Stories of Medical Innovation

Insights into Innovation: Lessons Learned from 25 Years of Partnering with Industry

Have you ever wondered if having the extra person in the boat hurts or helps?

A neurosurgeon who has made countless technological contributions to his field answers this question, sharing why strategic industry collaborations are essential for advancing innovation and tips you can use to foster your own successful industry relations.

Over 25 years, the inventions of Charles Branch, Jr., MD, professor and chair of the department of neurosurgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, have advanced the clinical landscape of spine surgery, changing the way spinal fusions are performed worldwide.

Since his first collaboration with Medtronic (then Sofamor Danek) in 1990, Branch has collaborated with a variety of industry partners, patenting more than 40 innovative techniques and instruments for spine treatment, ranging from the Lumbar Interbody Fusion System to minimally invasive procedures for spine fusion and fixation.

“If I could show you early industry agreements, you’d probably chuckle,” said Branch, an experienced innovator who is still actively involved with industry today. “The pathway to get a product to market is much more complex now, but the good news is that we have Wake Forest Innovations to guide us.”

Branch recently spoke about his career experience working with industry at a lunch and learn session for Medical Center faculty and investigators. He shared the importance of having the “extra person” – or industry partner – in the boat, lessons he has learned along the way and strategies for making successful partnerships work today:

Be an Expert

Expertise in spinal fusion surgery jumpstarted Branch’s commercialization career and has been central to his ongoing success, from his first invention – the Tangent posterior lumbar interbody fusion and fixation procedure – to novel techniques and instruments for spine vertebrae fusion today. “Get good at something,” said Branch. “When you are recognized as an expert in your field, industry partners seeking real-world clinical solutions will want to work with you. You’ll also need them – they’re the other person in the boat that can help translate your research into an applied market-ready technology.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

“Not every idea has to be huge,” advises Branch, whose inventions range from large-scale fusion instruments like the Quadrant Retractor tool to simpler technologies. His modular set of Tangent disc spreaders and interbody fusion instruments condensed surgical tools from ten trays down to a single tray. While this was not a complex invention, it was valuable because it answered a need. “You can make a big difference with something simple,” he said. “Don’t underestimate your individual potential to contribute to a clinical or scientific challenge.”

Know Your Value

It is imperative to have an upfront, clear understanding of each party’s contribution to product development in industry collaborations. Over the years, Branch has seen commercialization and intellectual property recognition distracted by many factors, including difficulty forecasting the value of a novel product and lack of defined business plans for technology consignment. “Never question the value of your contribution,” said Branch. “Set clear guidelines upfront. Wake Forest Innovations can help you determine the market value so you receive an appropriate, healthy royalty.”

Be Meticulous

It is essential to document everything related to your intellectual property, including the date, time, who you spoke with and the nature of the discussion. “Record all of your interactions so that nothing is lost. You never know when you might need this information to support or protect your contribution or invention.” Design or concept sketches should be signed and dated along with your description of what contributions you made to the particular device or technology. This is particularly important when a team of surgeons and engineers develops a product and your individual contribution needs to be clearly presented and documented.

Be Prepared for the Unknown

Faculty-industry teamwork is fundamental to improving patient care, but every partnership carries some risk and uncertainty, and conflicts of interest can arise. Branch recalls a time when a multicenter clinical trial in which he was participating was suspended to assess an unexpected finding. Subsequent negative publicity about the technology raised questions about the research. “You have to recognize potential challenges or outcomes of working with industry – the good, the bad and occasionally even the ugly,” he said. “Be prepared, be flexible and use the expertise of Wake Forest Innovations. Get their team involved in the process as early as possible. They’re here to help you navigate the intricacies of commercialization and forge successful, lasting industry relationships.”

Are you interested in collaborating with industry to advance your product innovation to the next level? Contact the Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization at commercialization@wakehealth.edu or +1.336.716.3729 to learn about how Wake Forest Innovations can help you.

To learn more about Branch’s career as an inventor, click here.