This former CTO left a $37 billion insurance giant to found a VR startup. Here's how he says innovation can stop being killed in large companies.
- Companies have tried various approaches to encouraging innovation in their workforces, including launching in-house incubator programs, but finding success in those startup camps remains a challenge.
- Aaron Gani, who previously served as insurer Humana's chief technology officer and now runs a startup called BehaVR, says one of the main problems is the internal feuds over funding.
- The key to unleashing innovation, he says, is to "break the back of the resource competition" that well-meaning employees are naturally drawn to.
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Big companies have a "resource competition" issue baked into to their business model, says Aaron Gani, and it's driving away innovation-hungry talent.
Gani spent a dozen years at Humana, the $37 billion insurer, eventually becoming the chief technology officer. While he saw insurance deploying all sorts of policies and incentives to get people to actual change to healthier behavior - adherence, or getting people to do things, has been called medicine's "weakest link" - he came to realize that those efforts still couldn't quite reach people. They stopped short of "getting inside somebody's head," he tells Business Insider. But virtual reality, with its powerful, if early, therapeutic results, possibly could.
Hence BehaVR (as in behavior), the company Gani founded in 2016, which reportedly now has partnerships with chronic pain and substance abuse centers in Kentucky, where the company is based, with plans to fundraise next year.
Gani left Humana because, in addition to a lifelong desire to run his own company, the startup approach made sense for trying to solve a pressing health challenge - actually getting people to adhere to what's best for their wellbeing - while using a still unfamiliar technology, that of VR.
His story highlights a familiar issue in corporate America: retaining the talent that wants to actually drive change.
"Almost every big company out there struggles with this challenge of 'how do you enable true innovation from the inside,'" he says. "How do you really free the innovators?"
Feuds over funding are a major impediment to creating the startup mentality in corporations
Companies naturally want to keep top employees and have tried a number of solutions to tackle that goal, including launching in-house incubator programs. But those business development programs can be hard to manage and often fall victim to corporate politics, Gani says.
A key part of the problem is the battle over financial resources and the desire among executives to invest in their own top priorities.
Corporations, Gani argues, are a lot like machine learning, where ideal behavior is reinforced after repeated successes. And while almost any leader will back the need to innovate, it can be difficult to convince organizations to change those long-standing protocols to make it happen.
"You are trying to support the attainment of your organization's, or division's, or team's goals, even if it's at the expense of other things. Those are the rules of the game. You need to do that to succeed," he said. "What you're asking leaders to do is act in a way that is in conflict with the things that they have learned over many, many years."
Unleashing innovation within a company, Gani says, requires firms to "break the back of the resource competition that rational, smart, well-meaning actors will align to." That means overcoming the internal politics that can dictate which projects to fund.
Gani holds Alphabet, and in particular Verily, the tech giant's healthcare research center, up as an example. The life sciences arm, he argues, is not bound by the constraints and budgets of its owner. Instead, its raised over $1 billion in outside funding for products like a 'tech-enabled' center to help treat opioid addiction.
Other innovators have found that you can try to avoid the resource battle all together.
B.J. Moore, the chief information officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, knew it was unlikely he would get new resources to try to drive spur the kinds of digital changes he wanted to at the health provider. Instead, Moore - who previously served as a vice president at Microsoft - got approval to use any savings he could generate within his own department to fund advanced tech upgrades.
The hope is to eventually invest in applications like those that can proactively identify patients with troubling health factors before they even step foot inside the hospital.
"There is not this big cash inflow to do these advanced things," Moore told Business Insider. "I put my finance hat on and try to spend energy on trying to capture additional dollars."
Top tech executives should look externally to drive the internal change they desire
For chief technology officers and others who are trying to create a more collaborative environment, Gani recommends looking for outside hires that can compliment their vision. Once you on-board someone, he says companies need to strive to create an environment that allows the new individual to tackle the more transformative projects without fear of backlash from existing staffers.
Moore, for example, tapped Rick Stover, an old colleague at Microsoft. He started as St. Joseph Health's chief technology officer on Monday. Stover will help in transitioning the provider's operations to Microsoft's Azure cloud platform and consolidating 14 different electronic health record systems into one.
The company is preparing to move its first private data center to Azure at the end of September, an accomplishment that "really invigorated the team," according to Moore.
Corporations largely have no choice but to continue to try to innovate as technology like AI advance quickly. And as the battle for talent becomes more intense, it's imperative for executives to retain top employees. But it remains to be seen whether the various approaches firms are taking, like in-house incubators, really work.
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