At Amgen, Dr. Isma Benattia leads a team working on innovative biopharma ideas. One of her biggest projects is leading the company’s Human Data Initiative, which uses an all-inclusive data approach to personalized medicine, resulting in better targeted treatments for specific patient populations.
It’s challenging work, and success isn’t always certain. But for Benattia, the company’s vice president of R&D strategy and operations, the challenge is the reward.
“Do what you consider to be the right thing to do,” she said. “Be creative and courageous. Find your rewards in the transformative projects you have initiated and implemented.”
Benattia, EMBA ’18, has more than 25 years of experience in the biopharma industry. She spoke with us about “Innovation Beyond the Molecule,” the philosophy book she’s reading, and how ambitious human data projects can improve lives.
What skill or ability has served you well in your work?
It’s a skill that you have to develop and nurture, which is: listening. Listen to people around you, listen to the ecosystem you work in, listen to the world around you and try to make sense of signals you are hearing to be able to come up with solutions that matter. Be humble and make sure that you are listening to people, to your teams’ and to patients’ needs. Be cognizant and do not assume that your ideas — no matter how good you think they are — are going to be their solution. It could be, but you will need to validate and adapt through feedback and active listening. This is what I consider sensemaking of the collective experience.
How do you (or your team) keep track of new ideas?
New ideas need to be captured and articulated in a plan to be executed on. This is the essence of innovation. Without a plan it is just a dream.
Every time I move to a new role or a new team, I try to create space or a forum where people can come with their innovative ideas. We pick the best ones and implement them. Very often people think that in the biotech industry innovation materializes only in medication: delivering a small molecule, an antibody, or a new therapy. In fact, innovation applies to all aspects of drug development. It could be changing a process or implementing a new technology. Innovation is the solution you bring to contribute and accelerate drug development and make it accessible to patients with unmet needs. We have recently implemented in R&D strategy and operations the concept of “Innovation Beyond the Molecule” and we have already seen important engagement of our staff.
Innovation Beyond the Molecule is a fun contest among staff enhancing a healthy competition and increasing team connectiveness and engagement by encouraging all teams and individuals at all levels to submit their innovative ideas. It could be an idea on automation, new ways of working, process optimization, portfolio strategy, etc. The message is simple: You own your destiny, you're doing the work, you know exactly what needs to change, so bring your idea! We keep track of all suggestions. Leadership is committed to reviewing all proposals and picking two to three winners. We recognize and reward winning teams in a large team meeting, then we track the implementation. It is a great engagement tool for the teams. It's very empowering and energizing.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected way did you grow from it?
The hardest lesson I have learned in my career is to be patient. Do not expect a direct correlation between your positive impact and immediate career progression. You need to focus your energy and find the inspiration within your projects and your team. Do what you think is the right thing to do. It is very rewarding on a personal level to see your contribution to the development of the group, to the organization.
So be patient, have fun, and really measure your impact with your legacy to your team and your company. You have to ask yourself: “If tomorrow I move to something different in my professional life, am I leaving a better group/place than when I walked in?” Because your professional capital is captured into the changes you have implemented with your unique leadership signature. Your legacy with your signature should be your focus and your main driver.
What are your most useful sources of information?
I start my day by listening to international news — geopolitical, economic, artistic — from different parts of the world. I look for different sources and make up my mind. I consider this time to anchor myself in daily realities.
It is also true when I am examining a scientific topic, I deep dive in different sources and references. It is part of my sensemaking exercise. I need this diversity in perspectives. I just cannot operate with one way of thinking only.
What is one thing you have read, watched, or listened to that informs your work today?
Right now, I'm going back to the classics. I have a book on my desk from Alfred Jules Émile Fouillée, “Extraits des grands philosophes,” which translates to “Text excerpts from the great philosophers.” It contains extracts from the work of the greatest philosophers of all time. I often pick a topic from the book that is related to something I'm experiencing or reflecting on. Some are easier reads than others, but it’s just fascinating how some of these ancient great thinkers’ texts are still very accurate in today’s world.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
My idea made to matter — at the macro level — is developing and investing in individuals, building the best team, and helping them take on big challenges. What matters to me are ideas to help us develop solutions to better serve patients worldwide.
Right now, I'm working on an exciting project entitled “Human Data Initiative.” I am often asked the question “What is your definition of human data?” My response: “Like ‘Human’ with a big ‘H.’” It encompasses data from multiple sources. It is linking biological sciences, including genomics and proteomics, with clinical and real-world data. The challenge is to transform this ocean of data into information and knowledge for scientists, clinicians, and patients. Ultimately, in health care, we want to be more accurate and precise, thus impactful for each patient. It is the objective of all clinicians. This combination is the accelerated path to precision medicine.
I know it is ambitious and we will need very powerful tools to combine data from these sources. And that's where artificial intelligence comes in to better develop and unify these different segments.
How are we going to integrate precision medicine into routine health care? I do not know yet. But the sciences and technology are guiding us toward this future. The journey toward precision medicine has started. This is not an on/off transformation project but will happen gradually. Every stakeholder in the health care ecosystem will have to contribute in building this new model, one stone at a time.