What Does Innovation Look Like When You’re Solving the World’s Toughest Problems?

If you work for an organization whose mission is to design new solutions for the world’s most difficult and important problems—national security, space exploration, healthcare, energy—innovation must be at the core of your culture. That’s exactly what attracted Draper president and CEO Dr. Kaigham (Ken) J. Gabriel to Draper in 2014.

Prior to taking the helm at this not-for-profit engineering company in Cambridge, MA, Gabriel established and led the Advanced Technology and Projects group at Google and served as deputy director turned Acting Director of the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense. A tenured professor in both the Robotics Institute and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Gabriel was also a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, a research scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory, and a research principal investigator at AT&T Bell Laboratories.

Many people think of independent not-for-profits as charities or philanthropies. However, Draper is unique in that it’s an engineering and innovation company that makes a profit, but invests it back into the organization in terms of equipment, facilities, and people. Traditionally, Draper’s work focused on national defense and security applications. Increasingly, Draper has broadened its focus to include cascading solutions that are useful and important to the commercial world. The organization’s innovations span everything from the inertial guidance systems that were on the Apollo guidance computer that took humans to the moon and back, all the way to more recent solutions for autonomous vehicles, biotech, and biopharma.

In this interview with Perspectives, Gabriel shares how Draper fosters innovation in every aspect of the business, from core values to culture to processes and engineering.

What excites you most about your CEO role at Draper?

KG: What I like doing, professionally and personally, is solving problems and creating new capabilities. And that is really the essence of what Draper does. We create advanced capabilities that are engineering-based—[these are] new ways of doing things, things that have never been done before.

How do Draper’s core values directly promote innovation?

KG: One of our core values is being bold in your reach, encouraging people to not worry about the risk of failure, and going for something that may seem beyond their grasp. That turns out to be something that’s really important to the culture.

Another core value that we live by because it’s so important to innovation is the diversity of input that comes in. It’s not just diversity in [the traditional way]. It’s diversity of viewpoints, diversity of perspectives, diversity of experience. It’s the only way you get all those things coming in to be productive, and [you] deliver those sorts of innovations [by treating] each and all with respect.

“One of our core values is being bold in your reach, encouraging people to not worry about the risk of failure, and going for something that may seem beyond their grasp.” —Dr. Ken Gabriel, President and CEO, Draper

How are these core values reflected in Draper’s work?

KG: I think one of the key elements that we have as part of our core values is that we specifically ask people to be bold in their reach, not to pull back. One of the mechanisms that enables us to do that is that we don’t have shareholders to give dividends back to; we don’t have analysts looking at the performance of stock because we don’t have stock. And that allows us the freedom to look at longer-term projects or things that aren’t necessarily immediately obvious in their return on investment. This part of the way we work is reflected in our core values. You don’t just talk about your core values, you live them.

You have a staff full of engineers and scientists, very smart people all focused on innovation. How do you attract and retain top talent at Draper?

KG: One of the things that’s important about what motivates all people, but particularly technical people, is to see some benefit and outcome of their work. They want to know that they’ve made a difference. One of the things that contributes to a culture of innovation is giving people an opportunity to work on things that matter.

As I mentioned, we encourage people to be bold in their reach, to not worry about the risk of failure. That’s possible because we’re big enough where we have enough breadth and depth of the different skill sets needed to solve those sorts of challenges. But we’re also small enough that we can move quickly and give people opportunities earlier in their careers than they might get somewhere else. So that’s very much what attracts people to this culture.

How do you continuously cultivate innovation at Draper? Is there an example that comes to mind?

KG: One of the ways in which I think it’s important to cultivate innovation is through an approach which I call “disciplined innovation.” It can feel like those two words don’t belong together because most people believe that the more freedom you give, the less constraints you put on people, the greater the innovation. In fact, my experience is that it’s the exact opposite.

Can you describe how disciplined innovation works?

KG: You give people that ability to pursue bold capabilities, but that’s only one part of disciplined innovation. The second part is that, counter-intuitively, you give them fixed time frames and budgets. When you give people fixed time frames and budgets, they stay focused on what’s essential to reaching the bold goal. They don’t worry about their title; they don’t worry about their job description. They are impatient with anything that gets in the way of doing their work. You tend to get things on a very fast time scale and things that you wouldn’t even believe are possible because of that focus.

The final element of disciplined innovation is that people need to operate with independence from the rest of the organization’s processes. This means independence to hire, to write contracts, to do other things. Without that, you can encourage people to have bold goals, you can tell them to go fast and with agility, but if they run into the normal “appropriate” business process, they won’t be able to achieve that innovation. We focus a lot on getting those three things right to make people successful in the innovations they pursue.

What are some examples of Draper’s innovation that excite you most?

KG: Well, I think I expected it, but I have been more than pleased with how far those expectations have been exceeded by the extent to which this organization can significantly contribute to making some fundamental advances in new capabilities and breaking, challenging and solving some really hairy problems that have been around for a while.

One example is in the areas of biopharma, biotechnology, and precision medicine. I believe we are on the verge of the idea that drugs or therapies are no longer going to be generic. Rather than a particular therapy or drug that’s developed for a large class of treatments, there’s going to be something specifically developed for you or for me, essentially a customer of one. That has really profound implications: How can we proficiently produce that therapy for just one person? Will it fundamentally turn on its head what it means to certify a drug? If there’s only a customer of one, do we really need the level of testing that’s currently done? If we are going to be developing those sorts of capabilities, how are we going to fundamentally change the testing, the qualification, and the production of drugs when we’re talking about a single recipient?

To me, that’s really interesting. That’s exactly the sort of engineering innovation that Draper can contribute to in partnership with biopharma and biotech companies.

For more on Draper, check out its customer story page.