About 3 years after finishing my ophthalmology residency, I had an idea to create a small capsule that could be placed inside the capsular bag and basically form a foundation for various technologies, specifically lenses. The device would be molded and a single piece—it sounded simple. I figured it could be on the market in a few months, it would sell easily, and everything would be amazing.
That was 11 years ago. Since then, that small capsule has been through about 12 design iterations. A total of 96 patients in Central America and India have been treated, and almost 100 patent grant applications have been submitted. Today, the device—now called the Gemini Refractive Capsule by Omega Ophthalmics—is an implant that lines the circumference of the capsular bag and provides a defined plane in the middle of the capsule. Keeping a central, avascular, noninnervated space open enables future use of other technologies, such as IOLs, IOP sensors, and drug delivery devices.
The development of the Gemini Refractive Capsule has been a journey. The innovator’s path is not an easy one. Mine, like most, has been long, expensive, and circuitous—but I’ve learned a lot along the way. This article covers some tips and tools to help other doctors with ideas know how to vet them and what to do with them once their validity and viability are confirmed.
THE FATHER OF INNOVATION
If necessity is the mother of invention, then frustration is the father of innovation. I believe that every frustration has a purpose: It can be a seed for future innovation, or it can drive you crazy. However, it is much more productive to use that frustration for good. Once you feel frustrated enough to make a change, there are several criteria an innovation must meet in order to be truly disruptive.
DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION CRITERIA
Criteria 1: Real
Innovation is not simply a new product. It is not hype, and it is not just an incremental change. If an idea doesn’t solve an unmet need, it’s not innovation—it’s just marketing. A disruptive innovation must be a real solution to a real problem. Real problems can be articulated with a needs statement. Just because you could make something doesn’t mean you should. We don’t need to build a bridge to nowhere.
Also, real unmet needs are not always obvious. We all want a Lamborghini, but we would probably have a hard time articulating that we want a Lamborghini if one didn’t already exist. That is why it is important to look differently at the problems that frustrate you. Some of the most rewarding solutions solve unmet needs that are difficult to articulate but, once identified, seem obvious. All doctors who are invested in ophthalmology can identify these problem areas and potential room for disruptive change. It’s why the industry calls us DWIs, or doctors with ideas.
Criteria 2: Win
The second criteria for a disruptive innovation is, can you win? To answer this, ask yourself: (1) Is it technologically feasible? and (2) Can your team develop it faster, better, or cheaper? You will have to do a SWOT analysis to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. There will be competition, so consider your advantages. You may have first-mover advantage because you identified the problem first, but are you going up against an industry competitor with more funding or expertise? Think about your skillset. Again, inventions almost never happen in a vacuum. An idea might be new to you, but there might be 10 other people around the world thinking about it. Realize that you will have competition if your idea is a real solution.
Win by protecting your idea. If you find yourself with a seemingly good idea, first conduct an online patent search. Again, just because an idea is new to you doesn’t mean it is new. If you find that nothing like it exists, then file a provisional patent. I would also recommend hiring a patent attorney; this is a simple and cost-effective way to get your idea going and to protect it. With that same attorney, create a nondisclosure agreement so that you can safely vet the idea with other seasoned professionals before filing a provisional patent application.
Win by having skin in the game. Saying yes to one idea will force you to say no to 100 other things. This may mean saying no to more surgery days or clinic days, consulting opportunities, travel, meetings, or papers. Understand that there is a cost because you can do something but not everything.
Win by being a good gambler. How much time and money are you willing to bet on this idea? When I started Omega Ophthalmics, I said that I was taking out a lottery ticket on myself. You must be willing to gamble on yourself because risk is inherent to innovation.
Win by having special skills. Do you have special skills? Maybe your brother works at Goldman Sachs or your dad just won Jeopardy, and they can invest. Do you also hold a law, business, or engineering degree that helps you understand patent law, corporate law, business plans, deal structures, or product design? Maybe you work at a university that will cover expenses for new product design for a standard equity percentage.
Win with passion. To paraphrase John Berdahl, MD, your idea has to pass the sleep test. You should be kept up at night thinking about the solution and wake up multiple mornings with it on your mind. If, after a week or so, you’ve lost your zeal, that is a good sign to pass on the idea. There will be many, as Bill Link, PhD, says, near-death experiences, where throughout the process, you think, “Why did I start this?” or “No one likes this; this is a horrible idea.” You need passion to take you through those moments of doubt.
Criteria 3: Worth It
A disruptive innovation should be a real solution to a real problem, and the team behind it should be able to win. But, at the end of the day, there must also be a market for it. If you spend a lot of time and money on a product that only one or two people will be able to use, it is probably not worth the investment in time. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea—it just means there is not a market for it.
DWIs are in a unique position to conceive real solutions to real problems. By thinking differently, properly vetting your idea, surrounding yourself with the right people, and understanding the true value of your proposal, you too can take an idea and run with it.