How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Dr. Samuel Gan fuses psycho-endo-neuro-immunology, biology, psychology, virology, molecular antibody engineering, app development, philosophy, theology, & business
"No, I'm traveling right now, in Shanghai…. Actually, yes, I did see the sequence file in my email—and everyone else's emails, too. No, I can't process DNA sequencing files en route. I'll do it the moment I can—I promise.”
Samuel does research in multiple fields, including psycho-endo-neuro-immunology (PENI), and his team was awaiting his input for their therapeutic antibody production.
Everyone was stuck.
"I was frustrated, and I looked at my phone. It's actually faster than an old laptop I had, and I was thinking, ‘Hang on—why is it that I can do something simple on an old computer but can't do it on a much-smarter device?'"
He posed this as a challenge to his computer-programming teammate Phi Vu Nguyen (Samuel is many things, but not a programmer), and within three months, they launched DNAApp, for analysing DNA sequences on the smartphone.
It was the first of 21 scientific-analysis apps, used (collectively) by close to 30,000 scientists and reported by more than 100 news agencies worldwide.
"I was surprised by DNAApp's popularity. The software for looking at sequencing was available on desktops everywhere. It's not a big leap to put into a phone. So after that one I asked, ‘Well, OK, what other problems do I face?' The other problem I had was that new staff didn't know how to analyse DNA and protein gels, so they'd come and ask me and send me raw data by Whatsapp ‘round the clock.… I don't remember the marker bands myself, so I have to look it up. So again, I thought, can the phone help solve this?”
GelApp became their next most popular app, and now, instead of ten researchers queuing up for one lab machine and a supervisor, ten smartphones can just use GelApp.
Interns Wong Chun Foong & Ian Budianto noted, "Inspiration comes after every single app we develop.” For example, with PsychVey (used for online psychology surveys), Samuel realised he could use the webcam (or random shots from front and back smartphone cameras) to monitor exam cheating.
Samuel's other interns also created VibraTilt to measure whether a lab-table surface is flat, and then later realized that the gyroscope in smartphones could also be used as a pedometer or as a medical device to measure clinical tremors. Shortly after VibraTilt, another developer from another group in the US combined the mobile-gyroscope with map technology and released a popular earthquake monitoring app.
Samuel's personal efforts also branched into devices, such as a portable spectrophotometer that can be connected to the smartphone. Again, Samuel combined forces—this time with 2 interns from biomedical engineering. He shared the problem and a vision for connecting a device via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, connected and applied in a new situation, using existing technology. Kits are also fair game, like his DNA extraction kits for school-kids—a simplified educational version of something he put together when he worked for a local SME.
Inspiration also comes through people. Now that Samuel has a user base and reputation, people come to him with problems—new ideas for both app improvement and for new development.
Innovations are not always accepted, though. School-kids love his DNA kits, but administrators often don't "get it.” Despite having his tools adopted by thousands of researchers for their work, the scientific community was not uniformly enthusiastic about his activities that didn't fit existing fields and journals. Nonetheless, publications are needed by every non-tenured researcher who wants to keep doing research.
So, he co-founded a journal on mobile apps, covering research- and science-related apps and peripheral devices, e.g. add-on sensors and wearables (e.g. Google Glass and the iWatch). The journal should be a first step towards establishing scientific mobile app development as an academic field of its own.
Like the classical scientists who crossed domains and founded new fields, Samuel collects knowledge, skills, qualifications, and problems to work on. They may seem diverse, but he says, "I see everything as one field, and what happens in one may give insight to another. There's no reason to not branch out. I'm just trying to get the big picture.”
Seeing that big picture with enough depth of knowledge has enabled him to connect ideas in different fields. For example, while reading an IT article, he recognized that an algorithm worked similarly to DNA mutation and could be used to study mutations. He believes that seeing an issue from a perspective no one else is taking is the key to creative problem solving, and requires boldness to step outside your field.
Bold he is. He's the only person I know who studied for a PhD, masters, & bachelors all at the same time –- the masters to supplement the PhD work, but the bachelors just out of interest. (He gets "itchy” and bored.) The PhD is in Allergy, MSc in Structural Biology, and he has two BSc's—Psychology and Molecular Cell Biology. That supplements his Diploma in Biotechnology and certifications in: Writing in the Sciences; Chaos and Dynamical Systems; Commercial Law & Technology Transfer; Complex Systems; Business Administration; Academic Practice; 3D Modelling & Animation; English/Chinese Translation & Interpretation; Religious Knowledge; and Theology, Philosophy, History, and Ethics. He holds a third-degree black belt in Aikido. He's still enrolled in Bible College (soon to complete a certificate in biblical studies), has a readership of over 30,000 for his books on Christianity, and might pursue an IT qualification if he gets really bored.
After his doctorate in 2008, Samuel was CTO in a Shanghai Biotech SME, and came back to Singapore in 2010 to scientific administration. He was well placed to move up fast but decided to return to the lab. He joined a modelling and simulation team (outside his comfort zone) and eventually established an experimental lab fundamentally different from the group he was with.
"There was no research division in which he would fit, because what he was doing was completely different,” noted his mentor, Vivek Tanavde. So, he's now functionally independent.
"Bureaucracy is the greatest creativity and innovation-stifler ever,” says Samuel. "It's important for bosses to never lose track of operational work, because that's where the most important problem solving ideas come from…” To make positive change, employees need power and to be heard (not ignored), managers need to stop being buried in bureaucracy, and they all need desire, drive, and passion. "There's a saying that if it isn't broken, don't fix it. But it doesn't have to be broken. It may be misaligned, it may be bent, and you should try and make it better,” says Samuel.
Although not generally a respecter of boundaries and rules, and having declared that "working hours are arbitrary,” there are some he adheres to. "We have to be restrained by morality, by practicality, and by social responsibility. There are rules I don't necessarily abide: bureaucratic, administrative rules…. But there are social and ethical rules I try not to bend.”
He views "failure” and "mistakes” as learnings to be repurposed (as when he's turned many experiment mistakes into publishable findings of discoveries), and actively seeks and uses feedback. According to intern Benjamin Goh, "This is why he's able to connect the dots. He's willing to listen to other people's ideas, and he understands that he himself will not be able to generate all the ideas he connects.”
In fact, connecting people from different fields (not just ideas) is core to his leadership. He's egalitarian and friendly at work, but everyone knows he's serious about the work. Colleagues describe him as inspiring, inclusive, bright, fiercely independent, enthusiastic, entrepreneurial, hardworking, caring, and driven. He's an encouraging and motivational leader who works as hard as (or harder) than his staff. Unlike many labs, if a junior person creates something or plays the crucial role of making the research publishable, their own names go first.
Many cross-disciplinary ideas come out of a very simple practice—the daily lunch meeting, where the team shares their professional and personal problems, possible solutions from other perspectives, and current and future activity. With open communication and by empowering and motivating, he taps into everyone's power to innovate.
The first human genome took a decade to decipher. Now, sequencing can be completed in a day. Research in the biological sciences has a long history of in-field data collection, lengthy in-lab analysis, and then possible follow-on fieldwork long afterwards. Industrial-age computers made work more accurate, scalable, and faster, but consumed entire floors of space and still tied scientists to their labs. Laptops allowed some freedom to explore and analyse in-field. But the real integrator of fieldwork and lab (i.e. agile learning and discovery) may be the smartphone, to be supplanted by wearables and, ultimately, man-machine singularity.
"I think there's a clear revolution coming our way in that mobile labs can now be just smartphones, rather than mobile lab vans/trailers. A lot of scientific discoveries in the golden age were made by scientists at home, such as animalcules (microorganisms) by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, father of modern microbiology. Smartphones can make it possible for scientists to do research and have freedom outside the lab.” Such freedom should also allow lab work in emerging economies, both applied (e.g. in medicine) and lab-based research, e.g. with discoveries that can be shared with industrialised economies (i.e. jugaad innovations).
In fact, Samuel's dream is to have robots perform experiments for him so he can concentrate on scientific theory rather than operations—a future not unreasonable, given the advanced automation already embedded in many lab devices. But would that mean that after enabling scientists to do their jobs outside their labs and offices, the next step is for scientists to remain in their offices and leave the fieldwork and labwork to robots?
Whatever the future of science, Samuel's experiences have clear lessons for us. He collects knowledge and ideas in a way that to others seems cross-domain, but to him is just following his interests across arbitrarily-divided fields addressing the same thing. He connects not only ideas across fields but also people and is able to connect and create opportunities with others who possess skills/ideas he doesn't. And finally, he illustrates the importance of going beyond the diverge-converge process so well known in creativity and innovation practice—diverging to produce multiple ideas, then converging on one or a few to pursue.
It is absolutely essential, once we've converged on a solution, to then diverge to other users and uses, re-applying an approach and repurposing a solution. As colleague Vivek Tanavde noted, "All of us in research like to find problems and solutions, but a lot of us are so completely focused on our own.”
What if we all crafted creative solutions, then gave them away to the whole world?
What problems do you want solved?
With whom could you share your solutions?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Dr. Samuel Gan—Scientist, Inventor, Product Developer, & Educator—is Asst. Principal Investigator at A*STAR Bioinformatics Institute. He's Founder & Editor-in- Chief of Scientific Apps & Devices (Springer Journal) and Associate Lecturer at Singapore Institute of Management University. He's "from” China, Singapore, & the UK (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see: LinkedIn, facebook.com/APDLab, bii.a-star.edu.sg/research/trd/apd.php and books: A Practical Guide to the Logic, Philosophy, and Thoughts of Christianity (2009), Another Practical Guide to the Logic, Philosophy, and Thoughts of Christianity (2012), and A Guide to the Bible Lands: Jordan and Israel (2015).
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Samuel Gan.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Samuel Gan, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
For more Fusion articles, click here.