“Anyone can be an innovator” was the guiding phrase of Pathways to Market: Focus on Medical Devices, a panel held at Boston Children’s Hospital on January 6, 2014. Co-hosted by the Hospital’s Technology & Innovation Development Office (TIDO) and Innovation Acceleration Program (IAP), the forum explored ways for entrepreneurs in the medical community to seek funding and strategic partnerships for pediatric medical devices.
Dr. Pedro del Nido, Chief of Cardiac Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital and one of the developers behind a new surgical glue for cardiac operations, moderated the discussion, which brought together a range of perspectives within the healthcare technology enterprise space. Panelists included venture capitalist Maria Berkman, MD, MBA, a manager at Broadview Ventures; Kurt Dasse, PhD, serial entrepreneur and current President & CEO of the biopharmaceutical company GeNO; Ron Lancaster, Director of Corporate Research at Boston Scientific; and Ibraheem Badejo, PhD, Director of New Ventures at Johnson & Johnson Innovation.
Though diverse in their experiences, the panelists converged on several pieces of advice for technologists interested in moving a device to market:
All panelists agreed that securing intellectual property rights should be a top priority early in device ideation and development. Berkman noted that IP rights are crucial not only to safeguard the value of a nascent innovation but also for an idea to be taken seriously by potential early-stage partners such as VC firms, angel groups and foundations. As Dasse said, “Don’t be the best, be the first.”
Though exit plans are likely to change, it is necessary for inventors—particularly those looking to maintain existing research and medical appointments—to have a firm sense of their end goal in commercializing a device. Moreover, this goal should inform the types of partnerships and investments inventors pursue. While large corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific manage innovations at early stages, others will not invest unless a product is more established. Founders can often maintain an advisory role in a larger company that absorbs their device idea, providing consulting or serving as a Chief Medical Officer. Lancaster advised entrepreneurs to envision staying with their device through its final stages of commercialization because they are going to make decisions that are smarter by assuming a long-term personal investment in their idea.
“Investment is like a marriage,” Badejo said. “At the end of the day, you are not just investing in technology—you are investing in people.” A team’s internal dynamics are among the most important factors in determining whether or not to onboard a new device idea. This is why Johnson & Johnson invests in assembling teams of individuals whose expertise and temperaments best align for the success of a specific technology. Berkman echoed the importance of having the appropriate team in place. She considers two main criteria in gauging the efficacy of a team: whether the founder has “skin in the game” and whether the necessary technical expertise is represented in the management. “You need a balance between enthusiasm from the founder and realism from seasoned experts,” she said.
For Dasse, the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make in the medical device space is losing focus. “It is not unusual for young entrepreneurs to begin working on a given project, start pursuing too many parallel opportunities at one time, and not get anything done,” he said. Berkman and Badejo emphasized the importance of quickly identifying where a technology will be most impactful and moving that application along before considering other indications.
The panelists and moderator agreed that commercializing devices presents an immense challenge. Moreover, as Lancaster noted, the real penetration potential of a market may be vastly different from the actual market size. New devices may also have difficulty attracting investment when they take a long time to commercialize or offer slim returns. For devices with smaller potential audiences, like pediatric devices, the panelists recommended seeking out niches within the existing projects of large corporations or first proving device and market viability through a start-up enterprise.
Despite the inevitable challenges along the pathway to market for new medical devices, the panelists emphasized their encouragement for entrepreneurs motivated to create social impact through truly innovative technology. “If you are really meeting a need and filling a gap that is out there, “ Lancaster said, “you are going to find an interested, strategic partner. You really have to show how you are solving a problem.”
*This event was the first installment of the Boston Children’s Hospital Innovators’ Forum, a monthly gathering aimed at supporting the medical innovation community. Next month’s event will focus on the legal, regulatory, and business landscape of commercializing medical devices.
Meher is a post-baccalaureate pre-medical student passionate about global innovations that leverage technology to enhance caregiving and hospital workflow. She lives in Cambridge, MA.
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