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How open innovation can overcome the complexity of healthcare entrepreneurship

Zen Chu

As part of the Kauffman-sponsored Energizing Health Collaboration Series, we've turned over eMed to Guest Editor Zen Chu, the chief architect for the Boston leg of the collaboration conference and an entrepreneur in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here's Zen's latest contribution in his role as eMed Guest Editor.


Physician-inventors often spend the majority of their time secretly gathering data for a clinical paper or patent filing, convinced they have a billion-dollar idea and reticent to discuss it publicly. But the reality is that most inventions fail to address clinical efficacy.

Before jumping to the conclusion that they have a great idea, these doctors must validate that the need is big enough. If you've got the right need, you can throw away the technology and start from scratch. The need survives. That's the great argument for hackathons: By adding perspectives to the proposed solution, you potentially save thousands of dollars and gain the psychological freedom to pivot.

Hackathons are built around needs-finding -- validating that there is value if you could solve that need. Just as physicians work in evidence-based medicine, entrepreneurs need evidence-based business models. Hackathons help condense the time it takes to get a startup off the ground, while at the same time adding perspectives on the solution.

There are so many unfortunate stories about companies that spent millions of dollars to get a product through the regulatory process and on the market -- only to have it flop. You have to pressure-test these ideas up front. Get out of the building and do customer interviews to get an idea of the environment. Be open to negative feedback.

The irony is that clinical folks trained in experiments have difficulty thinking in terms of market risk. Will people buy their invention? And at what price point? Experienced venture capitalists and entrepreneurs prioritize market risk even above technology and regulatory risk. Market risk should be addressed even before your product is built.

The startup PillPack, a full-service pharmacy that delivers personalized service and convenient packaging, was savvy in its approach to market risk. Instead of over-engineering their daily pill packs, the team started with a paper prototype. Within the company's first 24 hours (at a H@cking Medicine hackathon), the team had created its first mockups. Those were put in front of clinicians and patients, who were observed using them on a day-to-day basis. The PillPack team had half of its insights within their first 30 days.

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