BioInnovate programme puts fresh eyes on medtech innovation

New approach can lead to fresh perspectives and innovations in model based on Stanford programme
Why do you do things a particular way? Is it because you have always done them that way? Fresh eyes can offer new perspectives and innovations, and that is the premise behind BioInnovate Ireland.

The programme for medtech innovation immerses teams in clinical environments for weeks on end so they can spot problems, come up with solutions and start developing them commercially.

Running since 2011, BioInnovate Ireland has become a “start-up engine”, according to Ian Quinn, founder of Irish medtech company Creganna and a former chair of BioInnovate Ireland’s advisory committee.

He saw the look-and-learn model in action during a visit to Stanford University’s Biodesign programme in California, and was impressed enough to mention it to NUI Galway president Dr Jim Browne when seated beside him at a dinner. “I hadn’t intended to talk to him about it,” recalls Quinn. “It was just conversation – and he went with the idea.”
Steps to success

BioInnovate Ireland’s 10-month process, which models itself on Stanford’s approach, first trains fellows to look for problems and then find the best way to try to solve them, explains programme director Mark Bruzzi, professor of biomedical engineering at NUI Galway.

“We recruit people from various different backgrounds – engineering, medicine, business and science – and we put them together in teams, then we prepare them to focus initially on clinical needs rather than invention,” he explains. “They also get to meet investors, CEOs and entrepreneurs and clinical professionals who can enable them to understand the landscape for medtech innovation.”

Next stop is full-time immersion in hospitals and clinics in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and internationally, where the BioInnovate fellows observe practices for several weeks in specific clinical areas, such as cardiovascular disease, ENT or urology.

“They look for problems anywhere there is a lot of pain, infection, complications and costly services,” says Bruzzi. “They find hundreds of problems, there is no shortage, and then they go and validate those problems in other clinical settings, including some visiting the Mayo Clinic in the US.”

Filtering the ideas

The result is a mountain of data and ideas that the teams whittle down to a more manageable handful of potential solutions, which they then explore further to see if they are feasible.

One to two ideas or solutions finally emerge for each team, and they map out clinical studies and business and reimbursement models that would suit.

A stepping stone to de-risking the technology may then involve Enterprise Ireland commercialisation funding before moving to private investment, explains Bruzzi.

Innovation engine

To date, BioInnovate Ireland has seen 10 or so new medical technology ideas emerge into that pipeline. They include a device developed by EMBO Medical to block blood vessels in diseased or damaged areas of the body, Signum Surgical’s device to help heal troublesome perianal fistulas and a wearable device being developed by Kite Medical to monitor urinary reflux in children.

Not everyone who goes through BioInnovate Ireland, which is supported by Enterprise Ireland and several medtech companies, goes on to work on the ideas after the programme, notes Bruzzi.

“It is important that we can prepare people for different career pathways – some will go into multi-nationals, some will go into start-up companies that are not necessarily their own, and some of the doctors will go back to medicine more aware of how to take a product from identification right through to a viable product opportunity.”

Open mind

So what is the magic? One key is having variety of backgrounds on each team and another is being trained to keep an open mind at the outset, according to Quinn.

“It’s the discipline of not having your own favourite invention in mind but opening up and cleaning out your mind and generating the hundreds of needs without thinking too deeply about them,” he says. “Then the setting of the criteria by which they will be reduced ideally down to one.”

Quinn believes that the model could be useful to boost innovation in other sectors, and he welcomes the new TechInnovate programme starting in NUI Galway, which will kick off later this year.

Embedding in technology

“TechInnovate is essentially a technology entrepreneurship fellowship,” explains programme director Dr John Breslin. “It models the BioInnovate structure so you have a 10-month fellowship programme where you identify, invent and implement, and we have added ‘iterate’ to that process. “Non-medtech tech solutions would probably be implemented quicker and therefore you can spend a bit more time refining them and iterate at the end.”

The programme will focus both on hardware and software, and Breslin is currently looking at potential areas of interest, including defence, tourism, banking, and manufacturing connected devices for the “internet of things”. “The model, especially the embedding part, is hugely valuable,” says Breslin, who is senior lecturer in electronic engineering at NUI Galway and a co-principal investigator at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

“A lot of start-ups can rush into creating a technology solution for a problem that they are not fully sure exists yet, so having this six-to-eight-week immersion period in an area where they normally wouldn’t get access to is hugely valuable, and hopefully we can facilitate that.”

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