By Rachel Lane PhD, RD
Posted December 9, 2019
Technology drives discovery. In medicine, technological advances allow us to probe further into disease pathology and to develop new, more personalized and precise treatments. Fortifying a molecular pathway with synthetic compounds was once groundbreaking, but with today’s technology, innovators can solve much more complex problems with much more precise solutions.
Through genetic engineering and immunotherapy advances, a patient’s own cells target specific offending agents in the body. Gene editing demonstrates cancer-curing potential, and telemedicine may promote patient compliance. Three-dimensional printing creates personalized knee braces and even human hearts.
These examples highlight the profound ways technological advances nurture medical breakthroughs, but how do we identify those medical applications in the first place? It starts with the exchange of ideas among highly specialized experts, such as engineers and biologists; software developers and biochemists; and physicians and biophysicists (which can create one set of dilemmas). Once experts identify an application, they must objectively evaluate the market demand for the proposed application.
As biomedical researchers, we sometimes skip this step. We invest a significant portion of our lives and energy into finding new solutions and want to see the fruition of our efforts. Unfortunately, our developments don’t always advance the product enough to claim a share of the market, and sometimes, our advancements aren’t what the market wants at all.
Bill Gates’s first company Traf-O-Data created reports for traffic engineers but failed due to insufficient market research. "…Traf-O-Data was a good idea with a flawed business model," Gates admitted. "We had done no market research."
Validating market demand for a new food or exercise trend is one thing, but how do biomedical researchers investigate the market viability of new clinical applications? The National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized the need for innovators to explore product/market fit before product development and pioneered the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program as a solution in 2012. The I-Corps provides scientists and engineers with funds and educational support to assess the commercialization potential of basic research projects.
Molly Wasko, PhD, Associate Dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Collat School of Business, leads the UAB NSF I-Corps. Her passion for early-stage innovation stems from her own startup failure. "I built the product I wanted, but it was overdesigned for anyone else," Wasko laments. She had implemented the "Build, Hope, Sell" business model – where product development precedes market assessment – and it let her down.
Now, Wasko helps early-stage innovators avoid the pitfalls of the "Build, Hope, Sell" model by teaching the "Lean Startup" methodology to campus innovators. In the Lean Startup model, innovators explore product/market fit in the I-Corps before product development.
Companies accepted into the I-Corps receive a stipend ($2500) to complete customer-discovery market research. Innovators use the stipend to share their idea with customers at conferences, events, retail locations, clinics, and other points of contact. Through these interactions, innovators receive the critical feedback necessary to create more useful products that better satisfy the market demand.
What would you do with $2500 and a brilliant idea? Shockingly, some innovators do nothing.
"I have one group that needs to visit Disney World so they can interview representative patrons at the entrance, but I haven’t been able to convince them to go," explained Wasko.
Why would someone turn down a trip to Disney World? Because talking to potential customers is scary and risky. Some potential customers will understand the new idea, some won’t, and others will reject it outright. The nascent idea rarely satisfies the market need sufficiently.
That initial idea is tainted by the innovator’s own biases and blind spots; it doesn’t represent the complex, heterogeneous market. Market research helps to identify and correct those biases. These results either 1) cause innovators to pivot from their initial idea, creating a product that better meets the market’s needs and expectations or 2) indicate that the market need isn’t robust enough to support the product. Product pivots create better innovations and innovators, and quickly identifying futile innovations saves time, energy and money.
Sometimes products don’t fit the binary system of "stop and go." Learning to "park" an idea – setting it aside until it can be modified to better fit the market demand or until the market is more primed for the product – is an important lesson taught by the I-Corps program. Ferhat Zengul, PhD, Assistant Professor of Healthcare Management at UAB, parked several ideas after completing the UAB I-Corps program. According to Zengul, "the I-Corps program revealed how others perceived my idea and unclouded my mind from the skew of passion."
That betterment process is Wasko’s favorite part of the I-Corps program. "The [innovator’s] transformation throughout the program is amazing" beams Wasko. Innovators enter the program scared to discuss their idea and fearing rejection, but they leave empowered by customer conversations to pursue, pivot, or “park” their idea.