This week, we speak with Safi Bahcall, member of President Obama’s council of science advisors, and author of the book, “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.” In 2008, he was named E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year for his work on Synta Pharmaceuticals, which specialized in new drugs to treat cancer. Bahcall led its 2007 IPO on Nasdaq and served as Synta’s President & CEO for 13 years.
Bahcall discusses his experiences on Obama’s Council of Science Advisors. Shortly after he was appointed, he was told he should update Vannevar Bush’s guidelines to government innovation. Having never heard of Vannevar Bush, he dove into his history and discovered that Bush convinced Roosevelt to create the Office of Scientific Research and Development. In many ways, the OSRD created the technologies that allowed the US to win World War Two. Bahcall makes a strong argument that without the OSRD, the US would have lost the war to Nazi Germany.
The failure point for most innovations within institutions is in the transfer from the “innovators” to the “franchisees.” The group that is making the money for the company — “franchisees” — wants to stick with what is working, those projects that have a very high success rate. The group that is creating the game changing products — the “innovators” — is taking chances on ideas with a very high failure rate. Bridging the two groups is the role of leadership — something companies like Apple and Pixar have done very well.
We also discuss the unexpected surprise it was when Bill Gates named Loonshots to his list of favorite books in a WSJ Interview.
You can stream/download the full conversation, including the podcast extras on Apple iTunes, Overcast, Spotify, Google, Bloomberg, and Stitcher. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.
Next week, we speak with Barbara Tversky, professor of psychology at Stanford and Columbia, and author of Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought. Tversky was married to Amos Tversky, and helped Michael Lewis research his book on Tversky & Kahneman, The Undoing Project.
Safi Bahcall’s book
Safi Bahcall’s favorite books
Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg
Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi
How Life Imitates Chess. by Garry Kasparov with MIG Greengard by G.K. Kasparov
Books Barry Mentioned
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough