Surgical innovators offer tips for transforming an idea into patient care

Ali Tavakkoli, MBBS, FACS
Ali Tavakkoli, MBBS, FACS

Most surgeons must think like an inventor on a daily basis, according to Ali Tavakkoli, MBBS, FACS, moderator of the Monday, October 25, Panel Session Surgical Innovation: Taking an Idea All the Way.

“We adjust our surgical technique, our approach, our incisions based on patients’ unique characteristics,” said Dr. Tavakkoli, associate surgeon, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, associate professor of surgery, Harvard Medical School, and co-director, Center for Weight Management and Metabolic Surgery, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA. “We are thus often able to come up with new ideas that can help us do things better, safer, and more efficiently.” Yet, oftentimes, this innovative thinking doesn’t advance beyond the idea stage.

Panelists discussed practical steps for translating ideas into devices that can improve patient care. “Innovation is a process, and as such, it can be learned and it can be supported to be more successful,” Dr. Tavakkoli said.

Dan Azagury, MD
Dan Azagury, MD

A key step is protecting your idea, said Dan Azagury, MD, director for education, Biodesign Fellowship Program, and chief, minimally invasive and bariatric surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine, CA. He discussed the legal aspects of protecting ideas and obtaining a patent.

“A patent, fundamentally, is a system that enables you to capture the value that’s associated with your invention,” he said, explaining that a patent does not grant the holder the right to make or sell an invention, but rather the right to exclude competitors from using an idea for their own profit.

“There is no ‘patent police,’ so if somebody decides to infringe on your patent, nobody is going to chase them down the street and stop them from doing that,” Dr.  Azagury continued. “The only way to enforce a patent is to actually sue the company or entity infringing on your own patent, and that can be a costly exercise.”

Elisabeth K. Wynne, MD
Elisabeth K. Wynne, MD

Elisabeth K. Wynne, MD, a pediatric surgeon at Dayton Children’s Hospital, OH, outlined best practices for brainstorming new ideas for surgical innovation. A prerequisite for the concept-generation process is having a clearly defined clinical issue that needs to be addressed. To achieve this, Dr. Wynne advised focusing on three components: the problem or clinical need, the affected population, and the desired outcome.

During brainstorming sessions, she recommended using the following guidelines from the design firm Ideo:

  • Defer judgment; every idea is valid.
  • Encourage wild ideas.
  • Have one conversation at a time so participants can listen completely to the topic at hand.
  • Build on the ideas of others.
  • Stay focused on the topic.
  • Be visual.
  • Go for quantity.

“A great goal is to have 100 new ideas in 60 minutes of a brainstorming session. You can always whittle down the ideas to the ones you like and the ones that fit the clinical need later,” Dr. Wynne said.

Brian J. Dunkin, MD, FACS
Brian J. Dunkin, MD, FACS

Brian J. Dunkin, MD, FACS, chief medical officer, Boston Scientific, MA, explained how to assess the value of a new idea. It begins with understanding the audience with whom the idea is being discussed, he said. Discussing the concept for a new product with a colleague differs significantly from discussing it with a potential investor.

“[Venture capitalists] usually invest around areas that are important to them, but they’re going to expect a return on investment and within a certain period of time,” Dr. Dunkin said. “So, you need to be able to speak a language to them that they can recognize and understand, and if you don’t have experience doing that, then certainly get someone around you that does.”

Inventors should be prepared to tell large medical device manufacturers why the inventor would like to work with the company, how the proposed device fits into the company’s sales strategy, the cost of goods sold, how manufacturable the product is, and what its geographic reach would be realistically.

Larger companies have online portals where innovators can submit their ideas and start the engagement process, Dr. Dunkin noted. For inventors in an academic environment, their institution likely has a technology transfer office to assist with the idea evaluation process and collaboration with industry.

Carla M. Pugh, MD, PhD, FACS
Carla M. Pugh, MD, PhD, FACS

Carla M. Pugh, MD, PhD, FACS, professor of surgery, and director, Technology Enabled Clinical Improvement Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, addressed the involvement of academic institutions in surgical innovation and shared personal insights from her work developing and marketing a pelvic exam simulator.

“Universities have an inherent need to manage conflict of interest,” Dr. Pugh said. “And I have to be very purposeful here. They don’t want you not to have a conflict of interest. In fact, they want you to innovate, but they want to partner with you and help to manage it.” Personnel, space, equipment, and materials are the main areas of focus.

“A university nonprofit cannot be seen to have a for-profit business using their personnel and their space. That’s a major conflict,” Dr. Pugh said. “The other conflict is faculty time. You are a full-time employee of the university, and if you’re spending 50 percent of your time on a start-up company, then there’s a conflict.”

Some institutions limit consulting hours. At Stanford, the limit is 13 days per academic quarter and 52 days total each year, she noted.

This and other Clinical Congress 2021 sessions are available to registered attendees for on-demand viewing for a full year following Congress on the virtual meeting platform.