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Ask the Experts: Is Innovating Within an Academic Medical Center Really Possible?

Kris Olson

KristianOlsonKris Olson, MD, MPH, DTM&H is CAMTech’s Medical Director. He is also a Clinician Educator at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics.

Is innovation even possible inside an academic medical center, or should innovators move into the private sector?

I think of invention as the “first occurrence of an idea” and innovation is the first time that idea is put into practical use. However, to innovate requires the entire continuum. Often times, recognition of medical needs, potential solutions, and identification of possibilities occurs within academic medical centers. Hence, academia is an often necessary, but not always sufficient component of the innovation process. Furthermore, there is also a point at which academic medical centers no longer contribute “within their wheelhouse” to the process, especially when it comes to necessary components of moving ideas forward into practical solutions. This includes things like regulatory strategies, identifying the most protective or stimulatory IP frameworks, bill of materials, design-for-manufacture, marketing and distribution.

Why is innovating in academic medicine so difficult?

For the reasons mentioned above (namely, the lack of necessary business skill sets), innovating within an academic medical center can be difficult.  It can seem cumbersome to deal with the bureaucracy of technical transfer offices. In addition, innovators may feel that their share of the innovation (both recognition and revenues generated) may be less than if they were to go at it alone. It also seems difficult when one starts seeking investment money for a venture. Sitting within an academic medical center or non-profit can be a barrier to avenues for these investment dollars. Also, if one is seeking SBIR funds, a private for-profit entity is needed.

Another barrier, that can be both real and perceived, is that academic medical centers are slow moving, not practically focused, will seek evidence to excess, and that their goals (knowledge, publications, etc) may be different than a for-profit entity (or even an NGO non-profit as an implementation entity).

Why, then, do we still need to be pushing for innovation in academia?

Despite the challenges, academic medical centers can contribute substantively to innovation. As mentioned above, the identification of needs and potential solutions may well arrive within cutting edge care facilities. In addition, academic medical centers can serve as a neutral broker of best practices and can give testimony of effect. Study design and “sound science” with less fear of bias are also attractive for burgeoning innovations. At a practical level, many non-diluted funds in the forms of grants can best be obtained through academic medical centers. These are often crucial to honing in on the science and appropriate approach to a problem. Such sources of funding can help create value in a nascent idea.

Finally, as we have discovered at CAMTech, the many varied people and skill sets needed for truly innovative solutions, may only gather through an entity such as an academic medical center. Hence, they can provide an essential innovation “kick-start” function.

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Jenni Whalen

Jenni Whalen

    Jenni Whalen is the Executive Assistant of Editorial at Upworthy. She was previously MedTech Boston's Managing Editor and has an MS in Journalism from Boston University, as well as a BA in Psychology from Bucknell University. Whalen has written for Greatist, Boston magazine, AZ Central Healthy Living and the New England Journal of Medicine, among other places. She has also worked as a conference planner, ghost writer, researcher and content developer.

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