5 Reasons Big Medtech Companies Can (and Should) Innovate

An R&D expert at Edwards Lifesciences challenges the paradigm that only startups can innovate.

Working in R&D at a large company can sometimes feel like being on a hamster wheel. But Steve Geist of Edwards Lifesciences says big companies can innovate, it's just a matter of taking that hamster wheel and reducing it down to systems and processes that enable innovation.

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Given how much money big medical device companies spend each year on acquisitions, it's clear that those companies have a desire for true innovation. And yet, they hold back on R&D spending because larger corporations need predictability, repeatability, and scalability. Simply put, they are less risk tolerant than startups.

Steve Geist, director of R&D within the transcatheter mitral and tricuspid therapies division at Edwards Lifesciences, gave MD&M Minneapolis attendees five solid reasons why big medtech firms can, and should, innovate beyond line extensions.

1. They already have an R&D infrastructure in place

Innovation isn't just about bottom-up responsibility, Geist said, it's about top-down as well. While R&D infrastructure at big companies can sometimes feel like being on a hamster wheel, Geist said organizations have a responsibility to take the hamster wheel of infrastructure and fix that in such a way that it becomes less of an exercise in documentation and more time spent on actual engineering. 

2. They have all the cool toys

Large companies are rich in tools and capabilities, Geist said. "It's the big companies that have a lot of these capabilities on site, right? ... They may not be being used currently for innovation, but the capabilities are there. So what happens if you turn those capabilities loose to in-house innovation? Suddenly you have an advantage over the startup company that has to go outside for every aspect of their development."

3. They have a great talent pool

The talent pool at big companies is fully capable of innovation, and Geist said most startups are full actually full of people who leave to pursue opportunities to innovate. "They're fully capable at big companies," he said. "It's about taking that hamster wheel and reducing it down to systems and processes that actually enable innovation."

A common phrase that is often thrown around at big companies, Geist said, is that the company needs to inspire its engineers to innovate. He disagrees. 

"I think the engineers at big companies are dying to innovate. The real challenge isn't inspiring innovation, it's unleashing it," he said.

4. They know people in high places

Big companies know the technology, and they know their customers. "As a startup, your access to physicians and the key opinion leaders is nothing compared to the relationships that can be leveraged at a big company. Big companies have access to the podium speakers, whereas startups have to kind of [settle for] second-tiers," Geist said.

5. They have deeper pockets 

"The money is there for innovation."

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In "Big Corporations" there is Big Competition for funding. Yes, when the executives decide to fund a specific innovation there is sufficient funding. Some companies like Bose, use Indigogo to both fund and innovate. There is a lot of talent to be sure. Pulling that talent from a priority project is the real challenge.
But the reality is... it doesn't happen very often. R&D infrastructure is over-rated. It doesn't produce innovation. Neither does "cool toys". The talent a big companies are those that learn to operate in the large-scale political realm, not the creative, out-of-box thinkers that come up with the really big breakthroughs. Those types prefer the less structured startup environment and the opportunity to make some serious money when things go right. VCs provide the deep pockets for startups.
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