While thinking about someone truly inspiring, who shares our core values about “bringing innovation to impact”, it came immediately natural to reach out to Annie Moisan for this dialogue. Why? Because for us it is important to show that groundbreaking innovation initiatives, beyond the usual schemes, are possible - whether you are from academia, from industry, from a non-profit organization, or from a start-up company. By delivering this conversation to your mailbox, we hope to inspire everyone to believe in themselves and take action toward better futures. Furthermore, we would like to thank all those who are equally committed and convincing others of their ideas – it is you who make a difference for a better tomorrow. We are here to support you, network you with other players, and help you find new ways: By offering early-stage programs for start-ups, grants for spin-offs, events for everyone interested in shaping the future, and projects that merge research and industry. At the Innovation Office, we not only bring together brave minds from diverse fields but offer an ecosystem that fosters sustainable social impact. Join us!
Alessandro Mazzetti: Before we start, can you briefly introduce yourself?
Annie Moisan: Simply put, I am an advocate of leveraging human biology for human health. I like to think big, and believe that together we can always achieve more. Already during my Ph.D. and postdoc, I worked on molecular mechanisms of cancer and stem cell biology. In 2011, I spearheaded the transfer of stem cell technology from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute to Roche Innovation Center Basel, whose objective was to identify molecules that could modulate liver and fat cell metabolism and thus treat metabolic disorders. In the following decade in pharma, I worked on developing and implementing Microphysiological Systems (MPS), a new generation of in vitro models that mimic human tissue structures and functions and that may be superior to animal models when it comes to understanding human diseases and treatments.
Wow, that sounds like a major task! Tell us more about it.
It is a grand challenge that requires firstly a coordinated, multidisciplinary effort and secondly determination in a highly regulated environment to change the status quo. It’s a fantastic example of how the full potential of the technology can only be harnessed if innovators/developers and end-users/stakeholders have an open dialog. Ideally, this happens from the very beginning.
Did it always work out that way?
Unfortunately not! To be honest: In addition to time constraints, a frustrating obstacle I encountered in that endeavor was the risk-averse mindset of sponsors that prevented the field from tackling the bigger challenges that could truly be transformative.
“I am the ‘know-how connector’ and ‘what-for integrator’, with the will to elevate scientific innovation to purposefulness and, hopefully, societal impact.”
Since you aren't one to hide your head in the sand, you certainly could not accept this situation.
(laughs) No. Quite the opposite, I found the perfect opportunity at Wellcome Leap, a non-profit organization whose mission to generate scientific breakthroughs requires us to push boundaries and take risks. We build, execute and fund bold, unconventional programs at the crossroads of life sciences and engineering. All Leap programs target complex human health challenges with the goal of achieving breakthrough scientific and technological solutions.
What is your role at Leap? Can you elaborate??
Since 2020, I am the director of the HOPE Program (Human Organs, Physiology and Engineering), a $50M program that aims at replicating complex human organs and immune system functions and interactions by leveraging the power of bioengineering to advance stem cells, organoids, and organ systems and connections. I define the vision and proactively lead and orchestrate multi-ecosystem teams that collaborate to solve problems they cannot solve alone – in particular, recreating complex immune responses in vitro and restoring tissue immunity and function in vivo. My role is to show the path to innovation within a 4 to 5-year timeframe, which is two to three times faster than a typical research grant. It is extremely rewarding to have gathered academic groups and start-ups that are willing to take risks and explore new territories together. By doing so, we reduce risk aversion, increase confidence, and boost our belief that we are making a difference in the journey we are all on together - this is truly motivating…
“To be honest: In addition to time constraints, a frustrating obstacle I encountered in that endeavor was the risk-averse mindset of sponsors that prevented the field from tackling the bigger challenges that could truly be transformative.” Bringing together so many different perspectives is surely not an easy thing to do. We'd love to hear about your success factors.
The ability to create a vision that inspires an entire community to action is crucial for my success in my role. I must possess sufficient technical or scientific knowledge, be a natural risk taker, and have adequate technical or scientific knowledge. Teamwork, collaboration, and synchronicity are just some of the key elements. In short, this means: I am the “know-how connector” and “what-for integrator”, with the will to elevate scientific innovation to purposefulness and, hopefully, societal impact.
As a driver of a positive impact on society, what does innovation mean to you?
Innovation occurs when scientific advances contribute a measurable, positive impact on society, either globally or on a specific group of users. Innovations that lead to 10 times improvements and more – breakthroughs, can make the impossible possible. It’s simply thrilling to me to think about it! It gives me hope – no words of play with the HOPE Program! (laughs) Through innovation, society can find solutions to problems, survive threats, and adapt to uncontrolled disturbances. When conducted with the highest standards of ethics and transparency, and at scale, innovations can truly contribute to shaping a better future.
Still, if we talk about the HOPE Program for a moment: what does innovation mean here?
At HOPE, we ask: What if, by bioengineering functional organs and immune systems, we could double: the predictive value of preclinical studies for immunotherapies, and the 5-year survival rate of patients awaiting an organ transplant? We use metrics of progress towards those goals: How much is needed, and of what exactly? What is a convincing demonstration and what is a relevant fiducial? For example, to demonstrate the value of our bioengineered predictive platform, we have reached out to pharma partners willing to share pre/clinical assets and knowledge with us, so that we can challenge the system against real-world problems and evidence.
“Momentum arises when the right technology meets the right people at the right time.”
When it comes to turning innovations and discoveries into tangible products or services for the benefit of people and patients (in medicine), what do you believe are the most important factors?
In my career, I have been mainly active from early discovery to proof-of-concept studies, so the way I can best bring innovation to people is at the translational tilting point. I work in the use-inspired research space. I bring biologists and engineers to elaborate System Demonstrations, i.e. a set of integrated experiments that, if successful, will convince us that we are creating value. Alongside System Demonstrations, we build the necessary capabilities to transform one-lab experiments into reproducible, scalable solutions. Our bold ambition is to bioengineer functional, transplantable kidneys for dialysis patients. 3D printing, human stem cells, and organoids are combined to recreate miniaturized renal filtration units.
With a solid Proof of Concept, we can hope to get to investors and entrepreneurs, and ultimately to end-users. Awareness of the overall process is determinant. Momentum arises when the right technology meets the right people at the right time.
In relation to your "products", how do you see the relationship between naturalness and artificiality? When should one be protected, and when does it make sense to place research and all activity into artificial nature? Can we say that one is better than the other? Shouldn't we weigh them both equally?
I love your question! My easy answer: It depends, semantically and contextually. There is fluidity between the two concepts, and I tend to give more importance to the global footprint and end use of innovation than its naturalness as a whole, at least in my field of expertise. When I genetically engineer a stromal cell to produce high levels of liver enzyme in the fat tissue of a patient, what is the naturalness/artificiality score? Generally speaking, nature-inspired artificial solutions have proved useful in medicine, nutrition, agriculture, and the environment. We mimic nature for a variety of reasons, including preservation, intellectual property generation, product development, and marketing. There is no question of weighing one against the other, but rather of weighing their combined potential against the desired impact and taking contraindications into account.
“The more we listen and try to understand the reasons for pushback, the more likely we are to transform skepticism into curiosity.”
"You can invent alone, but you can't innovate alone" – your activities show how public-private partnerships are a promising way to address very hard challenges through multi-stakeholder collaboration. How can diverse and collaborative partnerships achieve real impact?
Collaborations aimed at achieving impact are very challenging because they can fail. It's important to acknowledge that not everyone, individual or organization, is made for high-risk,high-reward projects. The scientific expertise and mindset of a team are equally important. Leaders of collaborative projects should use their emotional intelligence and intuition from the outset, and tailor team compositions to the goals and objectives of the project. Make it a win-win situation for all!
How can we communicate innovation not only as a technological innovation but as a change of mindset and social processes in society? How do you approach this?
Science communication is essentially fact-based and aims to persuade. But when confronted with “new”, do we want to be convinced or do we want to be understood? The more we listen and try to understand the reasons for pushback, the more likely we are to transform skepticism into curiosity. Innovative products and services are more likely to be adopted if a sense of mutual benefit is built. While educating myself on new modalities of vaccination, I realized that many people are uncomfortable in gray zones, moments of uncertainty where new evidence thickens rather than disperses the clouds. Even though black and white portraits aren't factually accurate, they provide clarity and comfort and are more likely to become the truth for the individual. Predigested rock-solid theories are more attractive.
We need profound paradigm shifts in education; I believe one is teaching children critical thinking and change management as a powerful weapon against fear and a catalyst for personal growth, which together will prepare the mind for novelty, whether it be technological or relational.
“Through innovation, society can find solutions to problems, survive threads, and adapt to uncontrolled disturbances. When conducted with the highest standards of ethics and transparency, and at scale, innovations can truly contribute to shaping a better future.”
Let’s look into the future: What would your ideal society look like if you could sketch it?
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals have been met, and we work globally and regionally to maintain a sustainable future. The 18th goal I have? The creation of a holistic and comprehensive approach to human health based on the principles of personalized lifestyles and the prevention of diseases - global access to nutrition, diagnostics, real-time monitoring, and noninvasive interventions. With existing technologies, it is actually mostly feasible, but major obstacles are likely to be funding models and incentives to shift from lucrative disease treatments to disease prevention.
Alessandro Mazzetti is building partnerships and breaking barriers between academia and industry at the Innovation Office University of Basel. He has a scientific background in aerospace engineering & rocket science, and about 10-years work experience in bringing innovations to life by bridging different stakeholders from research, start-ups, and large industry. At the Innovation Office, he is responsible for the Innovation Collaborations area, which builds partnerships to tackle societal challenges in many different areas: from tough tech to digital health, from life sciences to agrifood, and beyond! Follow him here.