Its not uncommon for doctors to lament the flaws of a particular medical device or technology that doesnt completely meet their needs. For medical students at Northwestern Universitys Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, there is now an opportunity to stop complaining and start fixing the problem.
Northwestern is heading into its second year of an interdisciplinary course called NUvention that brings together students and faculty from its schools of medicine, engineering, business and law school. The goal, says Michael Marasco, the programs coordinator, is to bring students through an entire product- and business-development process in two academic quarters. Thats a lot shorter timeframe than getting a joint degree in medicine and law or business, but it offers a hands-on glimpse of what it takes to bring medical advances to the market.
For the physicians involved with us, it provides a reality check of what medical entrepreneurship is all about, says Marasco, a clinical associate professor and the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Northwesterns Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
With financial backing from healthcare companies, Northwestern launched the course last year with 82 students divided into 11 teams, each tackling an area such as cardiology, neurosurgery, orthopedics or urology. Each team has representatives from each of the four schools involved. The students shadow their fourth-year medical-school teammates and faculty to develop a sense of unmet clinical needs. They then research those needs and determine which one or two have the greatest potential from a business and medical perspective.
By the end of the course, they have developed a prototype and full business plan to present to the faculty and to representatives of the healthcare companies that are funding the class.
One of last years teams has designed an ergonomic scalpel and retractor, while another is working on a neurosurgical tunneling device. Even after the course was completed, Marasco says, some of the teams have continued working on their projects, and some are contemplating starting up their own ventures.
Patrick McCarthy, M.D., the chief of cardiac surgery at Northwestern and the co-director of its Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, is NUventions medical director. He says ultimately the course is intended to benefit patients by bringing together the clinical knowledge of the physicians with the technical, legal and business strengths of the students and faculty from the other schools involved.
All of us marvel at the advances in medical care, and many times the inventions are originating with doctors, he says. Theyre the ones who best understand what the clinical problems are, but they dont always know about getting a patent, getting the investors interested.
As a heart surgeon, McCarthy has himself been down the entrepreneurial path, but without the benefit of an academic course to show him the way. He designed three different heart-valve repair rings that are now for sale worldwide, and he was able to do it because he happened to know some business experts who could help him, he says.
Randall Williams, M.D., is another example of this somewhat rare breed of physician entrepreneur. A practicing cardiologist and assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Williams is also the founding chief executive officer of Pharos Innovations, a company that uses technology to help its hospital, physician and payer clients save money by improving care coordination and patient involvement for chronic disease management.
Williams says his company grew out of a technology he came up with to take better care of his patients with congestive heart failure. One day he realized that if applied more broadly, this kind of technology could change healthcare delivery and improve care for thousands of people. Today, he says, Pharos Innovations has some 80 clients in all 50 states, including WellPoint and the Veterans Health Administration.
You can take care of patients one at a time and feel good about what youre doing, he says, but from my perspective, it was an opportunity to take care of thousands and thousands of patients and help many of my fellow practitioners, too.
Williams says the Northwestern course is one way to help physicians who are frustrated in their roles within a challenging healthcare system that does not always make it easy to implement change. It also comes at a welcome time when physicians are more frequently being asked to take on business leadership roles. Healthcare services companies and technology firms are increasingly hiring physicians as chief medical officers, chief innovation officers and even CEOs, he says.
The NUvention course is a way for a medical student to incorporate some business, engineering and legal training to help them navigate business terrain without having to go through an entire second degree.
Marasco says being with students from different schools is especially useful for physicians, who often are trained to recognize and appreciate only others like themselves. The course is also eye-opening in terms of demonstrating what is involved in starting a company. And it enables doctors to understand previously unfamiliar terms like P/E ratio (price-to-earnings ratio) and EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), terms that are basic building blocks for business students but a foreign language to many in medical school.
It gets them out of the I wish mode and into the I do mode, Marasco says. I think that will dramatically benefit them over the course of their careers.
To learn more about how to participate in Modern Physician's inaugural Physician Entrepreneur of the Year awards program, click here.
Barbara Kirchheimer, a former news editor at sister publication Modern Healthcare is a freelance writer based in Highland Park, Ill. She can be reached at [email protected].