Getting Disruptive Ideas to Market

7/30/07

I’m interested in how one takes inventions to scale. Obviously, that is what Boston Scientific was all about. How do you get a disruptive idea, in particular, into the marketplace? In my opinion, people frequently take the wrong approach.

Disruptive ideas are very threatening to the establishment, or whoever owned that marketspace before. They may be products or technology like the iPOD (catheter surgery in the case of BSC), or they can be processes or services like Amazon or eBay. Or they can be social ideas like a bike path into the city. They can lead to dramatic changes in the field to which the idea applies. That can mean different people will use and control it. And it will be used differently with a different infrastructure and in different locations. There will be economic implications with winners and losers. And the idea will influence many others indirectly.

So how do you overcome the resistance of the establishment (surgeons in the case of BSC, but it could be academia, professional societies, big companies, the government, etc.)? Hire PR? Most of the PR and advertising guys are great if the idea is accepted, lousy if the idea is not accepted. Your goal is to get it accepted. And that to me is the fun part of business. New ideas grow best with viral approaches and that’s all about relationships and reputation.

Don’t go after the biggest idea first.
A disruptive technology can have many applications. If you get funding for it, the funders will want to go after the biggest application first in order to justify the investment. That’s a dumb thing to do, because new ideas and technologies evolve. They grow like a plant as more and more is learned. And there will be lots of problems early on. If you go for the biggest application first, you will create unmeetable expectations which will arm the establishment with more arguments to destroy you. And even mini-failures will be hard to recover from. Pick an application that is smaller and you can more easily find, or create, champions who will become disciples. Their expectations will be more modest. They will be more forgiving when things don’t go right. Over time they will become your unpaid sales force and your R&D department. You won’t just be creating a product and customers, you will be creating a movement.

And you’ve got to be patient. It took us (BSC) over 20 years to help get the Less Invasive Surgery business going. The ATM for banks took well over a decade to catch on. You can not only be too early for the market because your technology isn’t finished, but too early for the market because customers aren’t ready for it—which means the establishment is going to pull every trick in the book to dismiss you.

At BSC, we took our disruptive catheter technologies and went for smaller niche markets. These smaller markets (for example pediatric cardiology) allowed us to experiment. Our customers developed new applications. They suggested modifications. They came up with great accessories to extend the use and improve the results of the procedures for which the products were designed. I used to even make “care packages” for some inventor docs that would contain special wires, tubing, molds, heat guns, shrink tubing, etc, so they could make prototypes themselves. They loved it. We had friends for life, and gained a few good product ideas as well.

There are lots of other examples of technologies that have enormous applications, where it was, or is, important to debug them first. By doing so, you will not only be learning more about the technology, but also the marketing and communication strategies that you may want to follow if in fact it does become super big. By going after smaller markets first, you can evolve, define, and develop more IP. You can do an awful lot of things that will increase the likelihood of a successful attack on the big market when you get there.

Build in-depth knowledge and trust it in hard times.
If it really is a new idea, you will not only be developing the product(s), you will be developing the language and the science behind it—the ontology and taxonomy for talking about it. It’s hard, but when you get there you will have created that market—and you will own it.

The marketing and funding folk will be pushing hard for you to get some big name scientific and other advisors on the masthead for credibility purposes. Yes, a few may be valuable, but remember, these are people who are already famous. They have nothing to gain (except money, of course, and that can sometimes be a bad motivator) and everything to lose. Finding the unknown younger scientist, engineer, or physician who has the capabilities and desire is much more important. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose. I’ll put my bet on the motivated entrepreneurial type every time. I have a checklist of attributes that we used to pick physicians. Ask me if you’re interested. [Editor’s note: John was getting so many requests for the list that we posted it here.]

Focus.
Traditional business experts will always say you’ve got to focus in order to apply your limited resources effectively. But if you’re dealing with a truly new idea, that may be the wrong thing to do because you don’t yet know where the best spot to focus is. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘It doesn’t look like it from the outside, but in fact we are focusing. We are taking little pieces of many markets and leveraging the daylights out of it, in order to create a new market.’ If your customers are your partners, and they should be, they can help you make the right decisions.

Always build your credibility and reputation.
Who do you trust more; someone who is selling you something which you’ve never heard of before, or someone who is selling something familiar from a well-known company? Everything else being equal, with most people, the affiliation with the well-known brand and organization is a reputational asset. So it’s critical to earn the respect and trust of both your customers and the community members, including competitors, of the field you will be working with.

General Georges Doriot, founder of American Research and Development and considered one of the fathers of venture capital, was a charmer and had an enormous Rolodex. He told me that it was his most valuable asset. He was a generous person, a mentor to many and always doing favors for people. But that generosity had an enlightened self-interest to it. The Rolodex represented his relationships and the personal credibility and reputation that went along with it. That was his most important investment.

I think people sometimes get so caught up in the competition of financial results that they forget that the thing that’s going to give them the best likelihood of success in the future is the relationship metrics.

This is all common sense, of course, and pretty obvious. But it’s amazing how often we forget the obvious.

John Abele is a cofounder and director of Boston Scientific Corporation, chairman of the Argosy Foundation, and owner and developer of the Kingbridge Centre and Institute, a conferencing institute whose mission is to research, develop, and teach improved methods for interactive conferencing. He is also board chairman of FIRST ( For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a K-12 educational program. Follow @

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  • http://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/ Bill Aulet

    I just wanted to add to John’s solid discussion on what it takes to get innovation in the market place based on our experience at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center.
    The question of what kind of traction a disruptive innovation (note the word “technololgy” is not used here) gets is indeed one of the most interesting riddles in business today.

    I think it is helpful to first make sure we properly defined the elements and parameters involved:
    1. Invention does not equal innovation. Innovation equals invention plus commercialization. (credit Ed Roberts, MIT Sloan Professor and Kendall Square entrepreneurial fixture for decades). This is a very important distinction. Patents, ideas, technologies or other “un-implemented” inventions create no value on their own. They need the commercializer — and a commericalizer needs a good (not necessarily great) idea.
    2. Innovations can be technology but more often they can be new business models (see Google — hint the business innovation breakthrough that made them successful wasn’t the algorithium … and by the way it wasn’t even their own but more on that later) or processes. Some of the most interesting and impactful innovations today have to do more with business models and delivery processes (see Amazon or more recently the Enernoc IPO for an examples of this phenomenon) than with technology.
    3. Innovations do not have to derived from an internally generated idea but more and more come externally and are simply more effectively applied by the new player than the original. See Apple (who did not invent the core technology in the Mac, iPod or iPhone) or Google (it was Overture’s idea on the key word advertising). Henry Cheesebrough addressed this very well in his “Open Innovation” book and it is becoming more and more true as time goes by.

    I offer these brief comments as my personal lessons learned regarding innovation. I have found they provide a bit more structure so innovators in small, medium and large companies can be more effective in promoting an environment where innovation may flourish.

  • http://www.ideasforsurgery.com Kurt

    John:

    Thank you for the inspiring post. I would like to follow up on your offer and ask you for the checklist of attributes that you used to pick physicians.

    Kurt

  • bill

    It is too bad the theory is not driving value for shareholders today.

  • Craig

    John,
    I appreciate the insight and, as a former member of the Boston Scientific family, have appreciated your work from the inside. I would be quite interested in a copy of physician checklist of attributes.
    Best regards,
    Craig

  • David

    Very interesting. I would like a copy of the physician checklist. Do you think the atributes might translate to other industries?

    Best,

    David

  • JB

    I would also like the physician’s attribute list. As a vendor to BSX, your comments were very interesting and timely.
    Regards,
    JB

  • Liam

    John,

    I couldn’t agree with you more regarding attributes of physicians. I am interested to see your checklist. I feel it is important to re-evaluate these “physicians” as the technology/innovation becomes accepted; to assure you have the proper mix of expereinced and new physicians (so that you can have a more representative “voice of the customer”). After all, the innovation will only be new up until the next disruption.

  • Carl Shurtleff

    Mr. Abele,

    Congratulations on your 2007 SAGES Pioneer in Endoscopy Award.

    As somone working in this space, I too would like a copy of your “Physician Atttibutte” list

    Thanks in advance,

    CJS

  • bill h.

    John, thank you for your insights. Success is an idea. Ideas exist only in the interchange between humans. It follows that the success of ideas is dependent upon human relationships.

  • Jan

    Thanks for the inspiration. I think BSC is a wonderful company.
    Jan

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