Success Stories – AbbVie Innovation Center

How good ideas grow from academic partnerships

This summer, a group of AbbVie’s top leaders went back to college in search of the next big thing.

That’s because in college, new ideas aren’t found in a boardroom or on a conference call. At the AbbVie Innovation Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, new ideas happen after a round of arcade basketball, hanging out with Aragon, the center’s mascot lizard, or during a 48-hour hackathon.

“College students are passionate about changing the world,” says Rob Scott, M.D., chief medical officer and vice president of development, AbbVie. “They have new ideas and are dedicated to making those ideas a reality.”

The AbbVie Innovation Center was established by AbbVie’s business technology solutions team in 2015,  starting with five students. This year, the center had more than 300 visitors and employed 95 students whose specialties ranged from coding and information technology to communications and law. The partnership provides opportunities for students to get hands-on experiences figuring out solutions to real world business problems.

Students who work at the Center aren’t fetching coffee. They’re working on a robotic process automation programs and preparing for a hackathon or giving presentations and meeting with senior AbbVie R&D leadership. In fact, several R&D data science and technology leaders are dedicated mentors and travel down to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign frequently to check in with their students.

“They might not initially think that their field of study would lead to a job in the pharma industry, but through partnerships like the AbbVie Innovation Center, they see how their unique talents can also help patients, and we get to work with some of the brightest young minds and future leaders,” says Masha Trenhaile, site manager, AbbVie Innovation Center.

Trenhaile has a full-time office at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Innovation Center and has been with the program since its inception. She is a mentor, professional coach and substitute mom.

“It’s one thing to hash out a good idea with friends over video games,” Trenhaile says. “It’s quite another to formally present an idea to vice presidents running a global company. We work on the idea and the presentation in a real-life situation.”

Then there’s the hackathon, an annual tradition where AbbVie tech experts team up with students for two full days of working together to solve a business specific challenge, for example developing a new digital health initiative that could help patients. The AbbVie Innovation Center becomes home for two days – a place to live, work, and play. With a kitchen, open workspace, beanbags, and plenty of food, there’s really no reason to leave.

For Sajeev Cherian, director of business technology solutions, AbbVie, the most inspiring part of this university collaboration is the impact it has on leaders who visit.

“The students are fabulous, but our staff transforms when they come down here,” Cherian says. “They work differently with the students – they are more creative, more innovative and more exciting.”

Siddharth Mathur, a junior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has been with the AbbVie Innovation Center for about five months, working on different coding projects. He describes an atmosphere where he was able to relax and bond with other classmates and have fun, through Nerf fights and playing with Aragon.

However, Mathur says, one of the things he appreciates the most is working directly alongside AbbVie leaders on new ideas as equals.

“You really have an opportunity to have your voice be heard,” Mathur says.

Since the Center opened, several former students have transitioned their experience into a full-time position at AbbVie, fulfilling another goal of the collaboration – to not only find the great minds of tomorrow, but to hire them.

In addition to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, AbbVie has similar partnerships with more than 300 academic institutions, including the University of California San Francisco, the Broad Institute of MIT, Yale and the University of Chicago. These partnerships span a wide range of activities, including research in specific therapeutic areas,  joint symposia and mentorship.

“I learn from these students as much as they learn from me,” says Scott, who brought to the AbbVie Innovation Center not only advice from his 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry but also an impressive jump shot. “They approach innovation with a fresh lens, and I help them see how to make that idea a reality.”

So maybe the next big idea is destined to come from the next generation of thinkers – with an assist from the leaders of today.

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