Frank Papay, MD

Photo: Shawn Green

Innovation is a team sport.

Frank Papay, MD

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that if the world were ending in one hour, he would spend 59 minutes clarifying the problem and one minute devising a solution. When I think of innovation, I think of finding a solution to a problem that creates value. Clarifying the problem first is key.  

Don’t invent a south-pointing chariot. I learned that from Dean Kamen, one of the greatest living inventors. In ancient times, the Chinese developed a chariot with an incredibly complex gear mechanism to keep them pointed in the right direction. But all they really needed was a simple magnetic compass. When you’re problem-solving, don’t increase the complexity. The simplest solution is probably the best solution.  

Innovation is a team sport. I liken it to a jazz ensemble, because I’ve played drums since I was a kid. You’re ad-libbing ideas with other people, other personalities. What I know, you might not know. And what you know, I might not know. But together, we create a flow of collective wisdom.  

When I mentor young people, I’m careful not to discourage them. They often come at things with a fresh set of eyes and fresh ideas. They think: I don’t know if this is going to work, but let’s try it. And lo and behold, sometimes it does work and you come up with something great. As I get older, I also learn from younger people. I call it reverse mentorship. They mentor me, especially about new technologies.  

We’re on this Earth for a very short time. I get a lot of fulfillment from working toward something that I can leave behind, something that will have an impact long after I’m pushing up daisies. That inspires me.


Frank Papay, MD, is Chair of the Dermatology & Plastic Surgery Institute at Cleveland Clinic. He was one of the leaders of the surgical team that performed Cleveland Clinic’s first total face transplant in 2017. A winner of Cleveland Clinic’s Sones Innovation Award, Dr. Papay is currently developing digital surgical loupes that integrate artificial intelligence and augmented reality to provide critical metrics in real time.