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Stanford University School of Medicine

Graduating Stanford Biodesign fellows offer hard-won lessons in innovation

It’s been nearly a year since a dozen engineers, MDs and business specialists — the 2016-17 Biodesign Innovation Fellows — walked into the Byers Center for Biodesign to learn a hands-on process for inventing health technologies.

Organized into three teams, the fellows started in the hospital, looking for problems. After researching hundreds of needs, the teams narrowed their lists to a handful with the greatest potential to improve care and/or reduce costs. Next they brainstormed solutions and built quick prototypes to evaluate feasibility, as well as risk factors such as intellectual property and the pathway to regulatory approval. Finally, the teams laid plans to bring these solutions into patient care.

Although the journey sounds linear, the experience had the back-and-forth cadence of a spelunking expedition; traveling down promising passageways, encountering obstacles, and trying to decide whether to press forward or go back and try another path.

Last month, the Innovation Fellows presented their final needs — which address problems related to femoral access closure, reproductive health management, and osteoarthritis — and the solutions they’ve developed. They described plans to continue advancing their projects, and shared key lessons learned along the way. Fellowship teammates Craig Nichols, a biomedical engineer, and Janene Fuerch, MD, a neonatologist, expanded on these lessons for other would-be innovators:

  • Not every problem should be solved with technology. “Through our observations and research, we uncovered numerous problems that we recognized as real and compelling,” Nichols said. “But as we dug deeper, we discovered there was a reason certain problems persisted — they weren’t needs that could be addressed with a device. This meant that a significant change in infrastructure and/or practice of medicine might be required to improve outcomes... Other times, even though we had a great insight into a solution, we realized that in comparison to the other projects we were investigating, solving this need would be significantly more time/resource-intensive. So even though we felt passionately about addressing that problem, we were better off setting it aside for the time being.”
  • Fail early and often. Failure made it easier to work more efficiently on the next project. “As we pursued different projects we were also proceeding through the biodesign process,” Fuerch said. “We realized that each time we hit a roadblock, and had to go back and start again, our time wasn’t wasted. In fact, we were able to move through the steps much more quickly which made us realize just how much we had learned.”
  • Consider every risk carefully. A deal-breaker for one project could be an advantage for another. “Different needs can support different levels of risk,” Fuerch said. “For example, raising $300 million for a game-changing device in adult cardiology  may be possible due to the large market size, but raising that amount of money for a project in neonatal resuscitation, with a market size of 400,000, would not be feasible. The key is aligning a market opportunity with what the need can support.” Nichols added:  “At the same time, a really expensive feasibility study can also be a barrier to entry for competitors.”
  • If you actively build your network, help is just a phone call away. “When we made a last-minute pivot into a need with a digital-health solution, we reached out to Deb Kilpatrick, CEO of Evidation Health and a long-time Stanford Biodesign mentor,” Fuerch said. Despite a packed schedule, Kilpatrick not only met with the team multiple times, but connected them to others who were able to help them navigate a series of complex challenges. “That one phone call helped us obtain extensive resources and expertise,” Fuerch said.

Previously: Medtech CEO shares leadership lessons with Stanford Biodesign, Stanford Biodesign focuses on innovation in aging and Biodesign at Stanford: A whopping success
Photo by Stacey Paris McCutcheon

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