The Freedom of Innovation

It might not be the obvious place to look. But the basements of medical technology firms could be packed with great ideas for the future. And in true entrepreneurial spirit, it’s time to let everyone have a good old rummage, says CME Medical Chairman & Head of Innovation Stephen Thorpe.

Stephen Thorpe has been spearheading innovation in the medical technology sector for the last 15 years with a simple but highly effective philosophy – focus on patient & clinician needs not corporate ones.

And he is convinced having an entrepreneurial spirit is a prerequisite for success.

“In any business,” he says, “entrepreneurs are the people that drive change.

“Having the passion and determination are just some of the attributes of an entrepreneur. They won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and I think in any sector having people that just don’t give up is a vital part of driving innovation forward.”

But brilliant new innovations aren’t always found in the laboratory. The big players in drug and medical technology development leave significant numbers of potential ideas undeveloped in the search for block-busting treatments that will provide what patients need and give a decent return on investment.

Now Thorpe believes it’s time to dust some of them down for another good look. It’s something he refers to as ‘open innovation’.

“Our industry is full of large multi national corporations. If you looked in the basements of these companies you would find intellectual property that they haven’t had time to develop or that don’t fit in their core markets. They are just gathering dust. The principal of open innovation is to set them free. You let them out and let entrepreneurs and innovators explore the possibilities. And this doesn’t just benefit the entrepreneurs.”

The trouble is, says Thorpe, that traditional corporate rivalry means companies are more interested in keeping their secrets firmly locked away rather than share them in the interests of progress and innovation.

“Corporate behaviour flows against all that. A lot of corporations will keep the doors of the basement locked but there is a big lobby now to think of the greater good. If you’re not going to do anything with these ideas then you are better off letting someone else take them on. You may get a small royalty in return for it, or you may just say that this encourages a good healthcare economy and carry on. Maybe we should go and knock on the door of a few big companies and ask if we can have a look in their basements and attics. Open innovation is my vision for the future. And I think we already are the go-to company for innovation.

“People come up with amazing concepts but there are a lot of hurdles and cost is definitely one of those. We have a good grasp of the market, but we don’t necessarily need to be the inventor. We can tweak others proposition into something that we think will work in that sector.  Some people come to us with very complex ideas. So targeting is key – and in reality we say ‘no’ to nine out of ten ideas. But sometimes we are intrigued.”

One example is a product called NGPod – a clever but simple device for helping nurses to be certain that nasogastric tubes are in the right position.

Nasogastric intubation is a common procedure with over 1.5 million tubes used in the UK annually. Thousands of feeding tubes are inserted daily without incident.

But misplacement can have serious consequences. Between 2005 and 2010, there were 21 deaths and 79 cases of harm in the UK from misplaced NG tubes.

The NGPod device is simple, easy to use and keeps changes in procedures for nursing staff to a
minimum.

“NGPod was a gut reaction – if you will pardon the pun,” says Thorpe. Sometimes we find something that just fits nicely into our pipeline and sales channels and if it doesn’t we just keep looking.  But that is an entrepreneur, someone who doesn’t give up”

But, working within the NHS, there are major challenges ahead.

The biggest, says Thorpe, are cost pressures and regulation. One of the reasons why the larger corporations tend to focus on projects with very high returns even though smaller niche ideas can be equally important both clinically and commercially.

“A lot of innovation comes from entrepreneurs in small and medium size businesses where there is less red tape and flatter decision making structures. Fewer barriers.

“The higher the regulatory hurdles become the greater the cost and longer the lead times become. We appreciate regulations are necessary but healthcare has always been a balance between risk and benefit. There are concerns that regulations in some countries are too high which stifles innovation and the patient and clinician benefits these can deliver.

“The self-regulation system relies on people being responsible, playing their part if something goes wrong and doing the right thing.

“In Europe, the system is about to get more onerous, more towards where the FDA stands in the United States. Hopefully if this culture starts to crush innovation and stop things moving forward, they will be challenged.”

In the UK, the key driver for innovation in the medical technology sector is the shift out of hospital and towards early discharge and care in the home. Products that enable that to happen, he believes, find a ready market as the NHS looks to save money and keep patients at home rather than stuck on wards.

“People are living longer and taking more personal responsibility when it comes to being healthy,” Thorpe says. “To ensure that we are able to treat patients effectively at home, there has to be innovation: how do we free patients up to go home, reduce the cost to the health system but still make it patient safe?

“Another influencer is being able to manage patients in different environments without supervision. For example, epidural infusions used only to be done in high dependency, intensive therapy units. They didn’t want someone coming along and pressing the buttons or changing the rates. As the devices developed, we brought in lockable protocols and new pumps that are more appropriate for safer delivery of epidural regimes, meaning they can now be safely used on general wards. In the same way innovation in the homecare setting is being driven by patient need.”

But it will need some creative thinking to help the NHS become more efficient in a way that joins up health care with related issues like social care and housing.

It’s starting to happen – albeit in patches – says Thorpe, and is being led by local initiatives that really light the way for more widespread projects in the future.

And he has an excellent example.

“Recently, I met with a retired NHS strategy director. He talked about an initiative in the ambulance service that is dealing with ‘frequent flyers’: people who use the service regularly often ending up in A&E. So they have assigned an individual paramedic to these people. That way, if there is an issue, they can ‘talk them down’ effectively and avoid taking them to hospital.

“By focussing on this initiative, they have reduced admissions by two thirds, which is a vast improvement. It’s projects like this that really think outside the box.”

As healthcare changes, CME Medical is well-placed to supply the products that can smooth the transition, he believes.

“We have designed pumps and different devices for almost 10 different sectors and stuck to our ethos of listen, develop, deliver and I think that is a real achievement. We are about understanding the issues that clinicians and patients have and applying technology to the problems they experience.

“I think CME Medical is in the right place, at the right time with a strong team and good products.”

by Pat Hagan

More articles, stories, inspiration and innovation can be sent straight to your email by registering here.