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Editor’s note: In our Steering the Ship series, we chat with product leaders in various industries. Today, we’re sharing a conversation between Dan Tatar, CEO of ADK Group, and Jeff Karp, professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

In this post, you’ll learn from professor, researcher and innovator, Jeff Karp, as he shares his influential backstory, his unique approach to problem solving, and the innovation process that powers The Karp Lab.

Some of the questions he’ll address include:

  • What does inspiration from nature look like?
  • How can you build a group of mentors?
  • How do you know if your idea for a commercial opportunity is worthwhile?

Having grown up on a farm in rural Canada, Jeff Karp turns to nature for inspiration in medical innovation, even recognizing the ingenuity of snails and slugs. 

He’s also the author of 125+ peer-reviewed papers, founder of 8 companies, and recognized as one of the world’s best innovators by MIT. 

When it comes to problem solving, there are many techniques out there. Some are effective but not scalable, others widely applicable but not specific enough. Even at ADK, we find “solutioning” to be a valuable asset for our business and our partners.

We spoke to Jeff Karp, one of the most prolific problem solvers, to break down the steps of problem solving for all areas of work. Although much of his work is conducted directly in the lab, translating problems into products is one of his specialities.

For Karp, this is the first step: problem definition and translation.

How Karp approaches problem solving

Karp’s approach to problem solving is pretty unique. For starters, he prefers to reframe it as “problem definition.” 

To define a problem correctly, you need to let your guard down and swallow your pride. No matter how young or old, whether they are in your field or not, there is always something to reflect on or become aware of in your conversations with everyone you meet. “There’s so many incredible people around us and there’s so much to learn from everybody, it’s every single person you interact with or meet, there’s just something to learn.” Karp emphasized. 

We know what you’re thinking – Karp is a wildly smart person! Why wouldn’t he follow his own intuition, and instead ask complete strangers for their thoughts? We were surprised, too. But there’s a good reason for this. Thinking through your own area of inexperience, and seeking out individuals who can help you, fills in gaps you may not have even thought of. For Karp, he knew nothing about bringing a product to market. So he made it a point to meet with an entrepreneur every 2 or 3 weeks and develop a relationship. 

Just as important as identifying personal weaknesses is identifying personal strength. For Karp, this meant applying years of developing awareness of the problem solving process, observing others, and witnessing outcomes. He knew he had the experience in this area, so he could feel pretty confident in his finding: more often than not, “problems are defined in a way [in which] you can’t solve them.”

This is why Karp focuses on problem definition over problem solving. When it comes to trying to solve the problem, often that solution is not translatable. For example, “In the biomedical or bioengineering community, often a solution will emerge but it just can’t be manufactured or there’s something wrong about it.” For this reason, Karp recommends thinking about the full translational spectrum. For each proposed solution, consider what the clinical trial would look like. What about the prototype? What about patenting and manufacturing?

So rather than trying to solve the problem, Karp first tries to define the problem. By assuming the problems are wrongly defined (and that’s why no one’s been able to solve it), it allows you to look more carefully at other people’s assumptions and explore the multiple paths forward, from start to finish. Karp refers to this thought process as radical simplicity. By thinking about the entire spectrum of the problem and then simplifying it in every possible way you can, you often end up with a more translatable and effective solution.

So what’s step two? It’s finding the solution(ers). 

Finding the solution(ers)

A “solutioner” is someone, something, or even a group of sources that provides the initiative to begin the problem solving process. The key here is that there is no one right answer to a problem, and solutioners are often not even the ones to ideate the end result. Instead, they provide the source of truth that inspires the final product. For Karp, there are a few solutioners he recommends we all turn to.

Solutioner 1: Nature

Growing up surrounded by animals and plants, Jeff Karp attributes much of his research and business success to the inspiration of the natural world. For many researchers, business owners, or product managers, turning to nature is not the intuitive or likely path. However, Karp offers an explanation as to why he recommends turning to nature when feeling stuck, as well as practical examples of when he did so in his own work.

In Karp’s opinion, “evolution is the best problem solving process.” He encourages everyone to take great awe in the living environment, with “hundreds of millions of years of research and development happening all around us. Any creature that’s alive today is here because it’s overcome all kinds of challenges. And so I think when we look at nature there’s a lot of secrets out there that can directly provide some ideas to us that we may not otherwise think about.”

When you look at the scale of the natural environment, it’s easy to see why it’s so powerful. In addition to looking at a 5, 10 or even 50 year clinical trial for data, look at the world around you. If nothing else, it’s significantly older than 50 years. Billions of years of data can provide a good basis for problem solving. 

But to Karp, the key is not just to mimic nature.

He describes a more practical technique: “We start with a really well-defined problem. We can’t think of another way to solve that problem, and then we say, ‘okay are there any examples in nature of this problem or of a similar type of problem? And how did nature solve this problem?’ That’s how we’ve been turning to nature for inspiration.” It’s not copying the solution, it’s asking nature how it did it and then determining if anything can apply. 

In more applicable terms, a jumping off point when problems arise is to first look for similarities in nature. Then, look for the solution nature came up with. Finally, identify any common themes between what we can do in the lab, business or product space – and how the natural environment was able to remediate the problem. 

One example, Karp notes, is a tissue glue product he recently developed and that received approval for use in vascular reconstruction in Europe. Karp and his team initially started with a goal – they wanted to seal holes in between the chambers of the heart. But this was a very difficult problem to tackle because an adhesive inside the heart needs to withstand expansion and contraction of the tissue as well as the flowing of wet blood.

That’s when Karp turned to nature, in particular slugs and snails. These creatures often stay put on wet surfaces, even when that surface is dynamic. Karp’s lab then looked at the viscous secretions of snails and slugs and found certain useful chemical properties. This gave them ideas as well as specific molecules to investigate that they could bring back to the lab to help them overcome significant challenges. 

The end result – a tissue glue that can seal holes inside a beating heart and blood vessels. 

Solutioner 2: Mentorship

Karp attributes much of his learning and success to the multitude of mentors he has had throughout the years. He lists his college mentors, post-doc team, and PhD advisors who taught him both the specific academic knowledge that can inspire curiosity, as well as techniques of story-telling and communication. Being able to tell a good story brings research findings and teamwork to a broader audience – and in this broader audience live many more mentors and ideas. The key to building relationships, Karp says, is to keep in touch. Whether that’s casual day-to-day conversation or periodically scheduled meetings, there is always so much to learn.

In academia, researchers can often get into “low energy brain states,” or ruts, that make it very difficult to problem solve or be creative. For this reason, Karp recommends prioritizing a diverse group of mentors to always encourage new perspectives. “I think it’s important to talk to a number of people about [your idea] just to get different perspectives and to figure out what’s really the best path for you, because there are lots of paths.”

For Karp, this resulted in the formation of an informal advisory board for his lab. But rather than a group of advisors that get together, it’s a network of resources Karp can go to for questions about manufacturing or clinical trials. By running his thoughts by his advisors, it has maximized his potential that the lab’s on the right track. “It’s so easy to drink your own Kool-Aid, right? And just get so enamored with your own ideas. But I realized over time that’s not a winning process, it’s not really the way to go.” 

In other words, talk to a lot of people, and realize your Kool-Aid probably isn’t the solution to every problem. No matter how much experience or schooling you have, you can find insight and mentorship everywhere.

The final step – moving from research to commercialization

This is where Karp’s real passion lies – taking research developments and turning them into life-changing products on the market. And in Karp’s opinion, one of the best places to do that is in Boston. “You have almost every expert of every field in life sciences here, as well as a ton of investors and entrepreneurs and people who are thinking about translation.” Karp explained. 

In some companies, the research and resulting products are pretty focused. But this was not an appealing idea to Karp. His lab constantly works on various seemingly-unrelated projects, including tissue adhesives, hearing loss, arthritis and cancer. There’s no specific disease area or technology they focus on because Karp is curious and enjoys learning. But this has also been helpful when bringing products to market. Knowing that he has a broad range of interests, Karp makes it a priority to bring people into the lab who have deep expertise in areas he lacks.

This is where to apply each of the above learnings; know your strengths and weaknesses. Set yourself up so you’re in a position where your talents and experience can thrive, and fill in your gaps with mentors and inspiration. By combining a wide range of skill sets, experiences, and qualifications, you can create a plan that maximizes value and rigor for the product. 

“Often I think there’s ways to do things that can maximize incentives and keep you passionate.” And that’s what will bring you success in the long term, Karp says. Keep your passion blazing, and you’ll find the opportunity. 

We’re always on the lookout for the unsung heroes of product strategy. If you’re interested in sharing some hard-earned lessons, set up a conversation with Alex Fedorov, our VP of Design by reaching out here.

Jeff Karp is a professor of medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard medical school. He has published over 125 peer review papers, helped spin out eight companies that have raised over $400 million in funding, and he’s received over 50 awards.