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From the lab to the boardroom: An interview with Darlene Solomon Ph.D.

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Joining Agilent when the company was formed in 1999, having been with Hewlett Packard prior to the spin-off, Darlene Solomon Ph.D. holds the position of senior vice president and chief technology officer. In a role that sees her lead Agilent Labs, Darlene helps define Agilent’s technology strategy and R&D priorities.

With a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Stanford University and a doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry from the MIT, Darlene’s path to her leadership role came via the laboratory.

We spoke to Darlene to learn about her reasons for studying science, how she transitioned away from the lab and some of her proudest achievements at Agilent.

AB: What made you decide to study science?

Darlene Solomon (DS): Going way back as far as I can remember, since early elementary school, I always loved math and numbers. A good numerical problem or immersing myself in prime numbers was weekend fun. As a kid, I did well in school in all subjects, but math was really my favorite class all along, followed by science. As a freshman at Stanford, I took mostly math courses and some in science. It was really in these classes that I began to think more about what I would actually do in life with a degree in mathematics. Looking back now, it's a really narrow perception, but my feeling was that I could probably become a professor of mathematics, but I really wasn't all that into teaching. Computing was also a possibility, however unlike my friends in those computer courses I didn't   get into staying up all night trying to debug a computer program. So, I figured maybe that wasn't the career match either. It was clear that science was next in line.

The next couple of quarters I took a number of science classes, in chemistry, physics, and biology. But it was the chemistry problems that were the most exciting and satisfying to me. For chemistry and science, it came more down to   understanding why the world is the way it is and that's really what resonated.

AB: What was it that precipitated your move away from the lab? 

DS: Following my Ph.D. I went straight to Hewlett-Packard Laboratories to be part of an interdisciplinary team that was advancing sensor technology for in vivo medical products. I spent five years as a scientist “in the lab” as you say. Then there was an opportunity to try out management, I like being in the lab but project management positions, especially ones that were aligned with my technical area, don’t come around very often.

I had a lot of leadership experience through the various extracurricular things that I did. But I knew I was good at being a research scientist and if management didn't work out then I would go back to the lab. But management did work out, and worked out quite well.

AB: Can you tell me a little bit more about what your role at Agilent involves?

DS: I have been in my current role as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, for about 12 years now, and it is multifaceted. There are a series of things that are in the category of more strategic leadership, technology leadership and then quite a bit of what I do is very external facing. On the strategic leadership side, I work very closely with our President and CEO Mike McMullen, as part of the executive staff more broadly leading the company. I work with Mike and with the other business leaders to help define the company's technology strategy and our R&D priorities.

I also lead the CTO office, which includes responsibility for many of our longer-range technology investments. Internally, that includes Agilent Research Laboratories, which is our centralized and more far-reaching research organization. The CTO office also includes programs in university relations and external research, and a program that’s aimed at partnerships with emerging startup companies. Then, of course, I have my team and staff that I work closely with and offer help where I can on their day-to-day needs, moving things forward, helping to support their personal development and success.

Externally, I represent Agilent on a number of different academic, government and industry boards and review committees. There are often keynote presentations at conferences that are especially relevant to Agilent’s areas of contribution. I spend a lot of time with customers in our field organization, especially on the academic front.   I can help provide that broader view of Agilent and insight into our strategic directions with university research faculty and top administration. 

AB: What does your role as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer mean to you personally?

DS: I've always enjoyed and contributed in being able to think about business and technology together. A lot of folks are more along one axis or another, but I believe to really enable the technology, to have the most impact in terms of improving quality of life for our customers and what they're trying to do, this is really important. This in turn leads to great business results.

At Agilent I've been able to work with very bright, very committed people and challenge the status quo to do things that have never been done before and provide value. That's really what I think has mattered most to me and why after many years at Agilent and in this role, I continue to feel challenged and feel like we're really making a difference. That can be along the technology side, in terms of creating 100,000-fold improvement of the performance of an existing product, or when we can introduce something that's entirely new to the world.

Collaboration and teamwork is important to me. I like breaking new ground, like introducing our Agilent technical conference back in 2007 [the conference is a large, internal event for Agilent’s global technical staff]. Or starting the early stage partnerships programs, which challenges Agilent as a life sciences and diagnostics company to invest in areas earlier, including some higher risk areas that maybe up until now we might have waited until they were a little further along.

AB: Considering your time at Agilent, what are some of the achievements you are most proud of?

DS:  I think there are two major themes that speak to what all the contributions add up to. The first is Agilent’s transformation from a leading electronics company to a leading life sciences and diagnostics company. The other theme, related to this transformation, is the continued value and contribution of Agilent Research Labs as a centralized corporate research lab. Especially as many companies have not found the “secret sauce” to make such investments so worthwhile. Needless to say, the labs have played a big role in laying the groundwork for the transformation.

Back in the HP days, molecular measurement and the company was just about analysis of small molecules, in particular in the applied chemical markets - the environmental, petrochemical industries, etc. This was very important work but at the end of the day, it’s fairly narrow and only represented about 2% of company revenue. When Agilent spun out, the molecular measurement piece of the new company - became more essential – it grew to 20%. I was an integrating middle manager at Agilent Labs at the time, leading a department that was responsible for longer range research in small molecule analysis. It was really in those early years as a middle manager after the split that we initiated programs that were aimed at biology. We hired the first biologists, and this really shaped the multi-disciplinary teams and culture that have resulted in many of those technology contributions which fueled the company's decision to expand beyond small molecule analysis into life science. Initially, this was within our genomics areas and then into clinical research and eventually in 2012 diagnostics, with the acquisition of Dako.

Diagnostics and genomics, which last year was about 700 million dollars in revenue for Agilent, is very much driven by advancing precision medicine. Through the efforts of many people across Agilent I think that transition was able to happen because very few companies can really grow a new business and ultimately transform their identity into a successful leader in what was for us the more preferable, high growth life science industry. Over this period, I’ve championed a lot of the multi-disciplinary cross-business collaborations that leveraged our world-class expertise in electronics into these higher growth life sciences markets. I tried to promote what we could do uniquely in the life sciences area because of that world-class capability in electronics and engineering, but now thinking more about the applications driven in molecular measurement, whether that was our world-leading products in time of flight mass spec, or scanning microwave microscopy, or inductively -coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy. Several of those major platforms are ones that were commercial success stories that were really enabled through the synergy of electronic and molecular measurement. That's an example of where the Agilent Technical Conference came in - as an opportunity to bring the company and our technologies together.

I’m the only executive team member that has served under all three of our CEOs so there’s been a lot of change. Yet, despite all that time and all that change, Agilent Research Labs has continued as an important R&D investment for the company when many companies have looked to reduce their spend in R&D. The fact that Agilent has remained committed to that science and technology has benefited the long-term enablement of our customers, even during difficult business cycles.  I'm proud of the culture, of the technical excellence and the multi-disciplinary collaboration and teamwork within the labs and the teamwork with our business partners in commercializing these technical achievements. The labs have continued to be able to attract and retain extremely talented staff, and in many ways be a hub for that cross-Agilent collaboration synergy as a centralized entity within the company. That’s the other area that if I look back over the 30 years I'd say is up there in terms of what means the most to me.

AB: If you had one piece of advice for someone looking to get into a career in science what would it be?

DS: I don't think there has ever been a better time to be a scientist or engineer. Our world is led by technology wherever you look around, so I say go for it. Focus on the areas you enjoy most but also try to include some biology and some data science or information science. They are going to be important and many of the advancements in capability and understanding continue in these areas.

Darlene Solomon was speaking to Ash Board, Editorial Director at Technology Networks.