Academia’s Role In Healthcare Innovation


Is the healthcare industry really taking full advantage of all academia has to offer? Is academia really positioning itself appropriately to help drive healthcare innovation?

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For people like Dr. John Langell,  Executive Director of the Center for Medical Innovation at the University of Utah and Chief of General Surgery at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center, the implied answer to those questions is “no.” Which is cool, because it gives them a lot of room to work from.

The logical conclusion to answering “no” to the above questions is that it could be time to rethink the academic model of healthcare innovation. Maybe the old system of taking a faculty discovery, applying for a patent and then adding it to a tech transfer portfolio for potential licensing and commercialization isn’t enough.

Langell isn’t just in the middle of this discussion, he’s trying to lead it. At the University of Utah Medical Innovation Program, the goal isn’t just to protect interesting ideas (i.e. rack up the patent count). It’s to fill real gaps in science, medicine and healthcare with real products. In other words, something that a good business will do but that academia hasn’t always had a reputation for. (We’re painting with broad strokes here. There are certainly examples of academic institutions with great innovation programs that regularly crank out real products and spin off viable companies.)

The Process

To do that, Langell and his team have built a complex, collaborative system to shepherd ideas through the product development pipeline. And it’s not just internal to the University, They have “create[d] an ecosystem that provides partnerships from across industry with the university, and within the university across disciplines.”

That network of partnerships will ”help innovators understand pain points” and thereby build a product that industry cares about, helping them potentially move all the way to commercialization. Here’s how it works:

“We typically start by working with the physicians and providers to identify unmet clinical needs. They come to us and say that this is an issue that needs to be resolved, I am unable to provide appropriate care to my patients, help me fix this.
“[O]ftentimes they come in with an idea, and typically we’ll ask them to put that idea on hold.

The reason? Confirmation bias. The program doesn’t want people getting stuck inside their own heads about what should happen next. So they put an idea on hold and then assemble a team of engineers, business leaders, designers, clinicians, and others, who heads over to the clinic and watches care delivered in a “360-degree cycle” from the time a patient walks in to the time they leave. Only at this point does the team move into the brainstorming phase, tearing apart the need and what it looks like (and if it really is a need.) Stakeholders join the conversation next, to “figure out what the solution needs to look like, what the primary outcome metric is that we need to be able to measure.”

Once they have all of this, the typical requirements of any new solution are checked off the list - things like regulatory and IP concerns. Then, prototyping that includes the stakeholders “from beginning to end.” External partners are also brought in to help move the product to market.

“We think it’s really important that it’s the end user that helps drive this, and that we’re creating a user-based design so that we’re optimally addressing their needs.”

Collaboration and Academia

When asked about the difficulty in managing these interdisciplinary teams with so many people from different backgrounds and perspectives, Langell replied, “I think the key is that this is academic healthcare.” His point was that it’s not a team of consultants or corporate employees. Rather, the academic environment provides a group of “interested individuals” invested in the academic model. In other words, people who want to experiment and who work in an environment where work is built around basic research. It’s different type of experimentation than what is generally found in corporate environments, with perhaps more flexibility due to the different funding mechanism (i.e., external grants).

Academia’s Secret Weapon

Langell also pointed out another stakeholder in academia who, it turns out, can often get a lot of extra traction:

“Graduate students have been the real driver [of this program]. They’re not risk-averse […] People rally around students.”

People are excited to support the younger generation of builders, giving them a unique opportunity to pull others in and help develop their idea.

There’s another benefit to student-driven innovation. According to Langell, the quality of ideas coming from graduate students is at least comparable to those of faculty, so the starting point is at least as good. Furthermore, in many cases students are actually the exclusive owners of IP for an idea, something that, due to the relationship between faculty and institution and funding agency works, isn’t usually the case for faculty. That, according to Langell, puts the students outside the purview of tech transfer, potentially making it easier to work with an industry collaborator.

Tech Transfer

Which isn’t to disparage tech transfer offices. They play a specific and important role in protecting the university’s assets: “Tech transfer has a mandate to process faculty intellectual property and then, if they determine it’s valuable and choose to execute it, attempt to license it.” In other words, faculty-driven IP is the only thing that absolutely requires tech transfer’s involvement.

So, the Center for Medical Innovation takes a slightly different approach. They “do work with faculty IP,” but also coordinate with industry partners who ask the program to serve as their skunk works. Because the ideas are coming from an outside party, these sponsored projects don’t necessarily involve tech transfer at all.

Benefits, But Also Limits, Of Academia

Langell was clear that this conversation isn’t about putting universities in some new, superior position when it comes to innovation. Rather, it’s an opportunity to use the innate characteristics of the academic model to help drive innovation forward across the board. 

“[Academia] allows us some unique characteristics that others don’t have.” As noted above, universities that include healthcare facilities have access to broad expertise. Again: design, engineering, business, and even art (think UI/UX). Plus, of course, a healthcare system itself with the clinicians and patients and facilities is often right across the street from the university.

So for institutions like University of Utah, “We can go from beginning to end. Industry can’t do that.”

But Academia can’t do it all. “Universities are uniquely situated […] and I think it’s a way for them to partner with industry in a different way than they have in the past.”

In the past, says Langell, the model has been to develop a product and then “hoping [industry] will license it.” Once that happens the faculty member goes back to the lab and isn’t involved in de-risking the product, even though they’re the experts who are best positioned to help do it. Now, with programs like the Center for Medical Innovation, all of the stakeholders keep their stake, strengthening both the process and the outcome.

For the things that Langell is excited about and looking towards for the future of healthcare innovation, check out the full interview.