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“Curiosity is a Pre­requisite in Science”

How BioMed X Creates an Environment that Fosters Innovation

Dr. Lee Kim Swee leads his tumor immunology research group at BioMed X in Heidelberg, Germany with a large appreciation for the importance of curiosity to their work. In his words, “Curiosity is a prerequisite in science.”

BioMed X is a cutting-edge innovation center on the campus of the University of Heidelberg in Germany that fills a gap often found between academic research and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Its interdisciplinary project teams recruit scientists from around the world to work together on research projects in biomedicine, molecular biology, cell biology, diagnostics and consumer care. Successful projects can be adopted by the project’s sponsor and turned into real products or spun out into independent startup companies.

He explains that before scientists join BioMed X, they must go through a “bootcamp that forces participants to come up with innovative ideas. The type of questions applicants ask and how they formulate them can reveal a lot about their scientific potential.” As he puts it: “There are no stupid questions but some are better than others.”

“We take innovation to heart at BioMed X and constantly try to implement tools that stimulate creativity,” says Swee. He explains that crafting an environment to support curiosity and innovation must happen deliberately, because “innovation and creativity only happens on fertile ground.”

But what makes an environment “fertile”? Swee highlights four key characteristics:

  1. A multidisciplinary structure to expose people to other ways of doing things and other points of view.
  2. A space that fosters frequent, open dialogue between employees to encourage free expression of ideas.
  3. Dedicated time for activities to encourage innovation—he suggests things like a journal club, brainstorming sessions and retreats.
  4. Ensuring that innovation is celebrated and acknowledged.

Swee has learned firsthand what a game changer curiosity can be. Halfway through his PhD thesis his research project had to be put on hold. He recalls, “I was getting increasingly nervous and then had all the freedom and time in the world to read and think. I eventually started working on another minor but interesting observation we had made with colleagues. The project rapidly took off and rescued my thesis at the end, and perhaps my career.”

“Being curious is mostly about noticing the unexpected," he says, also citing Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

When asked how he balances productive progress with an openness to curiosity and the failures that it sometimes can lead to, he names discipline as the key. First, he says, one must “do a thorough assessment of new ideas (Is it really new? What is the potential? What resources will it take?).” Secondly, he calls it “essential” to quickly end the projects that don’t show promise so as “not to fall for the sunk cost trap.”

According to Swee, one of the strengths of BioMed X is that they are able to “try new avenues very rapidly without procedural burden and to stop them if results do not follow. Sometimes however, it is as simple as this: no risks, no rewards!”

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