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How Peter Schulam came to lead a center for innovative thinking

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


As science and research move away from a narrow focus within a field and toward efforts across disciplines, a gift from an alumnus of the Yale College Class of 1986 aims to spur such collaborations by establishing a home for innovation. In May, Joseph C. Tsai, J.D. ’90, co-founder and executive vice chair of Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce company, made a donation through the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation to support the construction and launch of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY). The 10,000-square-foot building, which will be located on Prospect Street near the School of Engineering & Applied Science, is slated to open in 2019, but the center’s basic operations are up and running.

Peter G. Schulam, M.D., Ph.D., chair and professor of urology, is the inaugural faculty director of the center. No stranger to collaboration, in 2014 Schulam co-founded the Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology (CBIT) with W. Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering, professor of cellular and molecular physiology, and of chemical engineering, to encourage physicians, engineering and medical students, and patients to invent devices for health care gaps. The success of CBIT led to an invitation to serve as faculty director of Tsai CITY.

Schulam’s collaborative experiences extend further back to his work as vice chair of urology at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. There he collaborated with architects and hospital administrators to design the hospital’s second-floor surgical operating suites from the ground up.

A native of New Haven, Schulam came to Yale in 2012 to lead the newly formed Department of Urology at Yale New Haven Hospital. In the five years since, he has learned that persistence is the most powerful tool to bring projects to fruition. “Everyone has great ideas,” he said. “Very few people have the resilience to keep going despite unfavorable headwinds.”

What will Tsai CITY do? This center will coalesce all innovative activities throughout the Yale campus, and we already have quite a few. We have a number of ongoing innovative efforts including, to name a few, the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, CBIT, the Office of Cooperative Research, the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design, the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, the Social Innovation Lab at Dwight Hall, and InnovateHealth Yale. The idea is to support what others have done, and create connectivity to build a network. Each organization is like a single candle burning. If we bring all the candles together, then the lumen output will be much higher. It will be a place that gives students in all Yale schools a space to work on a new invention, a process improvement, or to increase the efficiency of technology that already exists.

How are innovation and interdisciplinary work intertwined? I once read about a concept that encompasses what we are trying to do: “Look for similarity in dissimilar things.” It’s really difficult to be innovative when you are with individuals in your same field. You want to shake it up. You have to be taken outside of your element and kind of repositioned to see new opportunities. And you also have to be willing to be spun a little bit. That is not necessarily comfortable, but the more we get our students to experience that, the more successful and uniquely educated they will be, and the greater the impact that students can have beyond Yale and New Haven.

What is a key ingredient for working well among disciplines? First, you have to be inclusive, not exclusive. Whoever wants to participate is welcome to get involved. A success metric for the center will not be the number of ventures created, but rather the engagement of the community. For example, how many people from how many different schools and programs are involved? The second idea we will emphasize is that innovation isn’t about ownership. People want to say that an idea is theirs, but that creates a wall, and we need to think bigger.

Innovation often involves failure. What advice do you have for students on this? This isn’t something you can give advice about. CITY will be a safe space for failure. It does not have a curricular component—nothing is being recorded. The only thing that matters is the eventual success. No one needs to know that a project went through 55 failures or reiterations before becoming a success. We aim to create an environment that will allow students and collaborators to experience that. There’s nothing I can really say to students—they have to experience the process for themselves. We want failure and success to be part of their education here so they can take that with them into the world.

Watch an interview with Peter Schulam at

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