Many clinicians and researchers are so immersed in their work—head down in their research or tirelessly providing quality patient care—that it may not cross their mind to think about innovative ways to solve the unmet medical needs they see every day. But some of the best medical technologies come out of everyday observation, and some people become inventors even though they only set out to solve a problem.
“People become great at what they practice, so my first tip is to practice being innovative,” says Sarah Haigh Molina, associate director of innovation at the Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization.
In the medical field, being innovative means not just creating something new but also developing a wide-reaching product—whether that is a device or therapeutic or diagnostic. Innovative medical technologies are measured by their effects on patient care and outcomes.
The Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization helps clinicians and researchers of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center turn their observations into innovative medical technologies to license to industry partners.
“There is a sweet spot between ideas that are not unique enough to protect and ideas that are so ambitious they’re unattainable. When we help inventors explore solutions to what we call unmet clinical needs, we are searching for the best ways to improve patient care that are also compatible with the clinical landscape,” explains Haigh Molina.
Haigh Molina and two of her colleagues from the Center’s technology innovation team—Kenneth Russell, director of medical device development, and Deepika Poranki, innovation associate in therapeutics—share their tips for observing unmet medical needs that have potential to become a licensable product.
“Just like any other muscle, innovation must be ‘worked out’ if it is to become stronger,” says Russell.
Sometimes innovative thinking requires seeking a fresh set of eyes.
“We can help you exercise that muscle. If you are publishing something in your field or you’re new to the faculty, we want to meet with you and discuss your projects. We want to help you explore the possibilities,” explains Poranki. In some instances this might look like determining the commercial viability of a product, while in other instances it may be determining next steps for a novel target.
But sometimes innovative thinking starts with good daily habits.
Here are five practices encouraged by the technology innovation team that can foster professional creativity and help you take your first steps to inventing a medical technology:
1. Become disciplined at identifying problems and rationalizing the need.
Challenge yourself to identify one problem you observe per week. The problem could be small, like a better handle for a surgical tool, or big, like a patient’s cancer relapse because the treatment wasn’t effective. Articulate both the unmet need of the problem and the benefit of solving this need. In the first instance, the need is to make a device easier to use, and the benefit is to increase patient safety. With cancer, the need is to create a more reliable therapy, and the benefit is to help patients feel better, live longer and fully participate in life.
2. Brainstorm different solutions that would solve this problem.
Write them down. In the example of the surgical tool handle, the solutions can be as simple as researching types of handles and identifying a unique way to modify the existing medical device or as complex as creating an entirely new device that approaches the procedure differently. Your imagination is the limitation at this juncture. Don’t censor your thoughts.
3. Spend time thinking about how well your solution solves the problem.
Is it the “right” solution to the stated problem? How does it compare with what’s out there? You can easily find some basic information by searching the internet or you can go as far as researching the patent database. Determine if and why your proposed solution is better.
While researching, also consider potential downfalls of your solution. Do you think development costs may outweigh potential benefits? How long do you think the window of development opportunity will stay open? Is another organization further along in the development process? Don’t allow this line of reasoning to deter you from moving forward; use it as fuel to find a more creative solution.
4. Now that you have practiced innovating, return to the problem.
Now you have a better sense of the nature of the problem and its current solutions. How big is the problem? Does it require swift and drastic measures? How many people does it affect? Who has a vested interest in the problem? How many competitors are trying to solve the same problem? Is the problem defined well enough or is it vague? Who are the customers for this solution and how will they benefit?
Sometimes you may realize the competition is too far advanced in its pursuit of a solution and it isn’t likely you can get up to speed quickly enough. Or maybe you need more insight from people who might benefit from the solution about how to proceed. Alternatively, you may find the time and conditions are perfect for continued investigation of your solution.
5. Think about the customer.
The person who buys the solution from an academic medical center isn’t always the person who benefits from it. Consider what the manufacturer wants and what a company will gain by licensing a new technology. What’s viable in the market place? What is possible with the technology? When answering these questions—either in your mind or on paper—train yourself to be as specific as possible with the answers by using adjectives and being descriptive.
Don’t just say “my solution’s faster,” for example, or assume that the reasons are obvious. Explain how much faster and why faster is better in this particular instance. Is there an ideal speed that’s been documented, for instance, in the literature? What changes in the outcome as a result of increased speed?
“These steps will help you tone your innovation muscles,” Russell says. “But you don’t have to do all of the heavy lifting on your own—our team wants to help.”
The staff of the Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization can help guide inventors along the innovation journey, which often starts as a simple “what if” moment. For instance, Russell recalls when a medical center administrator observed patients occasionally slipping on the hospital floor. The administrator came to the Center to suggest socks with rubber soles. What but he didn’t know was that the socks already existed and were in fact provided on intake.
Part of Russell’s job is to understand the market need and help potential inventors find truly unique solutions.
“When we evaluate a new idea, we try to understand your world—in this instance, the administrator was busy and didn’t have the opportunity to research this problem. We are here to provide information and offer constructive assessment,” Russell says.
In this case the idea didn’t result in a new product, but the administrator stretched his ‘innovation muscles,’ which can often lead to even better ideas in the future.
“When you are going through the innovation process, connect with us,” adds Poranki. “Even if you simply want to learn what the Center has to offer, we want to talk with you.”