My official HR title is G4A Ventures Innovation Manager. “G4A” stands for our Digital Health Department. I work in San Francisco; Bayer has two locations here – one in the city itself (in Mission Bay) and one in Berkeley. We joined as a satellite team, were housed in a coworking space for a while, and will soon move to the Innovation Center in Mission Bay. The entire department consists of about 20 people and works at the intersection between health and technology. Our Ventures Team consists of five people and focuses on creating new revenue streams in the Pharma and Consumer Health divisions. The spectrum ranges from nutrition to oncology with the aim to identify and play in “white spaces”. We are supported in this by the Intelligence Team, among others, to identify the areas to explore. They answer questions such as: what are current trends? What new technologies are popping up or in development? Where are venture capital funds flowing? How is Bayer positioned in these areas today? In other words: which business opportunities do we consider to be particularly exciting and suitable for Bayer?
Realizing which projects we pursue and the innovations we focus on is a mixture of inside out and outside in: we bring ideas into the company and the Bayer Group brings challenges to us. For example, Bayer had tasked us of developing something in the nutritional space. Our location in the self-improvement state of California is predestined for such innovations.
What a typical week looks like
Our projects have two phases, so-called sprints, each lasting three months. The first sprint is about desirability, finding out what people want or which “frictions” existing products or services create. In the second sprint, an idea is worked out until it is ready for the market. Each member of our team of five has special expertise. I myself have a business background, studied international business at the Arnhem Business School in Holland and have been working in the innovation area at Bayer ever since. My job as a design researcher is to identify the problem. I’m looking into the question: what “frictions” can we observe from our consumers? Which problems do our customers have and which unmet needs result from these? The nice thing about my job is that we not only spend time in our office but also spend a lot of time outside with consumers. In a typical week in the first sprint, I spend three days in one-on-one interviews with people at home. It’s about qualitative research, which means that we want to ask a mixture of primary questions looking into what our consumers usually do and secondary questions to get to the core – the why.
Primary questions are questions that can be answered immediately without much thought. For example, “What do you usually eat for breakfast in the morning?” A secondary question goes deeper into the “why” and therefore requires more thought from the interviewees. Here lies the interesting field of tension to discover unmet needs.
A concrete example: for the nutritional project we visited 30 consumers at home and interviewed them for two hours. We looked into their refrigerators and cabinets to understand which products they use or tried to figure out why some of them weren’t used. What their needs were, and what wishes existing products or services might not have been able to meet at this moment. In these conversations, you often encounter contradictions because what people pretend or believe to do and what they really do are usually two different things. The psychological factor of social desire plays a role in this. One asks, for example, what a typical day looks like. Most of the time you hear the response, “I get up, do sports, then have breakfast in peace.” But how often does that really happen? That’s why we don’t just rely on interviews but try to get a more objective picture through observations. For example, we go to the shops and pharmacies and watch people make their purchasing decisions. Later in the process, we also do a lot of testing and work with focus groups. For example, there is the method of the sacrificial concept. These are prototypes that only serve to distil certain insights in order to better understand how we should design the product.
From idea to incubation
After this phase, it is a matter of gathering these impressions and observations. What have we learned? What insights have we gained? Everyone has 500 post its and they are all put up on the wall. It is during this synthesis – we work with Design Thinking – that our brainstorming first occurs. We first align on our insights gathered, ideate wildly for solutions and then decide on the top ideas. From there, we move on to the business case – a financial model and a go-to-market strategy are already set up. And we design a complete pitch including return on investment, time to market and more. We present this to Bayer’s Venture Board, which decides which ideas to further pursue. That’s when sprint number two begins.
In this phase, the incubation, it’s all about progressing the idea until it’s ready for the market. In addition to our five-member team, we bring in contractors – specialists for the respective challenge. In this phase, we are a team of 12 or 15 people and spend weeks in a large room. It is a conscious decision that we are separated from the parent company in terms of space and atmosphere so that people don’t keep stopping by, looking over our shoulders. A large part of the team are designers. Together with interaction designers and industrial designers, you can build an excellent experience that is really tailored to the needs of the target group. Not only practical considerations are taken into account, but also values and attitudes. We know, for example, that the younger generation in the USA (which is most probably similar in Germany) is very environmentally conscious and wants to avoid excessive waste. They don’t want plastic packaging. Haptics are decisive for how a product is accepted. At the end of the incubation, there is a prototype – a minimum viable product. This also means that we have already designed a supply chain and talked to respective partners. A complete business model with validated financial models will also be available by then. Time to a finished prototype only takes six months.
How I got my job
Basically, it was a coincidence. I wrote my thesis on business model innovation – it was about how best to develop new business models in a large company – and I did it using Bayer as an example. After graduating, I worked for two years at the headquarters in Leverkusen and, after restructuring, ended up in the Digital Health Department. After two years, I had the opportunity to go to New York to set up a start-up accelerator for consumer health. I spent almost a year there as a program coordinator and then moved to our Ventures Team in San Francisco.
The great thing about my job
For me, this role was completely new, with only a few familiar aspects such as business and financial considerations. I think it is a big advantage of the new working environment that you can take on roles for which you are not specially trained; we see more and more zigzag biographies. It’s about learning by doing. You are hired based on passion, the person is more important than the CV, and you learn skills quickly.
What appeals to me about my job is that we are very close to the consumer and their needs, instead of sitting in a black box and thinking about what would be nice and then presenting it to people. What drives you enormously, even through stressful times and long working days, is the team spirit. The feeling that we all take care of our “baby” is extremely rewarding. Sometimes two worlds crash into each other: here Bayer, as a large corporation, and the small, agile group. It’s not always possible without friction, but it’s quite intentional.
And I think it’s great to be part of a multinational team. I’m the only German; my colleagues come from Israel, Spain, Cuba, and the USA. Of course, this often means diverse ideas and different approaches to work but these frictions make the result all the better.Tags: Business Models, Design Research, Digital industries, Health Department, Innovation, Insights, Tech, Work-Life