There is a new social entrepreneurial movement afoot that seeks solutions to some of the world’s most challenging medical issues. Medical entrepreneurship is among the very best hopes we have for accelerating the pace of medical innovation and industrial progress.
For many people living with Parkinson’s disease, the mere act of chewing and swallowing can be a challenge. The tremor caused by the disease currently has no cure in the market—all treatments only moderate symptoms. While traditional medical research and industry rendered no effective solutions to tackle the tremor symptom, an untraditional research organization offer a solution. Lift Labs, a San Francisco startup company, has developed a gadget, Liftware, which can help stabilize tremors of people with Parkinson’s and related disorders.
The Liftware counteracts on tremor when patients are eating—tests proved “a reduction of more than 70 percent in tremors when using the spoon.” In a news release, Life Labs founder Anupam Pathak said that soon after he figured out how to make the hardware active tremor cancellation, he introduced the technology to the lab, producing the first prototype of Liftware. All it took was an edge-cutting entrepreneurial idea to bring the already-mature technology to the medical industry.
What makes Lift Lab and its products unique is their representation of a new model for developing medical solutions— a pathway distinct from the traditional research model, where research is affiliated with an institutional lab and nourished by funding grants. Though it started with an NIH grant, Lift Lab was mainly supported and funded by $1 million from “angel investors,” investors who specifically fund small startups or entrepreneurs. This type of funding proved crucial for the survival of Liftware: the flaws in the traditional research model would have killed the project even before it hit the market.
The traditional research model for medical innovation, as we know it today is obsolete and nearly broken. Why? Two words: inefficient and ineffective. First of all, too much time writing grants makes the current research pathway extremely inefficient. For instance, in 2007, a U.S. government study found that “university faculty members spend about 40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth.” Such frustration is becoming one of the major obstacles in medical research and innovation.
Moreover, the old medical research model is ineffective because it is, by design, risk averse. Grant proposals that win funding are usually those that seek out small, incremental discoveries—it is the very nature and policy of the grant-making bodies to look for ideas that build on existing knowledge. Breakout ideas are not able to happen under this incrementalist research model since they might be too “difficult and long to achieve” via limited funding. The money goes to the projects that are so close to the “product” that nothing is possibly “wasted.”
This is where and why the neo-entrepreneurial movement comes in. Through corporate modes of research funding, medical researchers with “good, even radical, ideas” now have a chance to transform their “ideas” into prototypes of medical solutions more viable through the investments from angel investors and markets. Liftware was “lifted” in such way. In the past decade, so were many other devices.
This entrepreneurial pathway for medical innovation has been proven so effective and viable that even undergraduate college students can take advantage of it.
At Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), two senior engineering students have developed a new product for asthma monitoring and managing. It has given millions of patients in developing country new hope. Sparo Lab founders Andrew Brimer and Abigail Cohen created a portable and low-cost spirometer, empowering patients to connect with their doctors in tracking and managing lung diseases through seamless integration with mobile devices.
In an interview, Cohen talked about the project’s origins. She said it all came from an idea to make treatment and prevention of lung diseases cheaper and more accessible. “Statistics indicated that an estimated 300 million people in the world suffer from asthma, and the number is expected to grow,” Cohen said. “People living in the developing world have a much more difficult time… and we want to use our expertise to help.”
Sparo Labs was born out of a Washington University class called The Hatchery, which is taught by Cliff Holekamp, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and director of the entrepreneurship platform at Washington University. “[Sparo Labs] are great examples of the talent that is bought in from around the world to Washington University and that is contributing to the startup culture in St. Louis,” Holekamp said in a St. Louis Business Journal article.
The new model stimulates students’ passion to get involved in undergraduate research program. At WUSTL, research is no longer a monopolized field for hard-core science students. With the entrepreneurship-integrated model, it also draws the attention and participation of students from other areas of study. Not only are scientific hypotheses tested, but business marketing ones as well. It is the integration of entrepreneurship and traditional research model that unites students across the campus and areas of their study.
In this worldwide, academic, social and, most importantly, entrepreneurial movement, innovations transform to medical solutions is vastly accelerated and simplified. After the entrepreneurship hits the academia, all it takes is a good idea.