Hal Barron of Calico’s Keynote at MATTER
Posted November 22, 2015 by Devon Leichtman
Hal Barron of Calico at MATTER
Hal Barron, president of research and development for Calico, began his presentation Monday with a discussion of Calico’s lofty mission: to “increase understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” While this goal seems grandiose, Barron takes a reasoned approach, encouraging analysis on a long timeline, rather than looking for quick-hitting, short-term wins. This brought Hal to the first major theme of his presentation: smart risk-taking.
He gave a few famous examples of taking smart risk:
- New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s famous decision to “go for it” on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line in a 2009 game against the Indianapolis Colts. While Belichick’s decision did not produce a positive outcome and the Patriots lost the game, Barron defended Belichick’s decision as a smart risk, citing analytical sportswriter David Romer.
- Comedian Chris Rock will often try out new material in small comedy clubs in his local New Jersey suburb. The prolific comedian’s jokes fall flat so often that he has been asked to refund audience members’ money more than once! But Chris Rock is taking smart risk in alienating a small crowd in New Jersey in order to perfect routines he will perform for millions.
These examples underscore Barron and Calico’s approach toward biotech research: that a good decision does not always translate to a good result, and the fear of failure, often compounded by incentives that value short-term success, holds back scientific breakthroughs. Like Belichick and Rock, Calico partners AbbVie and Google look to foster a focus on long-term gains by calculating the risk/reward ratio of a given scenario. When asked about exciting innovations in his field, Barron mentioned CRISPR, a technology that allows researchers to directly edit the genes of an organism’s offspring, opening the door for significant headway into genetic research.
Barron advocates the same approach he takes with Calico toward an entrepreneur’s career: if you care about your job, make good decisions, and push yourself, then initial results do not matter. Barron applies his reasoned approach to failure toward success as well: he downplays Calico’s progress while intentionally striving to make the firm leaner. Hal quoted David Packard in saying that “more companies die of indigestion than starvation,” meaning that many try to accomplish too many projects, rather than perfect a few. He encourages companies to ask themselves what the least important project they’re working on is, and what the chance is it’s going to matter for their company in the long run. If it won’t, he encourages managers to “trim the fat” and not pursue projects that won’t move the needle over a company’s lifespan.
Many thanks to Hal and his sister, Northwestern Law Professor Esther Barron, who moderated the conversation, and to everybody who came for the event.