You have got to be kidding! That is all I could think two and a half years ago when I got off the phone with members of the CASIS team after being presented with the opportunity for Eli Lilly and Company to fly experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). Now, as our first experiments are launched and we have more to launch later in the year, I still have trouble believing it is really happening.
One thing I do not have trouble believing is the value that this opportunity brings to Eli Lilly and Company. When we set out to develop the experiments we would run, we had three requirements—the experiments needed to be of scientific value to Lilly, to NASA, and to people on Earth in general.
Some may ask, why spend time designing experiments for the ISS National Lab? These are experiments in which we actually want to see the results and will apply what we learn. In addition, these are all experiments that we are not able to get the results we need performing them on Earth—we need the unique microgravity environment of the ISS. What we did not understand is the kind of value the program would have for our company in other ways.
What we did not expect were the conversations around the fundamental concepts upon which our science is based. The most basic activities such as filling a vial with water have led us back to conversations around hydrogen bonding and surface tension in liquids—and that is before we actually run the experiment!
These kinds of situations and the conversations that arise lead us to reconsider what we do and what we know about our science. It causes us to reflect on our work in a way that we would not have otherwise taken the time to do. It makes us have cross-organizational conversations that lead us to new paths and other interesting possibilities. In addition, through the program, we have been introduced to new partners and new ways of thinking. These are seemingly minor activities that result in the cross-pollination of ideas and techniques, but this is how innovation happens.
Eli Lilly and Company has a history of innovation. From the early years of the company, innovation has been at the heart of our success and can be seen in the great products we have delivered over the past 140 years. Usually, when a company says it is innovative, products are pointed to as examples. But often, it is not just the “what you made,” but the “how you made it” that embodies innovation and ensures that you will continue to be able to deliver great products for years to come.
The Eli Lilly and Company program to run experiments on the ISS has been of value as a catalyst for innovation at Lilly in its own way. In addition to getting us excited about being part of something special, it has pushed us to think differently and to talk about science in ways we used to as students. Now, even before we have gotten results from our experiments, it has been a positive influence on us. Once we get the results, I am sure it will send us off in other new directions toward yet unknown innovations.