Usefulness Trumps Cool in Medical Design Innovation

Want to create a medical device that will also find real success? Better find something useful rather than just spectacular. At the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing show in New York City this week, design leaders gathered for the panel, "Secrets of Successful Medical Design Innovation." Panelists explained the realities of innovation. They stressed the importance of usefulness and explained that it's critical to keep the senior managers of your company on board with the design work, particularly if the process is lengthy and costly.

Speakers included moderator Bryce Rutter, CEO of Metaphase Design Group; and panelists Craig Scherer, senior partner at Insight Product Development; Daniel Kosoy, partner at Athenian Venture Partners; Giridhar Thiagarajan, R&D engineer at Bard Access Systems; Gerry Llanos, research fellow at Ethicon; and Kelly Sager, senior business director at BD Intelliport.

One point that most of panelists stressed is the importance to creating products that fill clear and identifiable needs. "It's important that we address user needs rather than an engineer's perspective of what a user needs," said Thiagarajan. "Ask users what is missing in their current products. The design needs to make sense. It doesn't need to be groundbreaking. It just needs to address user needs and be efficient."

Kosoy underscored the need for a product to be clearly useful. "You have to be solving a problem. If there isn't a problem, it will be hard to get people interested in what you're doing. Incremental changes are useful, but it really needs to be substantive." He also noted how important it is to be able to explain the product's use convincingly. "What's the story you're telling? Can you build a presentation around it to convince a large company?"


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Sager noted that she has seen a number of great products with great engineering that don't offer clear usefulness. "There are a lot of great designs that didn't solve any unmet needs. These are beautiful devices that are expensive," said Sager. "One product we saw proposed cost 10 times more than the value it created. Users liked it, but it was over-designed. The cost has to match the value created if you want it to be adopted. A big piece of this is understanding who your customers are."

Bringing Senior Management Along

In the medical field, innovation and design can take a long time and deep corporate investment. Managing support from executives is critical to keep the project on track. "You need to gain buy-in from your most senior leadership. It can potentially take many years of design and regulatory compliances. If it's truly innovative, you have to find out if people really want it," said Sager. "Most companies don't have the fortitude for true innovation. You have to get senior support. It's easy for them to let it go. They tend to be tactical rather than strategic."

Scherer agreed with the importance of gaining and holding the support from upper management. "It's important to get support on the senior level where people are funding the innovation. We've been in the middle of projects when someone -- usually in marketing -- says this is not really groundbreaking," said Scherer. "We have to explain how that's inappropriate in this instance. You have to create a plan and stick with it. You can get lost chasing features."

Kosoy noted that companies have to be shown how they will make a profit on the product your team wants to develop, including regulatory costs. "Show how you can get a return on investment? The solution has to fit the regulatory process," said Kosoy. "Innovation shouldn't have a significant regulatory hurdle, and it shouldn't take a lot of time and money."

While it may be a wide path to seek incremental advances with product design, in time, big leaps still have an important place in innovation. "Usually large companies don't like to take risks. Innovation takes money and time. Incremental innovations are going to take much less. Why spend $15 million when I can spend $2 million for an incremental change and still make money?" said Thiagarajan "Yet once the low-hanging fruit dries up, They'll have to take the greater risk.

[image via FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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