The key to innovation: Less genius, more science

Four months into our immersion in the Biodesign fellowship here at Stanford University (with a team of two physicians and two engineers designing medical devices), I can finally say what I think is working for us: understanding the science.

After spending a month in the hospital looking for problems and a month in the office looking at the patients affected by the problem and data about the problem, we brainstormed ideas on how to fix it. The result: if we didn’t go into the room with great information on the problem, we didn’t come out of the room with great ideas on how to solve it.

Conversely, if we went into the room with a great idea about the problem, then rarely did something new come up in the room that we hadn’t given some thought to before. So, do I still think there is genius in solving medical problems? Yes. But what I realize now is that the genius needs to do a lot of homework to be Einstein. This, I think, is true for all parts of the project: science, business, engineering, law.

Once we identified and validated the need (the problem that gave rise to a market opportunity) we were left to our own devices with telephones, whiteboards and internet connections to great libraries. The solution to our problem was not to be found just in creative genius. In fact, it was nearly the opposite. The solution was to be found by isolating the narrow space where people haven’t tried before. One way of understanding that was to understand all of the existing science on the topic. Be warned, if you are not a scientist, the papers are not light reading. And if you are a scientist, it’s sometimes hard to keep an eye on new ideas in areas that people are already exploring. That being said, without reading all the papers and drawing out what exists and what can still be considered, you’ll never get to the right end point.

Once we had solutions, there was more investigation, no less scientific in method but much different in genre. The lawyer or regulatory expert must also be a scientist. They must be able to comb through past art and past ideas in order to determine if there is any space for what was thought of in the science investigation phase. They have a unique role that may be just as creative as the scientist and, like the scientist, they have a lot of homework to do.

So where are we and why do I think it’s worth telling you this?

We’re at a point where we have a few interesting problems. All the ones that I think have realizable, potentially commercial solutions are problems in which the scientists ferreted out interesting possibilities by checking any idea they had against the scientific papers that exist. Now we’ll have to be scientists again and test what others have not yet tested.