Fostering Innovation in Academic Medicine

A conversation with Chris Coburn, Executive Director for Innovation, Cleveland Clinic

By Jennifer J. Salopek

 Your job title is Executive Director for Innovation. Are you the first to hold that title, and what message does it send about innovation at the Cleveland Clinic?

Coburn: I was recruited by the Clinic in 2000 to create an innovations group. The organization had approached innovation differently in the past, and hoped to get a new take. They previously had attempted a turnaround XXX, and hoped to unify their efforts to enhance innovation and commercialize applications. There were three people in the group when I started; now there are 65.

Was the organizational culture at the Cleveland Clinic ready for that kind of proactive approach?

Coburn: Commercial application is very consistent with the culture the Clinic has had since its founding in 1921. I believe that if you want to see rapid deployment, you must have active collaboration with industry; seamless handoffs are not realistic. So we have tried to inspire a culture of risk-taking.

What are the main challenges you face?

Coburn: As a 501(c)(3) academic institution, our founding tenets are education, research, and patient care. Although commercial interactions are required to attain full expression of our innovations, it’s something we’ve had to work at. The culture is not always pointing in the same direction, and our reward structure is more oriented toward traditional academia.

How do you address those challenges?

Coburn: We hold inventors’ forums, departmental presentations, and our very well-known annual Innovations Summit. These activities and many others are all aimed at increasing cultural alignment.

What foundational pieces have you put in place to foster a culture of innovation?

Coburn: There are three main pieces: 1) We get successes and communicate them to everyone in the system. The folks on our clinical staff are uniformly smart; we just try to give them examples and role models. We celebrate early wins and try to give them—and their inventors—an identity.

2) We built a great team that includes a mix of engineers, biologists, biochemists, molecular biologists, MDs, lawyers, PhDs, and MBAs. It’s a diverse group with a wide range of functions, but cohesion is essential. We promote innovation by brainstorming means to address market voids, and are now running innovation functions for other institutions around the country as well.

3) We foster open innovation via collaboration. In big academic medical centers, the means to that is not always clear, but we are experimenting with ways to use collaboration well. We have posted two challenges on InnoCentive, in which problem solvers compete for a prize. At a more basic level, though, we’ve taken an evolving approach to medical research, realizing that it doesn’t always have to be the same model. Our field is undergoing fundamental shifts, and we can use new developments.

Are there people in the organization who think this overt commercialization is a sellout, a corruption of the vaunted triple mission?

Coburn: The folks who deliver care ideally benefit from their interaction with the commercial collaborators. The ferment in significant, and makes us better at our core mission.

Iteration has always been a top priority and is integrated into every discipline at Cleveland Clinic. Although it stands alone as a function, innovation is everywhere here.

—Jennifer J. Salopek is managing editor of the Wing of Zock. She can be reached at