Looking at the lightbulb of innovation

A close look at the innovation process

I think I have found my calling as an innovator – specifically, in medical devices. I’m currently one month into a one-year fellowship called “Biodesign” at Stanford which focuses on finding needs, inventing and implementing new biomedical technologies.

Over the course of this fellowship, I’ll walk you through this program with me one month at a time. Follow along with me the lifecycle of an innovative product — or at the very least, an aspiring technology entrepreneur. This month, I got acquainted with the industry, the process of innovation and team building.

The “innovation process” for medical devices can be, and has been, reduced to a book. It is a big book, but a book nonetheless. The first step requires observation and problem identification in which we discover issues in the hospital. This helps us completely understand the needs so that we can bring unique insight to the design of a product that fills that need.

Two things from this first month caught my attention. First, the process of innovation — which may be renamed the process of problem identification — does lead to insights that can be the basis of a solution. Second, investment in the team is valuable.

To identify the problem, we began with a mini-project that looked at measuring intracranial pressure (ICP), or pressure in the skull. We assessed the current technologies and the issues with those technologies. We looked at whether a new technology would change treatment and outcomes. On that basis we redefined the problem from “a way to measure ICP non-invasively” to “a way to decrease the complication rates associated with ICP monitoring.” We then assessed the stakeholders, reimbursement, regulatory and intellectual property issues and opportunities and refined the market. We narrowed our “need” to “a way to decrease the infection and hemmhorage rates associated with ICP moniotoring.” Each step required us to go back and re-investigate the potential patients and see if we could further divide the patient group. This required self-discipline but was valuable, and each insight felt like a team win.

The second unexpected learning came in team dynamics. Each team is a collection of four smart people who have been selected for the program, but who have no past relationship with each other and have no “boss”. The lack of hierarchy required us to go through natural stages of team work: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. We are not done. In fact, we have only just begun. Just recognizing that these stages are relatively “normal” has helped us work through what could have been difficult situations.

Next month we’ll be in the hospital finding needs that people don’t yet realize exist.

I’m happy to answer questions if you have any.

An excited inventor,

Joelle Abra

Joelle has a background in chemical engineering, business and law. Joelle has led two successful entrepreneurial ventures and recently completed the Biodesign Fellowship in medical device innovation at Stanford University. She now works at Stanford providing business and IP strategy consulting to the most promising biomedical research and provides a “View from the Valley!” See more…