We spoke with Ilaria Grizzi, Director of Systems Integration at Illumina. Illumina are a global leader in genomics and want to help people live healthier and longer lives by making genomics more useful for all. They help their customers read and understand genetic variations through increasingly accessible, simple solutions.
Q: What does a Director of System Integration do? How does it fit into Illumina’s goals?
I: The function of system integration at Illumina is to bring together different elementary technologies that have been developed independently and optimise them to be compatible and to work together. That often can lead to the development of different technologies, or it can mean taking existing ones in a slightly different direction. In system integration we deal with very mature technologies but also very early stage ones that are presented straight after proof of concept so there’s a real range to what we do. We look at all the products and all the new upgrades and make sure that everything works together.
Q: What does a typical week look like for you?
I: I think about 50% of the work is project work. That’s ongoing projects where we need to follow what’s going on, review what happened last week, decide what we’re doing next and those types of co-ordinating activities. Around 30% is then leadership and management items, the daily grind of sorting things out like health and safety, team issues, staff sickness, covid isolations and how to substitute people on important projects. There’s also a lot of hiring ongoing. The remaining 20% is more strategic, longer-range items such as ‘what are the emerging technologies within the companies that sound interesting?’ or ‘what should we start paying more attention to,what is missing within the group?’
Q: What do you enjoy most about the role?
I: It’s an interesting technology that is really, really cool and it’s very multidisciplinary. There isn’t any one person that can understand the whole thing and I think that’s really good. I enjoy the fact that whatever we do, at the end of the day we know it’s a product that is actually going to make a big difference to people’s lives. A cheaper sequencer, a cheaper genome is going to clear a path for so many people and it sounds a bit cheesy but it gets me out of bed in the morning. Illumina’s technology is great already, but I really enjoy thinking about what we can do to make it even better, even more efficient, I like the challenge of thinking what our next step might be.
Q: What made you want to work for Illumina, what problems are you and the team looking to solve?
I: Illumina are a very innovative company and they were quite brave in terms of developing the technology which can be fairly unusual for a large company. I wanted to work for Illumina because I wanted to make a difference to the world in general and I think theirs is a technology which is beyond impactful, it can be really life changing. It’s a very diverse range of problems we’re looking it – how can we improve our offering and the customer’s experience of it. How can we make it cheaper, faster and easier for people that want to sequence something? There are a lot of complicated steps between a drop of blood and injecting something on a sequencer, so how can that be streamlined? Sequencers are quite big instruments so we’re also thinking about how they can be smaller and more flexible and whether they can give more than just the genome structure.
Q: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your work right now?
I: Right now it is working in a large company with very large projects and matrix organisation across several sites and 3 continents.
Q: How have you found the transition from hands-on scientist to a leadership role?
I: I’ve been doing this for a while, but I think it’s about deciding what you’re going to let go off and establishing a mechanism to understand what is going on without getting too heavily involved yourself. I think those are the key challenges.
Q: What do you think has proved most valuable in your career so far, your experience or your education?
I: By far my experience, although my PhD was quite good for this because it was the first time, you’re left alone to do something, to encounter challenges alone and to come up with a solution yourself. What I’ve learned while working has certainly had a much bigger impact on me.
Q: If you could add one skill to your repertoire to make your role easier what would it be?
I: The first thing that came to mind was being able to work late at night! That’s the thing with working with San Diego, I’m more of a morning person and when it gets past 5 or 6pm it’s hard to keep the same level of focus as I had earlier in the day.I also think that one can never have enough people skills. You can never have enough empathy and enough of an understanding of what people want so that you can kind of detect early signs of things. I could do with more of that.
Q: Do you think there’s much of a difference between the European and US deep tech scenes?
I: Not so much. Although I do think there is a different level of resources. Deep tech in the US is almost over-resourced, you can find a lot of people looking to float ideas and get rich quickly and a lot of willingness to buy into that. As a result, there is a tendency for start-ups to pay people very high salaries. The UK is going a little in the same direction but I feel like it’s still a bit more of a craft, people here that are in these small companies are a bit more willing to accept a lower-pay because it is more exciting, or because it’s what they really want to do or because they’ll have more influence in that role.
Q: What do you think Deep Tech needs more of?
I: Purpose. That’s kind of where I’ve landed for this answer. In my previous role I did technology scouting and identification so I’ve seen a lot of interesting technology but it’s difficult to come across a really meaningful technology. There are a lot of things that seem to think around the edges rather than really try to focus on where the important problems lie and so I think maybe we need more people concentrating on the bigger problems.