Getting Disruptive Ideas to Market

Opinion

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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