For Pharma, Who Will Be the Kane Waselenchuks of Tomorrow?

Kane Waselenchuk is far and away the best racquetball player in the world, once winning a staggering 137 straight matches. He has won seven U.S. Open Racquetball Championships and is still at the peak of his game.

Waselenchuk’s success is attributed to his sheer brilliance and innovation—his ability to see angles on the court and hit shots that other players would not even conceive of and consider. As the New York Times notes, Walenchuk never had a formal coach until after he was already a professional. “He never had anyone enforcing the idea that there were right and wrong ways to play; never had anyone to impose regimented habits on him, or constrain his creativity."

Waselenchuk’s effect on his sport is similar to that Tiger Woods had on golf a decade ago. “He’s doing very unconventional things, and I think many of us are stuck a decade before,” says another racquetball pro. “When Kane brought these different game styles to us, it kind of throws us all off. But we’re finding ways to compete with him and in turn, that’s making all of us and the sport better."

When Steve Jobs passed away last year, a ridiculous number of writers and bloggers in pharma (and every industry for that matter) posited and pondered the question, “Who will be our Steve Jobs?” Or, “What can we learn from Steve?” I posit that there are already bold and unconventional thinkers out there transforming our industry, chief among them Bill Gates. Gates’ ability to focus first on patient needs and on solving our industry’s most difficult and pressing problems sets him apart. (Having a bit of cash in the bank hasn’t hurt his efforts.) Forbes' Matthew Herper has been the leading journalist chronicling Gates' ideas and importance to Pharma; he has also commented on why Jobs' approach doesn't necessarily translate well to our industry.

Many of us in the U.S.—and really educators around the world—are expressing concern about the next generation of thinkers and innovators. They are zeroing in on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education and how it can spawn the next generation of scientists—whether those on the order of brilliance of a Jobs or Gates, or those important creative people who will fill the varied skills needs that life sciences companies will have in the future.

One danger going forward is that we make STEM subjects more rote and “rigorous” than they already are, writes Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science magazine. “Although rigor might appear to be a worthy goal, the unfortunate result of this persistent view is that difficult concepts are taught too early in the science curriculum, and they are taught with an overly strict attention to rules, procedure, and rote memorization.”

“We have managed to simultaneously trivialize and complicate science education,” Alberts says. An anecdote from my personal life: My fourth-grade daughter, who attends a fairly unconventional and progressive school, is currently head over heels in an architecture project that her teacher has devised. The study has included trips to Chicago area architectural landmarks, and of course opportunities for the students to brainstorm and design their own buildings and structures, with only minimal guidance from the teacher. It’s been eye-opening to see how my little girl has tapped her own internal Waselenchuk.

When her aunt, an excellent public elementary school teacher, learned of the project, she was in awe: “How cool! Is that part of Science or Math? Or is it Art class?” In other words, she wondered what curricular category the unit fit into. Of course architecture includes vital elements of science, math, art, and other traditional school subjects, and so it’s one area that perhaps is not addressed adequately by, or is perhaps shoehorned into, our conventional public school curriculum.

I value my public school education. But sometimes I wonder, could I have been a Kane Waselenchuk? Now in the middle of my life, could I still be?

--Paul Thomas