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Salim Ismail

Founder and CEO of Singularity University

Experts consider Salim Ismail the next global guru of technological innovation. He is an eminent figure in Silicon Valley, where he heads up Singularity University, a center promoted by giants like NASA and Google. Formerly president of Yahoo, he has founded several companies that have been acquired by Google and travels around the world giving conferences and advising large companies on the technology transition.

Each year at Singularity University, Salim Ismail trains the future leaders of disruptive technology, the fathers of Exponential Organizations. This is the topic of his latest bestseller, which has just been published in Spanish. How does he define them? “An Exponential Organization (ExO) is one whose impact (or output) is disproportionally large –at least 10x larger– compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies.”


How can large, traditional companies in the biopharma sector become Exponential Organizations? If you had to choose one large-scale change they should implement on their road to becoming an Exponential Organization, what would it be?

The current philosophy in the industry is to fight to get a blockbuster drug through mergers of large companies. I believe this idea is totally misguided because, although in the middle term is satisfies shareholders, deep down they’re preparing for failure. Success will lie in becoming smaller and smaller.


Do start-ups play an important role in this panorama?

They are key to this industry. In the past, all innovation came from within companies. But today it’s a mistake to believe that disruption can only come from within the company walls because the outside world is much faster. Large companies have to create new structures that put them in contact with the community of entrepreneurs and start-ups because they have much to learn and will even have to consider forming associations. To give an example, a company that emerged from Singularity University, Quotient Pharmaceuticals, has made huge advances in the problem of superbacteria. They’ve found a new approach to fighting bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance with human antibodies. 


If we look at the ExO Fortune 100, there’s only one pharmaceutical company in the top 60. It’s Merck, with only half the points of Google, which is ranked first. Why aren’t there more?

The main reason is the nature of the industry. In broad strokes, you have a series of databases with information on components and you work with that. You try to find out who has the best molecule and what can be done with it. All the research and testing is done within the industry. Products are still being developed in a very linear way, while outside everything is changing. Let’s take Jack Andraka as an example. This 19-year-old is developing a new model to detect pancreatic cancer. This would never happen in a large company. What is known as citizen science is democratizing access to the tools needed to innovate and it’s hard for traditional industry to keep up. 


In your new book you explain that we’ve gone from a scarcity-based business model to one that benefits from abundance. What is most abundant in the health industry?

New technology that will complete change the way we understand this industry abounds. One small example is another company to emerge from our university, called Focus at will, which works on composing music to boost concentration. It has proven that this music is better than many drugs for children with attention-deficit disorders. If you’re working in a pharmacology company, you won’t stop and think about the options available through music. You’ll think about which drug works best, while outside the market has realized that all you have to do is listen to the right music. It’s a radical change, the traditional industry is facing a massive disruption and I think some of the large companies will collapse. 


What do you think the future of work and business will be like in this sector?

Many more things will be done with the same volume of assets and people as now. Artificial intelligence will help improve diagnostics and treatments. Healthcare will no longer be reactive; it will become totally predictive. The industry will be able to do ten times more things without having to be ten times bigger. 


What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in this field?

We’re already seeing two huge changes. The first is the possibility of editing the human genome. For example, taking HIV and eliminating it from the human system. We will radically change the capacity to develop treatments with new technology that doesn’t require intervention. The second is the use of artificial intelligence, which will allow machines to learn to identify patterns. An algorithm will be able to detect cancer faster than a doctor.

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