Healthcare Needs Real Entrepreneurs Before It Can Have Real Innovation

5/17/11Follow @venturevalkyrie

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending an event put together by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a branch of the US Department Of Health and Human Services whose mission is to improve the quality, safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of health care for all Americans. AHRQ has established an Innovation Exchange designed to speed the implementation of new and better ways of delivering health care. This particular event was called “Scale Up and Spread” and was designed to let several of the innovations brought to light through the Innovation Exchange be reviewed by a panel of industry people, Shark Tank style.

If you have seen the show Shark Tank, which I wrote about recently, you can appreciate that they called this a “Fish Tank” event, as the goal was for the panel to provide pointed feedback to the “innovators” but in a constructive and less confrontational manner than you might find in the TV show. Not a shark fin in sight, unless you count the one I had to hide with my cardigan since I was the only private equity investor in the room. Talk about a fish out of water! All of the approximately 50 or so attendees represented non-profit organizations, consumer groups, government agencies, teaching hospitals and related consultants.

It was a very interesting day for many reasons, not the least of which was the stark contrast in orientations between the presenting innovators and the panel of evaluators. Each of the three presenters stated, in one form or another, that their primary motivation for bringing forward their idea and desiring to scale it was, for all intents and purposes, to better mankind. Altruism was the common driving principle that brought them to that time and place, not the desire to get famous or rich. It is such a starkly different perspective than the one I usually interact with in my day-to-day role as a very for-profit investor. My working definition of altruism is hoping that my partners make money too. To be fair, any one whose private equity career led them to health care instead of Internet gaming must have at least a whiff of a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world beyond just making money. We do what we can to keep that under wraps for fear our tech-focused peers would laugh and point.

To kick off the AHRQ innovation event, AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn Clancy gave an excellent speech in which she said that she had been thinking about the sweet spot between research, on the one hand, and replicable innovation which can be scaled on the other. Dr. Clancy noted that many of the more than 600 (!) ideas that have been brought forward through the Innovation Exchange sit on one side of that sweet spot and are trying to break on through to the other. Among the things she said in her remarks was, “I’m not native to that innovation culture.”

This comment really got me thinking. I know what she meant, or at least what I think she meant: as a physician, academician and policy person, she does not come from a work environment which typically focuses on consciously rewarding and nurturing innovation and its widespread dissemination. Not that great innovations can’t and don’t emerge from those worlds (that’s exactly what the AHRQ Innovation Exchange is working to do), but scaling and spreading innovation on a large scale has more traditionally been considered the purview of the business community.

In some ways, though, I am worried that the focus on the term “innovation” is getting a little overdone. Innovation is a wonderful thing, but the term is becoming … Next Page »

Lisa Suennen is an independent consultant, board member of AngioScore, and a former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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