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Director of the Ontario Cancer Institute Dr. Benjamin Neel

10 Sep

Lunch with Mary 022

Date of lunch:
Thursday, September 10, 2009

The company:
Dr. Benjamin Neel is the director of the Ontario Cancer Institute, at the University Health Network and Princess Margaret Hospital. He has been in this post for about 3 years, coming from Boston where he had been working for over twenty years. Specifically, Dr. Neel is the senior scientist in the Division of Stem Cell and Developmental Biology, studying stem signaling, looking for a cure for all types of cancer. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had cancer affect a person that they love so I really was interested in speaking with someone on the front lines. I checked out the Princess Margaret Hospital online and requested a lunch with Dr. Neel through the site. This lunch has been about three months in the making – as Dr. Neel is extremely busy – so I was really glad to finally sit down and chat.

The food:
We ate at Mercatto at College and Elizabeth. It’s a nice place, great patio. I had a wild mushroom pappardelle and Dr. Neel had the daily soup (it was mushroom) and a tomato crostini. We both drank water. My meal was delicious. My one complaint about this place is that the ceiling is really high and with a busy lunch crowd, it was very loud and difficult to hear and have a conversation. But all in all, I will definitely be back, this time on the patio. The bill was $34 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
It was great for me to hear that a big part of Dr. Neel’s life is collaborating with other researchers around the world. In the next few weeks, he is going to Switzerland and Germany. He says people think it’s super competitive between researchers but really, there is strong collaboration. He said there are things he can do that they can’t do in Switzerland and vice versa. So they work together and learn from each other. Of course, there is a level of competition, which is a good thing because it often forces people to do better – but I was glad to hear that researchers around the world are not all working in isolation. The more minds we have together on a problem, the faster, I think, a solution will come to be.

The lunch:
Before I begin to write about this lunch, I have to admit up front that I know nothing about medical research. I mean I read the paper and listen to news about new treatments but I don’t know a lot about the findings along the way, which as Dr. Neel pointed out, is usually how these things work. So this was a huge learning experience for me.

Dr. Neel talked about how there is a real misconception in the public that research is about big breakthroughs in the lab. What it’s really about is building upon findings over the course of years and even decades. Something that was discovered in the eighties, built upon in the nineties could then be built on again this year and provide a new clue or treatment. If we do go back a few decades, Dr. Neel pointed out, huge steps have been made. Cancers such as childhood leukemia used to be nearly universally fatal and today are nearly universally curable. But it’s other cancers where progress has been slower such as breast, lung and brain. It is these cancers that perhaps in 10-15 years we will see more advances.

When I get stressed out, I often say to myself “I’m not saving lives here” just to put my stress level in perspective, calm down a bit and in the end be more efficient. But as Dr. Neel was explaining his extremely hectic schedule, I couldn’t help but think that him saying that might not work as well.

Dr. Neel also pointed something out to me that I never knew. He said that, for example, a breast tumor that is 1 cm in diameter is one billion cells. So if the growth is slow and they start from a single cell, the tumor can be growing for ten years before it is even noticed. I don’t know if this information is practical for me in any way considering I worry about everything (I may have said in the middle of our lunch “so I could have it right now”), but I just never had known that before.

I left this lunch thinking how admirable it is that there are people in the world that dedicate their entire lives to discovering a cure for something like cancer that causes so much pain in so many lives. It was really nice meeting Dr. Neel and learning a bit about the research being done at Princess Margaret. I hope that one day Dr. Neel’s job is obsolete but in the meantime, I am glad we have people like him and his colleagues in the labs trying to get us there.

Strategic Innovation Practitioner, Author and Professor Alexander Manu

17 Aug

Lunch with Mary 021

Date of lunch:
Thursday, August 13, 2009

The company:
Alexander Manu’s career is so diverse and interesting that it is actually quite difficult to describe. He works with Fortune 500 companies to help them with innovation, strategic insight and understanding “desire” – it’s not needs , it’s desires that motivate. From this work, he designed a course at Rotman’s for MBA students called “Innovation, Foresight and Business Design.” It sounds like an amazing course. Alexander is working to help businesspeople to not just think in numbers but to understand what makes people tick, what their desires are and use this knowledge to design products. Alexander told me I can audit his course in September. I hope he meant it.


The food:
We met at the Bedford Academy on Prince Arthur and sat on the beautiful patio. Alexander actually did not eat but I, of course, did not miss the opportunity to chow down. I had the grilled portobello and goats cheese salad, which was good except I hate when I have to cut my salad before I eat it – I just wish the cooks would slice the portobello so I didn’t have to. Ok, rant over. I also had a diet Coke to drink. Alexander had a coffee and Compari soda. Total bill was $30 with tax.


The lunch lesson:
The biggest lesson of the lunch was just being able to see the world for a few moments from Alexander’s perspective. I can try to explain what I mean by describing one of his favorite innovations, the iPhone. The product is not the iPhone – you are the product. Because your experience with the iPhone is totally dependent on how you choose to use it. Without you, it’s just an object. But add the app store and you’re able to customize it any way you like – it’s a music player, a camera, a GPS, restaurant finder, a level, a gaming console, a translator and more. So when the iPhone came to market, it let the users make it into what it was, instead of it telling you what it was. According to Alexander, it’s not really a phone – that word almost takes away from its possibilities. Just a slight twist to how you perceive the products around you, but an important one.


The lunch:
This was a fascinating lunch and I hope that I am able to accurately capture what we spoke about.

The first question I asked Alexander was to help me to understand what he does for a living. He studied Industrial Design but his work is so much more. He started to tell me about his work with lottery corporations. This client really excited Alexander because, he explains, unlike some other companies, the lottery corporations understand “desire”. They aren’t selling tickets, they are selling hope, which is a lot more fun. I have been known after buying a lottery ticket to walk down the street and imagine what I will do with the money – a house, a cottage, a vacation, taking all my friends and family on an amazing trip, a car, sharing my good fortune, and just thinking about it makes me happy. And this is what Alexander likes about working with them – it’s so much more than tickets.

Alexander talked about the companies that we are going to see emerging in upcoming years. The models of these companies will be different from anything we see now and the way they are marketed and promoted is going to change. There will be a shift in the value proposition – currently defined as: A business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings – As Alexander said about the iPhone, the company is identifying the desire and the customer is creating the value proposition. And this shifts advertising and marketing into a different role.

Alexander also spoke about some of the work he gets to do. He has had a busy summer, heading to the Maritimes to provide insight to entrepreneurs and soon to be heading off to Finland to speak with business people there. He is also an author of several business books focused on imagination and innovation and has a new one coming out shortly. His perspective is really unique and he is working hard to help others to understand how to create and innovate in ways that will garner success.

I really could have spoken with Alexander for hours. At one point he asked me if I was recording our conversation in order to help me to write my blog later. As a practice, I don’t record my lunches. I like them to be casual conversations that I can then capture afterwards. I will usually jot down a bunch of notes right after the lunch to ensure that I get the good stuff down while it’s still top of mind but I don’t want the process to be too formal.

With Alexander, I really wish I had recorded our lunch because I am sure I haven’t captured nearly enough of what I learned in this post. But that is why I hope the offer is still on the table to take his class at Rotman’s this fall – I’ll be sure to take great notes!

Law Enforcement Educator Gary Ellis

14 Mar

Lunch with Mary 012

Date of lunch:
Friday, March 13, 2009 (and technically it was breakfast)

The company:
It will be difficult to summarize Gary Ellis’s bio in this small space. It was tough just to come up with a title for this post. But a lot can be garnered from the nicknames those around him have assigned. His students at Georgian call him Chuck – as in “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.” And his colleagues in the police force call him Forrest Gump – as in he always seems to fall into incredible situations and opportunities. Situations and opportunities such as superintendent at the Toronto Police, FBI National Academy Associate, RCMP National Executive Development Program facilitator, Professor, published author and it goes on and gets COOLER!

The food:
We had breakfast (but we’ll count it as lunch) at Flo’s Diner in Yorkville. Gary had Flo’s Omelet and I had Waffle with Fruit. We also both had coffee. Gary’s omelet looked pretty delish and the waffle was good and so was the fruit but it definitely needed something else like syrup or whipped cream. Total bill was $25 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
There are so many! I learned so much. But I think Gary’s best lesson is something he tells his students all the time and he passed on to me. “If you look at another and you cannot see yourself, you haven’t looked deep enough… but for the want of that could be me.” Gary says this is an important lesson for any police officer as they often deal with people having difficult times, be it mental health issues or addiction, and it is easier to help if you are able to see that they are human as well. But this is a lesson that applies to life – not just policing – and if everyone could see the human side of those they deal with, we’d all be better off.

The lunch:
Gary works as an associate at my work (another one of his many jobs) but I have never really had the chance to talk to him. I remember when Gary started, a brief announcement with bio was sent around the company. I read it and instantly decided that I wanted to sit next to Gary at the holiday party. I pretty much just had to read “FBI” and I was instantly intrigued.

Some of Gary’s proudest accomplishments with the police, work that he continues today, is around saving children from abuse. When he was on the force, Gary led the change of perception of child pornography from a morality issue to a victim issue – because the real issue is saving these kids that are involved. He worked to get funding from the government and helped to set-up a force committed to saving these children.

Given the lack of borders online, saving these kids is often an international endeavour. Gary has now taken many of the best practices he helped to develop in Toronto, and in working with the RCMP, helps train forces from other countries to do the same work to save these children.

Due to the remote chance that I will ever meet anyone again who has been to the FBI headquarters in Quantico, I had to ask a few questions. There really are fake streets and fake buildings where dummies pop up and trainees enact mock situations. For real! It’s not just in the movies. He did say the school part of it doesn’t look that exciting, mostly just like a campus. But can you imagine the stuff you would learn there? Gary knows some really interesting stuff, but he obviously can’t tell me all of it. Gary has also been a keynote speaker at The Institute of World Politics in Washington. Again, Gary isn’t able to tell me the contents of that presentation, but I can imagine it was fascinating.

Gary has also worked on many of the high profile major crime cases that occurred in Toronto that I followed on the news – Gary was often the spokesperson on behalf of the police on TV. Gary is now retired from the police force (currently still working at least 2 full time jobs and one part time) and is taking his time now to pass along a lot of the knowledge that he has learned through his career. One of his lines from his PhD thesis that he continues to use to this day is “Conflict handled responsibly leads to positive change.” This seems to be how Gary works – responsibly handling conflict – be it as a police officer, teacher, stakeholder, communicator – and doing so with the end goal of positive change.

A very awesome lunch/breakfast indeed! And I definitely still want to sit next to Gary at the next staff party.