Healthcare Needs Real Entrepreneurs Before It Can Have Real Innovation


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so common it risks becoming a cliche.  Legions of people are now claiming that their passports were issued by the Innovation Nation, but the arrival of true healthcare innovations that really move the cost or quality needle are fewer and farther between than the discourse suggests.

Innovation as a concept has become so fashionable that even organizations that don’t seem inherently tuned to innovate feel like they have to start innovation initiatives. A case in point: nearly every major US healthcare corporation seems to have a newly-minted Innovation Center presided over by a Chief Innovation Officer or equivalent. I realize that there is much change afoot in the healthcare industry, but weren’t these organizations trying to innovate all along? Does innovation need it’s own department, it’s own center, it’s own association to be real?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some seriously smart, seriously innovative people in these innovation roles and there is no doubt that innovation is necessary to respond to the challenges of our current healthcare system—the same old thing isn’t going to cut it. In some ways the amplified focus on innovation is a plus because it means that an abundance of resources are being poured into activities that foster new ideas, such as the efforts put forth by AHRQ. On the other hand, I fear that if there are armies of people out there beating the bushes for innovation, they will be forced to find it at any cost to perpetuate the need for their services. That can lead to a kind of over-breeding of ideas that are innovative but not actionable. Not every new idea is an innovation worth fostering, just watch Shark Tank—Man Candle anyone? It seems to me that the pursuit of “innovation” just isn’t specific enough.

This brings me full circle to my AHRQ meeting experience. While all three of the featured innovators had interesting if nascent ideas for how to improve a discrete part of the healthcare delivery system, none of them articulated a goal for their idea or viewed themselves as entrepreneurs charged with driving the idea to infinity and beyond. As I said in the meeting: your goal can be to sell five widgets or world domination, but you have to have a vision of where you’re headed if you are going to get there. And yet, in three out of three cases, each idea was described alongside the somewhat impressive results of its limited application, but none of the innovators could articulate where they wanted their idea to go or what would constitute evidence of success.

Interestingly, each of the innovators shied away from anything that was suggestive of a marketing plan, each stating in their own way that the idea of actively promoting their innovation made them uncomfortable. None of the innovators described a vision of how big the market for their idea might be or the potential financial opportunity it afforded. Two of them had trouble articulating the best way to demonstrate to customers that their ideas delivered results worth paying for.

These oversights made me think that the current innovation craze sweeping the healthcare world might better be redefined as a quest for entrepreneurship or a quest to actively transform innovators into entrepreneurs. Innovation itself is easy to come by, but innovation guided by a goal—such as reducing unnecessary readmissions for people with congestive heart failure or eliminating accidental medication errors in hospitals or ensuring that all breast cancers are identified in their early treatable stage—can lead to great products and services that can make a real, measurable difference for humanity, reduce healthcare costs and make money for innovators and investors alike. When combined with a great entrepreneur who knows how to marry the innovation with a goal-driven set of strategies, it becomes possible to conquer the marketplace and build businesses (or programs in the case of government agencies or non-profits) that can dominate their fields.

Yes, it’s true—great companies are sometimes born by accident when an innovation is, in and of itself, so big that it can make its own way; however, that is the rarest of exceptions. Without great leadership executing towards a definable goal, even the most innovative ideas are likely to die on the vine. As many have said, a good idea with a great leader beats a great idea with a good leader any day of the week. Innovation is only as great as the vision and skills of the entrepreneur who drives it forward, spurred onward by the target toward which she is driving.

When these things come together, amazing things can happen. And for those charged with scouting for this magic innovation cocktail, how will they know they have found it?  It will be evident from the trail of shark fins following in its wake.

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Lisa Suennen is a managing director with GE Ventures and 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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  • Rich

    There are tons of us Health IT entrepreneurs out here.

    We can’t find funding to build our products!