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Success breeds success: Early innovators in India created a sense of possibility

This post is part of the Biodesign’s Jugaad series following a group of Stanford Biodesign fellows from India. (Jugaad is a Hindi word that means an inexpensive, innovative solution.) The fellows will spend months immersed in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford Bio-X, learning the Biodesign process of researching clinical needs and prototyping a medical device. The Biodesign program is now in its 14th year, and past fellows have successfully launched 36 companies focused on developing devices for unmet medical needs.

MATERNAL & INFANT MORTALITY IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIESAnurag Mairal, PhD, MBA, director of global exchange programs, joined Stanford-India Biodesign in 2008 to help fellows navigate challenges in designing new medical technology in India, which at the time had great need but little infrastructure for developing and marketing new technologies. I recently spoke with him about the program.

What were the challenges for Biodesign in India when you started?

When I joined Stanford-India Biodesign I felt it was going to be a difficult ride knowing India at that time. The mindset in India is very traditional and doesn’t allow people to step out of the box. Here in the United States what is remarkable is that we have everything across the street. Design, prototypes, animal labs, testing facilities, venture capital — they are all easily accessible. In India none of that existed. We needed to build all of that because it was going to be important to the success of Biodesign.

I had experience in emerging markets and was able to step in when the fellows needed to start thinking about markets for their products. I had a good understanding of the needs and also what challenges a typical medical device would face.

Have things changed?

One of the remarkable things that happened is that not only was the program successful, it affected other institutions in India in both the private sector and academia. A lot of innovators are now working on new technologies across India. Now we need to help all of them with commercializing the technology.

Success breeds success. When one group has success developing a medical technology it makes other people believe it is possible. That sense of possibility and reality has been a major accomplishment. The success of the early fellows and the ecosystem we built around them brought people together and energized the following batches of innovators. Now there is no doubt that medical device innovation is a real thing in India. It’s a remarkable shift in tone in that marketplace.

What is next for Stanford-India Biodesign now that fellows won’t be spending extensive time at Stanford?

Phase 1 of Stanford-India Biodesign was training fellows in the Biodesign process. Most of those previous fellows are in development mode now, and we see challenges in commercializing their products. I think there is a lot of work that needs to happen before these technologies are successful in the marketplace in India. Phase 2 will focus on training entrepreneurs and innovators on the entire process of developing and commercializing a product.

Will India continue to play a role for Stanford Biodesign?

We are redesigning the fellowship to include some global focus. The fellows are already thinking about global health. Half the world’s population is in a resource constrained environment. If the fellows want to be successful they need to be in those markets.

Going forward the Stanford-India program will be run by local faculty. We think there is an opportunity to exchange fellows and to allow our U.S. fellows to spend some time in India to learn how to innovate in that environment.

What about those other resource-constrained countries - will they benefit from India’s success?

India is a big market, and a lot of the devices developed by our fellows will go into the India health-care system, but the real value could go beyond that. India has a big role for providing technologies for other markets, like Africa or even bringing devices to Europe or the U.S. There is potential for reverse innovation and for that environment to be a source of ideas for the broader health care system. Some of the innovative and inexpensive ideas that come from within a constrained resource environment could make their way back to developed countries and benefit us. That’s a very real possibility.

Previously: A jugaad for keeping pacemakers in place, From popsicle sticks to improved medical care and  The next challenge for biodesign: constraining health-care costs
Photo by United Nations photo

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