As a business development lead at Alphabet/Google’s innovation lab X, Diana Skaar ’00 helps run the “moonshot factory,” where her team did the partnerships that made possible such products as glucose-detecting contact lenses for people with diabetes and a pilot project to deliver Chipotle burritos via mini-drone.
The daughter of Thai immigrants, Skaar grew up in Los Angeles. At UCLA, she discovered the joy of coding. Five years into her career as a website designer, she returned to campus to earn an M.B.A. and a master’s in computer science, then joined Google in 2008. Now also serving on Cartoon Network’s STEAM Advisory Board, Skaar says her goal is to get girls excited about science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
What do you do as head of business development for robotics at the “moonshot factory”?
We do really crazy, science fiction–like things by following three tenets. One, we start with a really huge problem. Two, we find the radical solution. Three, we develop world-changing breakthrough technology.
How do you choose what to work on?
Every idea starts out in “rapid eval,” where we quickly prototype or 3-D print stuff to evaluate a project’s viability. The goal is to quickly decide if we’re going to kill this idea or graduate it to what we call the “Foundry.” At that point, we allocate more resources to develop the engineering further, and we also look at business opportunities.
That’s where “business development” comes in?
Yes. We always try to identify partners with real-world problems and business cases that our technologies will address. With Project Wing, for example, everyone’s like, “Google’s working on a drone project to deliver burritos? That’s the end game?” But it makes sense from a pilot use case, because if you can show your product is useful for that particular business application, it also demonstrates a larger opportunity for the industry. A lot of it is about identifying the right partner where you can make first contact with the real world.
Do you ever find that the technology is awesome but the business application falls short?
Yes. We developed this “Foghorn” technology that converted seawater into usable fuel. The technology worked from an engineering standpoint, but the business case did not make sense because we couldn’t find a way cheap enough to compete with everyday gas and fuel.
So failure is an option?
It’s not that we set out to fail, but if we do fail, we use it as an opportunity to learn something new from the technology standpoint, from a business standpoint, from a usability standpoint. We recognize that it takes some guts to put yourself out there and push the limits. When you take away the fear of failing, it encourages creativity, because people in the room aren’t afraid to speak up with some crazy idea. It’s encouraged.
How did you come up with contact lenses for people with diabetes?
Millions of people have diabetes, and traditionally they’ve had to prick themselves every so often to measure their blood glucose levels. One of our engineers learned that trace amounts of glucose can be found in your tears. That interesting tidbit led us to think about the radical solution, so people started brainstorming. We figured out how to embed a tiny glucose sensor between the layers of a contact lens, along with a tiny chip that transmits the data to your phone so you can manage that information wherever you go. From there, we built out a team of people with the right medical and engineering backgrounds and prototyped this crazy idea, which graduated out of X and became an Alphabet company of its own called Verily.
When did you get involved with Cartoon Network’s STEAM initiative?
They reached out to me last year, because I’d already been talking at panels and events about the importance of diversity in tech. I strongly believe you cannot make products for everyone if you’re only working with a homogenous set of people. I love that Cartoon Network wants to do something positive within its demographic by inspiring kids and [especially] girls to get into tech.
Have you experienced that lack of diversity personally?
Being one of a handful of girls in computer science was really difficult, because I felt this [field] wasn’t for me — “I don’t look like anyone else. What am I bringing to the table?” Personally, it was a shock when I went back to recruit at UCLA. Here I am within my own industry trying to hire a diverse team, but I saw there was still a dismal number of girls studying computer science. That’s when I realized there’s a pipeline problem.
What was your first Cartoon Network collaboration?
In an episode of The Powerpuff Girls, one of the girls saves the universe by using code. I served as script adviser to make sure the writers used the correct terminology and understood the nuances of the technology. It’s part of this idea: How can kids dream it if they don’t see it? If you’re a little girl and all you see in cartoons are princesses who can’t fend for themselves, then you might think that’s what you should be.
You know how to code and how to cut deals, which seems like a rare combination. Why both?
After I graduated in 2000, I worked at a couple of start-ups, where I listened to our potential customers’ technology problems at sales meetings. I’d whiteboard solutions and hand them off to the business development person. I clearly remember thinking, “Is there some kind of secret handshake?” Throughout my career, whenever I don’t understand something, I dive right into it. In this case, it was me literally wondering, “What is this businessperson doing that I can’t do?”
What was your most valuable takeaway from your M.B.A. studies?
I loved the business strategy classes where we looked at case studies of successful businesses, failed businesses, successful product launches, failed product launches. I especially remember how Kodak failed to see the trend of people going digital. Lesson being, don’t get too comfortable with your seat at the top and assume the technology people use today is the same technology they will use five years from now. I think about that all the time.
You started as an intern at Google 10 years ago and continue to thrive in that fast-paced environment. How do you keep up?
My education showed me I had the power to reinvent myself. That attitude serves me well at Google, because my projects span a bunch of different industries. Instead of saying, “I’m just the energy girl” or “I only work on solar power,” I basically reinvent myself each time. I’m known as someone who can be dropped into any project and if you give me a few weeks, I can get up to speed, understand who the players are and basically become part of the industry myself. In that way, UCLA trained me well. They have a demanding curriculum, and it wasn’t easy — but after graduating, I felt like I could handle anything.