Money Machine: The Business of Innovation

com·mer·cial·ize | \kə-ˈmər-shə-ˌlīz\: to manage on a business basis for profit

In a few months, I’ll be giving a seminar at the University of Missouri about medical device commercialization and, to some degree, product commercialization in general. I dug up some slides from some of my past presentations, as well as slides that some of my colleagues had used, to create the first draft of my presentation. The first version of my talk was a very dry, almost lecture-like seminar on commercialization that included definitions of terms like ‘commercialization,’ ‘license,’ ‘patent,’ and ‘acquisition.’ I’m glad this version never saw the light of day because it would have bored any audience into a coma. The second version of my talk was purely about entrepreneurship; a subject I am wholly unqualified to give a seminar on, even to college students. These slides were made up of regurgitated themes and ideas that I’ve heard during other, more qualified peoples’ presentations on entrepreneurship and startup life. Giving this talk would’ve been totally unfair to my audience, so this one was also scrapped before anyone saw it. That’s when I realized that rather than pretending to be a tech transfer guru or a successful entrepreneur (I am neither), I should focus on my unique role at Mercy R&D as Entrepreneurial Specialist and the mechanics of building a startup — not as a founder, but as a facilitator. These are the things that I do to create companies that enhance the way we deliver healthcare to patients.

  1. Build a team

I saw Marc Hemeon of Google Ventures (among other things) speak at Big Kansas City earlier this year and he said he rarely invests in lone-wolf, single-founder startups. I’m paraphrasing here, but his point was if you have a co-founder, then it shows you’ve at least convinced one other person to believe in your vision. So build a team of talented people who share your vision to make your idea a reality.

2. Get embedded

How do you find the right people for your team? The best way is to embed yourself in the entrepreneurial community. Get to know the people that are going to other entrepreneurship- and startup-themed events. Network. Talk to the existing entrepreneurs in your area. Some of these people are looking to get involved in new projects right now or sometime in the near future. If your idea or technology is a truly good one, talented people will rally behind it.

3. Talk about it

This is probably the most controversial piece of advice that I’m going to give. But I see first-time entrepreneurs do a kind of tight-lipped act out of fear that someone will steal their idea. They talk in vague terms about how their product will change the world, rather than describe what it actually does. I’ve never found this to be an effective way to pitch an idea. I do recommend securing some type of intellectual property (IP) protection — a provisional patent, trademark, copyright, whatever. But once your IP is protected, don’t be afraid to talk about your project. People can’t get behind you if you don’t tell them what you’re doing.

4. Gather your weapons

Do your homework. Research your market, talk to potential customers, understand the path to market, and put together a go-to-market strategy. And then share all of these assets with your team. Even if your information has holes, or gives you concerns about your product’s business case, or just plain sucks, give your team every available weapon they might need to help you succeed. You never know what might end up being useful. Assets I’ve provided to management teams include market analyses, SWOT analyses, and even complete business plans for their companies.

5. Get help

Even with a sharp team and an awesome technology, you’ll need help. I’m fortunate to have top-notch colleagues at Mercy R&D that are extremely competent and always willing to help me when I need it. But I also have a strong network of people outside of R&D that I can rely upon when needed. Create your own network of trusted professionals who will help you out when you need to bounce some ideas around, get honest feedback or advice, or drink a beer with someone after a long day.

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of university officials argued that patents, licensing, and commercialization activity by faculty should be treated as important considerations for merit, tenure, and career advancement. So regardless of whether your career is in academia or industry, commercialization and entrepreneurship are becoming prevalent components of science and technology disciplines. The best way to be prepared for this shift is to get involved. Start a business — it doesn’t matter whether it’s selling hand-knitted mittens on Etsy or commercializing a class III medical device. Go to seminars or networking events geared towards commercialization. If you’re in the university setting, get to know the folks in your tech transfer office. And if you decide to bring a medical device to market, give me a call. Mercy R&D can be a valuable partner in helping to make your idea a reality.

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