MedTech Made Easy

This week I was pleased to be able to attend the first (hopefully of many) World Health Medical Technology Conference (MedTech Conference) organized by Boston University’s School of Management’s Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization (ITEC).  Directed by Jonathan Rosen, ITEC is a relatively new center at BU that supports entrepreneurship among its faculty and students through learning opportunities like classes, conferences, business plan competitions, and a new mentoring program called Kindle (Kindle).  ITEC and BU are also one of the sponsors of the best local meeting for social venturing, the Forum for Social Entrepreneurs, last held in 2008 and hopefully to be held in 2010 (ForSE 2008).

The underlying theme of the conference is that there is a growing number of local medical device/technology companies developing products aimed at serving the “under-resourced” populations, those depending on public subsidy to meet their health care needs (as in what Medicare, the Veteran’s Administration, and the health insurance reform legislation do/will do for about one-third of the US population).  This is an important theme, both globally, since affordable technology is needed to solve many global health challenges, and locally, since new England has one of the largest concentrations of medical technology companies in the US, according to the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council (MassMEDIC Report), and finding new markets is important to their long term profitability.  The program included presentations by two CEOs of local medtech startups (Drs. Ryan and Rodriguez of Diagnostics for All and Daktari, respectively), and representatives of the academic (Drs. Burke and Olsen) and non-governmental (Drs. Schneideman of PATH and Blander of Bienmoyo), and venture sectors (Bailey of Commons Capital and Sandoski of Norwich Ventures).  These presenters made good points, but I wish to mention those that represented the two ends of the medtech innovation spectrum:  Earl Jones, general manager of GE Healthcare’s eHealthcare division, and two teams of student inventors.

GE Healthcare is a major division of GE with about $18 billion in annual revenues, and eHealthcare is a new group within it aimed at decreasing costs through integrated IT (GE eHealthcare).  Earl evidently is familiar with how most of the world lives by leading sales and partnering activities for GE’s water purification business, i.e., in places where water is not abundant or clean, and with operating a global business.  His first point of note was that GE is putting money into finding new technologies to support its global business through a corporate venture fund called the Healthymagination Fund (Healthymagination Fund).  Started at $250 million, the fund has three investment objectives which are in line with companies developing medtech products for global health:  diagnostics, information technology (think mobile healthcare delivery), and biopharmaceutical and vaccine R and D methods.  A handy submission button is provided on the site (Proposal Submit).  Earl also mentioned that GE is embracing “reverse innovation,” which was described in a Harvard Business Review article last October (and co-authored by the GE CEO, Jeffrey Immelt):  “Rather than follow its historical path of developing high-end products and adapting them for emerging markets, GE is developing local technologies in these regions and then distributing them globally“ (Reverse Innovation).  Although GE has a way to go to make its exemplar $1000 EKG machine affordable in the many places where annual per capita healthcare spend is less than the cost of one machine (Health Care Spend), its leadership on creating global markets is much–needed for US corporations.

At the other end of the medtech innovation spectrum are the many student teams (and their faculty advisers) who are learning the innovation process through inventing and developing, at least to prototype stage, new technologies for the under-served.  There were a handful of student groups presenting and postering at the BU meeting (unfortunately, a summary booklet was not produced).  I mention two:

-No-name solar-powered pulse oximeter:  an oximeter measures non-invasively the degree to which a person’s hemoglobin is carrying oxygen and therefore is a key diagnostic for respiratory insufficiency possibly caused by pneumonia, a leading cause of death.  Specifically, this one is designed to be used by rural community health workers of Zambia and to be cheap, grid-independent, and rugged.  The Boston University College of Engineering students, Max Condren, Bryan Lublin, Matthew Fleming, are advised by Drs. Muhammad Zaman (whom I have met at the Smart Global Health meeting, c.f. my post of April 29, 2010), Phillip Seidenberg, Jonathon Simon, and Donald Thea (Oximeter Story).

-EyeHeme:  current methods of measuring anemia (low red blood cell count and indicative of nutritional disease, parasitic infection, or internal hemorrhage) require a blood draw.  EyeHeme is a non-invasive anemia diagnostic based on reflectance spectroscopy and the blood vessels of the eyelid (EyeHeme Slides).  It is in early stage development by MIT students, Arianne Jong, Seema Kacker, and Kristin Kuhn, supervised by Dr. Amy Smith at MIT’s D-Lab.  The D-Lab “fosters the development of appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions within the framework of international development” and “serves as an educational vehicle that allows students to gain an optimistic and practical understanding of their roles in alleviating poverty” (D-Lab).

So did BU’s first World Health Medical Technology Conference deliver on its billing?  The goals of the meeting were wide-ranging and laudable; specifically, to explore:

-how innovative medical technologies are changing the quality of care in global health settings [not really accomplished since so few of the products described have been implemented];

-how innovative distribution channels are opening new global markets for medical technologies [not really accomplished, although GE certainly could be a primary player in global distribution];

-how global medical technology companies are attracting traditional venture capital investments [the speakers were a bit of a disappointment although in his talk Dr. Rodrigeuz mentioned he made 75 VC pitches to get his $3.5 million];

-how cooperative partnerships are changing the medical technology global landscape [well-addressed, with PATH and Bienmoyo as good examples];

-how to conduct successful clinical research and new product trials in global health settings [an important topic but unaddressed];

-how to achieve design innovation for advancing patient care [design was clearly the strong suite of presenters, both company and student, so this topic was amply covered]; and

-how to create and maintain intellectual property in global health medical technologies [not an important topic but an interest of a sponsoring law firm].

Overall scorecard:  the meeting is a good start aimed at filling a important need in the commercialization of medical technologies for global health, but it needs more participation by and promotion to the local medtech industry.   For example, I’d suggest involving MassMEDIC and local companies with global health/market interests, e.g., for diagnostics:  T2 Biosystems, Pointcare, and Boston Microfluidics; for mobile health:  Dimagi; and for surgical products:  Wadsworth Medical Technologies.


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