib answer would be, don’t live in the 21st century! But really, we’ve got amazing technologies coming up. What everyone needs to understand is that they can contribute in some way. You don’t have to be the person who discovered the new gene editing technology. Finding little, smart ways to improve the things that you do on a daily basis – that’s innovation.

Where would you like to see Bayer 5 years from now thanks to innovation?
Monika Lessl: For me, collaboration is key: I am convinced that only those companies that are now able to manage very big networks internally and externally will be successful in the future. The more collaborative we are, the more agile and flexible we can be in seeking solutions within and beyond Bayer. This is why my hope is that our company will become even more agile and flexible. We have excellent employees who are already embracing this philosophy, and five years from now, I believe we will have many more.
Kemal Malik: I want us to be perceived by the outside world and our employees as one of the world’s leading innovative Life Science companies. And I would be delighted if everybody in this company – all 100,000 of them – would realize that they can play an active role in the innovation process.