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How I innovate in-house: Stop thinking like a lawyer

In Closing
|Written By Jocelyn Mackie
How I innovate in-house: Stop thinking like a lawyer

 I was asked to write about how I innovate as an in-house lawyer. My immediate answer was “stop thinking like a lawyer.”

 We are trained as lawyers to protect against risk and to get the best deal possible for our client. While my legal training has been instrumental to the value I bring, my successes to date would not have been possible if I was driven primarily by risk mitigation and getting the best deal possible. Gaining comfort with risk, and getting in the mindset of the person on the other side of the negotiating table, is when innovating for results becomes possible. 

 At Grand Challenges Canada, I have the privilege of working for one of Canada’s largest impact-first investors. We have funded more than 800 innovators working on “Bold Ideas for Big Impact” in more than 80 countries. The innovators we support are based in low- and middle-income countries or Canada. Their ideas integrate science, technology, social and business innovation to save and improve the lives of the most vulnerable. 

 When negotiating a grant or loan agreement with one of these innovators, if I think too much like a lawyer, I focus on all the things that could go wrong. Innovation is only possible with some risk taking. The key to innovating in-house is to learn the right kinds of risk to take and to not let a focus on risk get in the way of results.

 One key example was the approach I took to developing our global access policy, which ensures the innovations we support will be made accessible to the most vulnerable. Intellectual property, broadly defined, is the cornerstone of innovation — innovation is about ideas, and intellectual property protects ideas and creative expressions. Under our policy, we require our innovators to grant us a non-exclusive licence to ensure we have access to their underlying intellectual property to make sure it will be made accessible. 

 Our approach to global access was developed in collaboration with one of the largest funders of global health in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. However, over time and in some deals, our approach was dissuading other investors from coming on board. By listening to the needs of our innovators and their investors, we didn’t let the need for risk mitigation get in the way of results. We started using other approaches such as distribution rights. Rather than impeding future investment, we were seen to be enabling these innovations to scale, while still ensuring the ultimate goal of big impact.

 One of the greatest challenges of my career to date was successfully negotiating a $159-million funding agreement with Global Affairs Canada. This agreement would support our programming for maternal, newborn and child health innovations and it was critical for keeping our organization alive. The only way it was possible to execute on this deal was to think creatively and not to be burdened by an undue focus on risk or on the need to ‘win’ the negotiation.

 The government had no choice but to impose certain requirements on us, and some of these appeared to significantly undermine an innovation platform like ours. Over a nine-month negotiating process, and many drafts later, we were able to come together and strike a unique deal that worked for the government, and it worked well enough for us. While not perfect, by being innovative, we can continue supporting innovators around the world; innovators who are saving the lives of low-birth-weight newborns or empowering girls to use innovative menstrual hygiene products so they can stay in school; or innovators who are women entrepreneurs working to lift their families out of poverty. 

 We estimate that the innovations we have supported to date have the potential to save up to 1.6 million people’s lives and improve the lives of up to 42 million people by the year 2030. Enabling the results we have achieved would not have been possible without thinking less like a lawyer and being innovative in-house. 

Jocelyn Mackie is vice president, operations and general counsel with Grand Challenges Canada in Toronto.


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