Team Innovation

How the Joy Of Curiosity and Collaboration Drives R&D Teams

Kevin Kayser, PhD, leads several Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany teams from his lab office in St. Louis, Missouri. He is Senior Director, Head of Upstream R&D, at Millipore Sigma, a subsidiary of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

Kevin’s teams – in China, Germany, and the United States – provide technology, products, and other research-related services to scientists in academia, biotech and pharma. 

For more than 25 years, curiosity and the joy that he and his teams find in discovery have driven them along a path of exploration that has resulted in seven patents, with several others pending, and nearly two dozen published papers, including reports of several recent unique cell line studies (see here and here)

Kevin details three elements crucial to ensuring innovation: Hiring smart people, having a process in place to support curiosity, and making sure that leadership is demonstrably supportive of a culture of discovery.

To foster innovation within his teams, Kevin stresses the importance of building and maintaining smart, diversely thinking teams. The cultural and market differences among the geographically dispersed teams he oversees organically fosters more creative and unexpected thinking. “They think in a way that I don’t think – not just technically, but also commercially,” he says. A shared openness to these differences is key.

Emphasis is placed upon hiring excellent candidates. “Our hiring process is pretty rigorous,” Kevin says “We throw candidates through the gauntlet for what is essentially an 8-hour interview. Candidates are asked to prepare and give a lecture to the rest of the team on the work that he or she does. Then the candidate meets with team scientists who each ask candidates questions about how the interviewee thinks about different things.” Kevin and his team look for people who are innovative, creative, and think differently than they do.

It is not enough to simply hire smart people. Processes must be in place to support and encourage curiosity.

   A purple stylised DNA strand against a turquoise background    A purple stylised DNA strand against a turquoise background

One way that Kevin’s teams are able to foster creativity is through the relationships his teams have built and managed with scientists at external organizations. “Most of what drives our true motivation is scientific exchange and helping other scientists achieve their goals,” he explains.

Our relationship with customers is so substantive and meaningful, he believes, that his teams make a point of referring to them as partners, not as customers. “Really, they’re people and they’re colleagues whose endeavours are in science.” Kevin’s work allows his scientist partners “to realize their goals and not have to be experts in gene-editing or biopharmaceutical drug manufacturing,” he says. “We can take that role.”

Kevin says that Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany’s curiosity about scientists and their challenges has helped his teams stay ahead of the curve. “What happens when you build that relationship and that in-depth trust and credibility with scientists ... is that they share their problems and their challenges. My curiosity has always been about applying new technology and the expertise of our team toward viable solutions.”

It’s one thing to be driven by curiosity, it’s another to nurture it in the workplace. Kevin recognizes the value of fostering curiosity in the workplace, and talked about how he encourages it across his teams.

He noted the importance of encouraging employee participation in problem-solving as a way to nurture curiosity and ensure everyone fully embraces the organization’s goals. For instance, when a particularly complex challenge affecting Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany’s partner scientists comes to light, Kevin launches a kind of internal “request for proposal,” or RFP process. The challenge is posed to the teams, and team members submit one-page proposals. For the most promising proposals, Kevin sets aside a certain amount of work time for team members to develop and refine their solutions.

“I give them a wide berth that allows them to answer fundamental questions,” he explains. “And most of them end up in proof of principle. That’s what I’m looking for. Can you achieve this?‘ And then, once they achieve that, we bring it to our commercial teams and say, ‘Is there value in this? This is something that we knew is an industry issue. We found a potential resolution.‘” If the solution makes financial sense or can broaden what Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany’s offering in the marketplace, Kevin says, “that’s when it gets more organized.”

This commitment to innovation positions Kevin’s teams at the forefront of modern trends. Gene editing is an especially hot topic today with the advancements that have been made in the past few years regarding enabling technologies. Today, many tools exist that allow a user to perform targeted genomic modifications. The topic of gene editing is on the forefront of both scientific and popular culture. Kevin’s team explored this topic before it was featured on the cover of Timemagazine.

“My team, we were – actually really early on – doing work to discover gene editing tools … back in 2004, 12 years ago.” This pioneering approach set the groundwork for his team today. 

In 2009, MilliporeSigma purchased the exclusive rights for the use of the ZFN technology, a molecular tool that enables precise genomic modifications for bioproduction applications. Due to Kevin’s early involvement in gene editing techniques, his team was able to utilize the ZFN technology effectively and quickly to be first to market with a ZFN-modified GS KO cell line.

Kevin’s team continues to be on the forefront of innovation. This year, the team launched Centinel™ Intelligent Viral Defense. The product utilizes a genomic modification that blocks the entry of a particular virus into the cell line. This approach represents a paradigm shift in the industry’s approach to viral risk mitigation. The Centinel technology may be the most significant advance in viral safety since the removal of serum from manufacturing processes. 

Kevin’s commitment to innovation is never ending. “I’ve always found that I like the path more than I like the endpoint,” Kevin says. “Tool design is my thing; not necessarily the discovery or the final solution. I like the path to get to that solution.” The curiosity that he inspires in his teams not only allows his teams to adapt to new technologies and market trends, but also to be on the forefront of innovation in the field.

How curious are you? How curious are your colleagues? Take the self-test and find out

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