Physicians’ Roles in Medical Device Innovation: One-Minute Interview with Professor Sruthi Thatchenkery of the UCL School of Management
October 23, 2020 – By Jared Mueller, Director – Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange
A member of the strategy and entrepreneurship faculty at the UCL School of Management, Assistant Professor Sruthi Thatchenkery has studied how medical device startups’ approach to leveraging physician expertise might impact those firms’ success.
Before joining University College London in 2016, Thatchenkery earned her doctorate in management science and engineering at Stanford University. She is a summa cum laude economics graduate from Duke University, and worked as an economic consultant prior to her academic career.
Q: In 2017, you published an Academy of Management Journal paper with researchers at Stanford and Harvard Business School analyzing 231 surgical instrument startups over a 25-year period. Your research explored the role of physician-users in supporting — or stymieing — a venture’s ability to innovate. What were key findings of that research?
ST: As we wrote in that paper, expert users can offer valuable input into the innovation process, but that expertise can actually backfire when it’s not being used in the right organizational role.
In the case of the surgical ventures we studied, surgeons were most helpful to startups when they were generating variation in the innovation process by suggesting a breadth of possible approaches and solutions to surgical problems. However, when surgeons were in selection roles that involved constraining the set of innovations a startup would pursue, they tended to decrease, rather than enhance, innovation.
Q: You and your co-authors wrote that “one particularly interesting finding is that physicians in the role of a chief executive officer (CEO) slow innovation down.” Can you elaborate on which roles tend to enable physicians or other “expert users” to drive more, rather than less, innovation in the context of a startup?
ST: We found that expert users, and in our case surgeons, serve many important roles in startups refining their product-market fit. Firms that embraced physician-users as board members, innovators, or product advocates benefited the most from surgeons’ engagement with their companies.
Innovation has two key stages: producing new ideas to consider and then selecting the best of those ideas for commercialization. While professional users can play an important role in both stages, we find that they are most effective in the first stage — developing a broad variety of ideas about product characteristics, targeted customer groups, and so on.
At the selection stage, however, we found that professional users’ expertise can actually end up being limiting. Deeply-entrenched knowledge can make it harder to notice or appreciate information that doesn’t quite fit an expert’s prior experience, so professional users in the selection stage can risk being somewhat blind to more novel opportunities.
Q: What other advantages are there to ensuring a startup has one or more “expert users” engaged in advisory or innovation roles?
ST: An expected advantage of engaging “expert user” board members or advisors who are part-time is: they often remain actively engaged in practice. So if a startup has several physicians advising the company who still see patients, those physicians are able to keep their pulse on developments in clinical practice. They are still living the day-to-day experience of providers and patients in a clinic or an operating room.
Having physicians who are active in practice and attending medical conferences, who can continue to inform your product’s development, seems to better support innovation than having a single physician as a full-time operating executive. The executive might rely on mental models from past years of practice, and may be less attuned to variations or evolutions in clinical practice.
Q: What breakthrough innovations in healthcare delivery or technology excite you most?
ST: I’m quite interested to see how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques may help alleviate traditional bottlenecks in drug discovery, particularly in terms of identifying and screening promising compounds. It’s an area where I think interdisciplinary collaboration between experts in a variety of fields will be essential to figuring out how to develop and refine the underlying models or algorithms.
AI isn’t really some kind of robot overlord — it’s only ever as good as the data it learns from, so being able to collate knowledge from physicians, scientists, and other experts will be critical to maximizing the potential of machine learning and other AI techniques to speed up drug development.
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