Ken Gabriel, CEO, Draper Labs

Interview: Ken Gabriel, president and CEO, Draper Labs

Image credit: Nick Smith

As president and CEO of Draper Labs, Ken Gabriel is a keen advocate for the evolution of technology through ‘disciplined innovation’. He argues that innovation isn’t just about incremental improvements, but also means pioneering new ways of doing things in order to create new capabilities.

For the most part “business people don’t know how to talk to technologists and technologists don’t know how to talk to business people”. These are the words of Ken Gabriel, CEO of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory – better known as ‘Draper Labs’ – the MIT-spin-off R&D organisation, famed for developing the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) and thus helping to put the first man on the Moon.

Gabriel, who is by qualification and experience both engineer and entrepreneur, understands this communication problem better than most. While being simultaneously a business person and technologist hardly makes him unique in the innovation space, he comes to his assessment of “one of the main barriers to innovation” with a management track record that makes his views hard to ignore. We can’t have a complete understanding of what everyone else is doing in a complex and concurrent world of technology innovation, he says, “but it shouldn’t mean that we can’t talk to one other”.

Today, Draper Labs is a $500m-turnover not-for-profit organisation employing some 1,500 people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other US locations. While it is still very much involved in space technology – “guidance navigation control continues to be a core competency and is half of our work” – the organisation is also engaged in the security, healthcare and energy sectors. Gabriel, who was appointed CEO in 2014, comes from a heady mix of government agencies, electronics start-ups and multinational technology giants.

He is a staunch advocate for ‘disciplined innovation’, something that has helped move Draper from “being an organisation with solid bones” to “something with a lot more to offer the commercial world”. Although established in 1932, Draper didn’t officially separate from MIT until the early 1970s. “Today, we’re only two blocks away from Mom and Dad,” says Gabriel, “but there’s no oversight or anything like that and we get on with our own thing. Yet everything we do today stems from that strong base.”

As the epithet suggests, ‘disciplined innovation’ aligns contributions from all areas of the product development ecosystem, the key to which, and a point that Gabriel returns to several times, is good communication between commercial and technical personnel (essentially those who make the money and those who make the product). “It requires a common language. You often see a situation where there’s a scientist talking about something the sales guy won’t even know what it is, much less why it’s important. Being able to translate and lay on the same map the operational capability of a product or service in terms of its underlying technology is the cornerstone of how I try to manage innovation. Let’s get these people to talk.”

Part of the reason for this barrier is historical, in that a generation ago professional managers were much more likely to allow innovation to happen in a silo. Gabriel says that the days of the CEO using expressions such as “I leave that to the technical people” are over. At their worst, those times were characterised by a scenario where product development was as compartmentalised as “the technologists invented something and the sales people tried to sell it”. If the resulting product sold well, the sales department became heroes; if it tanked then the boffins were at fault for not delivering something that would sell. But it’s not like that today, or it shouldn’t be, says Gabriel, who is as happy “fiddling with spreadsheets” as he is hanging out with the Draper scientists.

“It is important that the innovation people understand the business, while at the same time the business people understand the technology. It’s not that one is worse or less important than the other. It’s just that business leaders make better decisions when they understand. They don’t have to understand technology on the same level as technologists do. Yet we have to distil – not simplify – what’s going on. We don’t need pictures of Mr Electron to help us. But we do need to understand what is going on to allow us to sell blue LEDs.”

Today, says Gabriel, we live “in a world that is in desperate need of technological advances, while companies are not learning from the breakthrough innovation projects of the past. Most global spend on innovation winds up being merely evolutionary, when it could be revolutionary. The problem is that too many companies don’t really know how to manage innovation. They treat it as a linear process or a dark art. What is needed is a different approach.”

At this point, Gabriel reminds me of the old adage that scientists study the world as it is, while engineers create new ones. “What has always excited me is how we can look at this world and advance technologies to create new capabilities – this is what innovation is to me. Too often innovation is equated to advances in technology. Yet that doesn’t matter to me unless the technology reaches a tipping point where we get a new way of doing things that you couldn’t do before.”

Where companies get it wrong is that they either micromanage innovation to the point where “at best you get incremental improvements. Or they go about ‘innovation as art’, giving all these guys all this money and just seeing what comes out of it.” As for focus groups, this is essentially listening to people who don’t know what they want, “which I refer to as the worst of both worlds”. For Gabriel, innovation cannot be about looking at an old product and saying that you want it faster, lighter and cheaper. “People seem to believe that if you get a 10 per cent advance on technology you’ll get a 10 per cent advance in capability. But it doesn’t work that way.”

‘People seem to believe that if you get a 10 per cent advance on technology you’ll get a 10 per cent advance in capability. But it doesn’t work that way’

Ken Gabriel

We also need to factor in key attributes of the major breakthroughs of the past, from the Apollo space missions to the development of the internet, says Gabriel. These are classic examples of disciplined innovation that “involve reaching for bold new capabilities rather than technological advances – the ability to walk on the Moon, rather than an increase in rocket thrust. Committing to deadlines and budgetary constraints. Freedom from business-as-usual organisational rules.”

The 62-year-old manager has enough experience to know what he’s talking about. His CV reads like more than one person’s, having put in two stints at the United States Department of Defense, eventually becoming acting director of Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which is where he developed his enthusiasm for leadership in large technology enterprises, “while turning technology into actual utility capability and use”.

After a few years in academia, Gabriel, widely regarded as the architect of the micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) industry, decided in 2002 to “eat my own dog food” and co-founded Akustica, a fabless semiconductor company that commercialised MEMS audio devices and sensors. Akustica took the use of digital microphones out of the ‘academic space’ and shipped six million units to the consumer electronics industry. The company was sold to Bosch in 2009.

“I learned a tremendous amount in growing that company from nothing to about 80 people, with customers such as HP and Dell. It’s funny how things go back and forth. Darpa informed many of the ways I approached the start-up, and that learning was taken back with me to Darpa the second time I was there. I did think that on leaving the agency for a second time I’d go for another start-up, but if you recall around 2012 Google had just bought Motorola and was trying to reinvent that organisation.”

At that time, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin were keen to create a Darpa-like organisation out of Motorola, that was to become the Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) group, founded by Gabriel, “which was a private sector ground-up model of Darpa. I was there for two years, started up eight projects, one of which is essentially the core of the augmented reality platform for all Google products.”

At this point another start-up was on Gabriel’s mind but, having been approached by a head-hunter looking to appoint a president for Draper Labs, his career took another direction. “If you think about what’s needed to continue Draper’s development of the guidance system, it is the continual advancement and development of materials, sensors, signal processing and imaging. This is what made the company attractive to me. I consider Draper’s strength to be its ability to integrate different technologies – some of which it has developed itself, some of which come from the outside – to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. You can apply that to the guidance systems or the synthetic technology systems we’re doing. Draper is a technology solutions organisation and this is what resonated with me. When I looked at what the company was looking for, this was exactly what I was able to bring to it. There was the perspective of federal research. Big company research. Start-up capabilities.”

While Gabriel has spent much of his career in high-powered management roles, these days he seems to be happier to be involved with an organisation that has societal ideals embedded in its philosophy. This means that by joining an independent not-for-profit organisation he has changed course, leaving clear opportunities for wealth and status on the table. This doesn’t bother him because he sees his role now “as giving something back. But it goes beyond that because there is the freedom to do things at a place like Draper that is not available if you are in a publicly traded company with analysts, shareholders, quarterly progress reports. I don’t mean to imply that any of that is bad, but there is a certain level of freedom that comes from being an independent not-for-profit that I enjoy, appreciate and try to put to good use.”

One example is the investment Draper is making to capture aspects of the Apollo space exploration programme for posterity, “putting some sense to, and digitising, the million artefacts we have. What’s the return on that? There’s a cultural benefit. But from a strictly commercial point of view there isn’t much to excite stakeholders.”

Gabriel takes it as axiomatic that innovation plays a vital role in society and that it is part of the human condition that we will never stop innovating. So where does he think that innovation as an abstract societal force is going? “I believe that there are some general areas that are going to be commercial, cultural and personal drivers in innovation.”

He thinks two areas will have an impact immediately. “One is autonomous vehicles: air, land, sea. We are on the cusp in terms of capabilities, usability and the effectiveness of those sorts of systems. There is also a question of acceptance, which is fundamental to that sort of change. I’m not going to predict exactly what kind of innovations there will be because I think the prediction game is deadly. You either under- or over-predict. Generally for good reasons. Yet the broad area of autonomous systems is going to be an increasing part of our lives and will be driving innovation.”

Second is personalised medicine. It took a decade and a billion dollars to sequence DNA, says Gabriel, and now “for $200 we can take a swab and 10 days later we get a result. So we’ve figured out how to read DNA, but so what? The next big thrust, which I think we are beginning to see elements of with CAR T-cell therapy, one of the most promising advances in cancer therapy ever, is the forefront of personalised medicine. This is a fundamental change in the way we attack all sorts of diseases by tailoring treatment specifically to the individual because we can read their DNA.”

One reason personalised medicine is so significant, says Gabriel, is that it marks a step-change in the way we address disease. “Since the pharmaceutical industry began we’ve only shot for the middle” of the distribution curve and accepted that the outliers “didn’t do so well. Now we know what to do with the data. But we need a tremendous amount of innovation. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of being able to read that DNA. Once we can begin to craft bespoke medicines that are extremely effective (but only for you), you raise the question of what that means for the manufacturability of those drugs. What does that mean for the business? How do you make money from that? You can’t afford to produce bespoke drugs if they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s not a good endgame for technology.”

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