25 Mar 2022

By Dr. Mark Cohen

Surgeons are frequently engaged in the incorporation of new technologies in their practice. In the operating room, the clinic, and even the board room, they combine technical skill with creative problem solving to improve tools and techniques for patient care, making them natural innovators. Surgeons are also keenly aware of how healthcare delivery and patient workflow can affect outcomes and overall costs. While surgical training and faculty development continue to evolve, one area that remains a challenge is educating surgeons how to navigate innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship more effectively. Even surgeons who have had a lifetime of clinical training and experience may lack the necessary tools, skills, and network to successfully take an innovation from an idea to an actual product or service that can impact patient care. Moreover, with increasing pressure to meet productivity metrics, a surgeon’s ability and bandwidth to learn the complexities of commercialization is often quite limited.

Having a good idea and turning it into a meaningful innovation that will positively impact society requires a good understanding of the process of innovation and commercialization. This is not a sprint but rather a well-planned journey that will take many turns and bring you to several forks in the road where you need to decide the path you want your innovation to take. It starts with defining the right problem to address and then brainstorming ideas that solve the problem. Those ideas then need to be iteratively tested and evaluated by a variety of stakeholders and customers who can help focus the idea to something that is more valuable to them and has meaningful impact. Once a good idea is developed into a strong value proposition, it needs resources and the right team to move it forward. Bringing others into your innovation and creating a shared vision to move it through the commercialization process requires you to develop skills in giving a compelling pitch.

After deciding on what is the specific problem you want to solve, the next phase of the innovation process is ideation and brainstorming potential solutions. The best brainstorming often involves team-based brainstorming where you can look at the problem from multiple perspectives and lenses. Diversity of team-based brainstorming can add significant value to identifying novel as well as improbable solutions. In many programs these teams often involve physicians, engineers, business experts, IP lawyers, and customers experiencing the problem. At this phase, no idea is a bad one and it is important to look at every angle and possibility. Generating multiple solutions can be helpful not only to identify weaknesses in each idea, but also to identify which ideas have the best chance at solving the problem so that you can narrow down your solutions to one lead idea with which to move forward.  

Communicating your vision requires a combination of tools and formats that share one theme–engage the listener and encourage them to ask for additional information.  Brevity is critical but can be difficult for innovators who are inherently excited about their vision and all that is possible.  Carving your message to its core elements takes effort.  The good news is that brevity and clarity can bring insight to both the innovator and the audience.  A brief message is more likely to engage the audience and win you the chance to say more.

Probably the greatest skill successful surgeon innovators develop is the ability to communicate and create a meaningful vision and path for the future that other stakeholders and investors can get behind. This involves not just a solid understanding of the path to the clinic/market that the innovation or technology has to take, but also who your audience is that you are pitching to and what they are looking for in an innovation to support it. Many times I have seen great ideas fail because the surgeon could not convey their innovation in a way business and industry investors could understand and support. I cannot stress enough the value of a clear vision, a strong value-proposition, a solid team, and a low/tolerable-risk path to the clinic.

Having taught innovation and entrepreneurial skills to medical students, surgical residents, and surgeons of every level for almost a decade now, I have gleaned many pearls from mistakes I have made in my own commercialization efforts as well as watching others navigate these roads.

One fact of the real world, which daunted me a bit when I first heard it, is that over 95% of healthcare innovations fail to get to the clinic and over 70% of venture-backed innovations fail to get to market. This however should not steer you away from innovation and trying to create meaningful impact for your patients and society. For the surgical innovator, this is a labor of love and something you are passionate about and want to help your patients or advance your field, so you are willing to put in time to move it forward. It is important to realize that as a busy surgeon or surgical trainee this is extremely difficult to do alone and it is crucial to build a diverse and solid team that can help move this forward in ways you could not do by yourself.

I often tell my academic colleagues that getting venture funding for an innovation can be compared in some ways to getting an NIH R01 grant funded. Both are unlikely to be successful on the first try, but the key is perseverance and learning how to set yourself up better for success. VC investors in many ways have similarities to an NIH study section. Both want a disruptive innovation that will advance the field; both want a great team to move the project forward to success; both want a clear stepwise plan for milestones and success; and both want a project that has a favorable risk/reward ratio that generates almost guaranteed success for their investment. Similarly, both turn down a vast majority of the proposals they get for the same reasons above.

There are ways however to set your innovation up for success to better mitigate these barriers to funding and make it easier to build excitement among stakeholders and investors. Learning these skills can save you time in navigating your innovation pathway as well as avoiding pitfalls that can sink your idea before it can get to the clinic. Understanding your innovation ecosystem where you are practicing is a crucial first step in knowing both early opportunities as well as barriers you need to navigate to grow your idea.


Please join us on Monday, March 28, 2022, from 8-9 pm EST for an AWS Tweetchat about surgical innovation!

This chat will focus on how surgeons can be better innovators and bring great ideas from concept to the clinic for impact. Some topics covered will be team building, industry-academic partnerships, navigating regulatory pathways and funding innovations. The chat will be moderated by Dr. Monica Jain and other surgeon innovators from around the country. We will also be welcoming experts in this space from academia, industry, and the venture capital/finance sector that can help answer your questions around bringing surgical innovations to the clinic. The questions will be posted directly from the @WomenSurgeons Twitter account. You can also find them by following the hashtag #AWSchat. If you have not participated in a tweet chat with us before, check out this tutorial written by Dr. Heather Yeo (@heatheryeomd) to know more. We will be discussing the following topics during our tweet chat:

Q1: What are some barriers to moving innovations forward at your institution?

Q2: How do busy surgeon-innovators build strong and diverse innovation teams?  

Q3:  Where do I find funding for my innovation to get things moving forward?

Q4:  How do busy surgeons find time to innovate when this is not paid effort or protected time to work on innovation projects?

Q5:  How can I get better recognized for my innovation efforts to get more time and resources from leadership?

Q6:  Where can I develop more innovation/entrepreneurial skills to help me focus and move my ideas forward?

Q7: What do I do when my innovation seems to be stalled-out or hits a barrier I cannot overcome?

Mark Cohen, MD, FSSO, FACS, is the Vice Chair in Surgery for Clinical Operations; a Professor of Surgery, Pharmacology, and Biomedical Engineering; and the Director of the Center for Surgical Innovation, Medical School Path of Excellence in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the Center Initiative in Medical and Surgical Extended Reality at the University of Michigan. His clinical practice involves endocrine surgery, specifically thyroid surgery for benign and malignant disease, minimally invasive parathyroid surgery and adrenalectomy, and surgery for advanced melanomas, including hyperthermic isolated limb perfusion. He is particularly interested in the development of targeted cancer drug delivery systems and has been a leading advocate for the importance of surgical innovation for many years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkCohenFACS.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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