Future pandemics are unlikely to resemble the disjointed patchwork of COVID-19 mitigation efforts implemented worldwide by lawmakers and health officials. Instead, they possibly will involve more coordinated responses and widespread testing, as well as technological innovations inspired by design thinking.
Such thinking could result in redesigned public spaces that double as treatment areas during an outbreak and airports with more security screening lanes. Hospitals are likely to rethink conventional schematics too, potentially employing such pandemic-busting features as negative pressure zones, special patient evaluation areas, telehealth centers, and flexible-use rooms (i.e., those easily modified between acute care and ICU).
With the COVID-19 threat unlikely to abate in the fore- seeable future, design thinking could potentially become a powerful tool in helping to better manage and control forthcoming pandemics. The approach is already being used to improve healthcare equity and spawn creative solutions to medicine’s most pressing dilemmas.
MPO’s January/February feature, “Inventive Interaction,” explores the various forces at play in medtech R&D. Rahul Maharsia, director of global R&D at Porex, was among the various experts interviewed for the story. His full input is provided in the following Q&A.
Michael Barbella: Where are companies spending their research dollars now—on incremental improvements to existing devices, or game-changing innovation?
Rahul Maharsia: Although sustaining the core capabilities and incremental innovation remain the bulk of R&D spend, companies are increasingly trending towards spending more on game-changing innovations. There is a particular focus on digital transformation to provide solutions towards unmet needs, such as ensuring compliance to medications/devices or new business models that connect doctors and patients in a faster, more economical and efficient manner.
Barbella: Please discuss the importance of university/academic partnerships in developing cutting-edge medical devices.
Maharsia: Industry/academia partnerships will continue to grow into long-term relationships. Industry lacks access to direct federal funding and generally likes to focus on product development with limited focus on fundamental research. Universities on the other hand, have access to direct state and federal funding to work on cutting-edge concepts over longer periods of developmental times. They however lack the experience and capability (generally) to commercialize a new technology and would rather license these through their ‘Technology Licensing Offices’ to allow industry to commercialize their innovations. This mutually beneficial arrangement plays a pivotal role in developing cutting-edge products. Some of the other benefits of this partnership includes:
- Access to top scientific talent
- Ability to answer fundamental scientific phenomena that industry would rather outsource
- Admission to a wider array of technical resources and labs
Barbella: Are startups better suited than their mid-size or large OEM cohorts to develop medical technology that addresses value-based healthcare solutions? If so, how? (Or, if not, why not?)
Maharsia: Larger organizations are inherently biased towards sustaining the present business model and have a natural immunity to rapid changes in their operating environment. Startups on the other hand are generally focused on a singular idea and play a life-and-death game to ensure a successful launch of the idea. They do not have distractions of working on other projects/ideas/products and are on a constant journey of proving the validity of their solution hypothesis by convincing customers and investors alike. Once a startup gains critical mass, companies like to invest in them through their corporate venture funds. Of course, if the opportunity is right, companies outright acquire these startups when it’s suitable and gain access to years of R&D work in a short period of time.
Barbella: How can companies “innovate the process of innovation” to achieve more transformational products through R&D?
Maharsia: Transformational products require access to a system that helps generate and process transformation ideas. It is extremely important to have a relevant idea management system at the “front end” of innovation. Using the principles from Lean Startup Philosophy (formulating an idea hypothesis and testing the hypothesis), the idea management system can itself be periodically tested for validity to understand if it continues to deliver results based on the organization’s strategic goals. This should be an iterative process that will help to evolve and tailor the innovation method to suit the organization and deliver its objectives.
Working with a partner that offers material expertise, understands your design challenges and holds a knowledge and a command of the industry is vital to utilizing R&D to its fullest potential. It is essential for companies to have comprehensive support for their specific product needs to achieve the targeted results of their innovations.
The right partner will have an awareness of the role and function that materials play in the R&D process, including how they can be leveraged to provide critical product protection and improve reliability. These solutions have the potential to create a major impact for an array of devices and components used in sensitive applications. With drug delivery systems, for example, the device relies on a physical, material component to ensure patients are receiving the correct dosage. In a laboratory environment, important data collection can be compromised if samples are handled incorrectly or if there is cross-contamination.
In addition to understanding the requirements, challenges and nuances of specific markets, companies can also deliver more transformational products by finding a partner with diverse customization, engineering and manufacturing capabilities. By providing a product that is more personalized or tailored to a unique market, application or pain point, brands can reach an additional level of differentiation within their innovations.
Barbella: How will AI, big data, and digital health affect the R&D process going forward?
Maharsia: One of the biggest areas of focus for AI, big data and digital transformation is value-based healthcare. These technologies provide platforms which can be used to incentivize patients and doctors on quality rather than quantity. Big data can be used to monitor compliance with device usage and medications and to also tailor treatments for individuals. AI can help optimize the speed to formulation and testing of new medications. Digital transformation will help startups and large companies to create new business models and payment platforms to reduce spiraling costs of transactions. These technologies will continue to drive focus and funds away from the traditional core/line extension R&D going forward.
As more tech-centric trends continue to emerge for applications in the medical field, it is important to note that the more cluttered the space becomes, the more brands can experience clouded judgment and lose sight of the goals behind innovating. New technology should not be adopted for the sake of the trend but should be implemented strategically and with purpose for the industry and for the end-user. If utilized under the right conditions, a product featuring AI, big data or digital health as a means of improvement can yield more valuable results and experiences for end-users.