There’s a myth that all it takes to change the world is a single great idea, usually conceived by a visionary inventor sweating away in a garage workshop.
Build it, the adage goes, and they will come.
“The failure rate is high on that,” said Jonathan Lasch, director of the Alfred Mann Institute (AMI) for Biomedical Engineering at USC.
He would know: He’s seen the long road an invention has to travel before arriving at the commercial marketplace. For 10 years, the AMI has shepherded medical devices from the inventor’s bench to the commercial market, navigating regulatory hurdles and business pitfalls along the way.
The not-for-profit’s mission includes everything from securing funding for an invention to performing a market analysis and figuring out who its potential buyers would be.
Lasch favors a “pull” approach, seeing what needs there are in the open market and focusing on inventions that naturally will attract buyers, rather than trying to “push” a product on to them. In addition, the institute looks at how difficult protecting the intellectual property of an invention will be and what a workable business plan will look like.
Recent products the inventors worked on include a device that removes skin lesions using an electronic pulse; a bandage that stays sticky at room temperature but falls off when cooled with ice, making it perfect for burn victims; and a system for diagnosing cardiac problems by injecting a small amount of fluorescent dye into the bloodstream. While their creators know those inventions inside and out, the institute brings a comprehensive expertise in technology development to their work.
“No matter how smart someone is, they can’t be an expert in all of these technologies and in all aspects of development,” Lasch said.
Nor can they be an expert in all the areas of a successful business launch. That takes the kind of experience the institute’s team offers. Lasch himself has started dozens of companies over the course of his career. His team sees between 70 and 100 inventions per year. The team analyzes each to get it developed enough for a commercial launch, places it in a company’s product pipeline or spins it out into a private company.
That requires carefully picking and choosing the projects the team works on, said Cesar Blanco, head of engineering and project development. Each one is different.
For the special adhesive the AMI has been working on, the technological risks aren’t that great, but market data is harder to come by. For a stent coating, the opposite is true – there’s a large market with plenty of data available, but proving the technology works better than anything else on the market can be a challenge.
“Our goal is to de-risk the technology,” Blanco said. “We might not take all the risk out of it, but we’re taking a significant amount out.”
Even when an invention proves to be less successful than expected, Lasch said, their development ultimately benefits society.
“A company that fails still pushes forward technology for others to use, creates high-quality jobs and gives employees a chance to learn,” he said. “There are lessons to be learned from setbacks.”