Brian Buntz

December 7, 2015

7 Min Read
7 Star Wars Lessons for Medtech That Would Make Yoda Proud


Image from Pixabay

Much you can learn from the science fiction saga when it comes to creating great medical devices. "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

Brian Buntz and Chris Newmarker

The new Star Wars: The Force Awakens should hopefully not "suck," as director J.J. Abrams recently promised People magazine.

The movie, which hits U.S. movie theaters on December 18, might even inspire, and provide some useful lessons for medical device designers and people in general. It turns out that original Star Wars trilogy had a lot to teach. (Let's just forget the prequel movies ever happened.)

Here are seven Star Wars lessons to make you a better medical device developer:

1. Function and Software Trump Form

"She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid," explained Han Solo to Luke Skywalker referring to the Millennium Falcon, which he boasted "made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."

Solo had personally modified the ship, tweaking the ship's navigation software to optimize how trips through hyperspace are calculated.

While sleek design has become increasingly important in the medical device industry, the function of medical devices will always be more important than their form--although the two are sometimes closely related, such as was the case in the design of the world's smallest pacemaker

The Millennium Falcon's ability to use software to travel at remarkable speeds also seems prescient, considering how software is now being used to offer an array of new functions to medical devices such as giving patients the ability to remotely beam health data to doctors.

Philips, for instance, is using a cloud-based app to run its new Lumify ultrasound system, which runs off a transducer plugged into a user-supplied, compatible Android smart device. Or through its acquisition of Merge Healthcare, IBM is bringing the analytical capabilities of its Watson supercomputer to bear on medical imaging. Perhaps computers will be more gifted at, say, spotting tumors than humans.

2. Maintain Vigilant Quality Standards and Minimize Hidden Weaknesses

Darth Vader had gloated about how the Death Star would make the Empire a practically invincible force. So powerful that it could destroy entire planets, the Death Star turned out to be so vulnerable that it could itself be destroyed by a single x-wing fighter hitting the thermal exhaust port in just the right way with proton torpedoes. Ditto for the second, even- Death Star in Return of the Jedi.

With medical devices, unforeseen design errors can cause grave problems, including severe injury and death, not to mention costly product recalls and potential litigation. For example, medical device companies have spent billions to settle lawsuits around metal-on-metal hip implants, which were considered as invincible as the Death Star but were apparently releasing chromium and cobalt ions into patients bodies and causing the bone in some patients' hips to die.

Meanwhile, security experts continue to raise alarm about the cybersecurity threats of next-gen wireless medical devices.

3. Keep Close Tabs on Secret Information

This seemingly simple piece of advice was evidently not headed by the Empire, who decided to invest unthinkable resources building the aforementioned Death Star in the first Star Wars film but somehow forgot to secure the plans for their gargantuan space station, enabling rebel spies to steal them and ultimately blow it up. To put it mildly, Darth Vader would likely not have been thrilled with whoever was responsible for securing those plans.

While that may sound far fetched, there are several examples from the medical device industry that almost seem like life imitating art in this case. A single engineer was able to steal millions of files from GE Healthcare. There is also the case of an engineer who stole trade secrets from C.R. Bard Inc. and Becton, Dickinson and Co. and a Boston Scientific engineer accused of stealing trade secrets related to balloon catheters.

4. Get Feedback from Your Team to Avoid a Rebellion

If your team members feel taken advantage of in any way, there will always be some sort of "rebellion"--whether decreased productivity, a bitter attitude, or employees fleeing your firm for a competitor.

The corollary to this is that unlikely alliances can be powerful, as can be observed in the diversity of the Rebel Alliance, which incorporates several alien cultures.

Contrast that with the culture of the Empire, in which the vast majority of power was wielded by two people: Darth Vader and the Emperor. Despite their immense power, taking down both Vader and the Emperor could theoretically spell the end of the entire Empire. Making matters worse for the Empire is the fact that they didn't really have much of an emergency plan. I guess we'll have to check out The Force Awakens to see how the Empire fares after the Emperor and Vader's deaths in Return of the Jedi.

To sum it up, expecting servitude is a surefire way to kill innovation, Ted Harro, founder and president of Noonday Ventures, explained in November at Minnesota Medtech Week.

5. Don't Give Up Hope When the Odds Are Against You

While dodging asteroids in the Millennium Falcon, C-3PO tells Han Solo: "Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3720 to 1," to which Solo responds: "Never tell me the odds!"

Another example: in Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker doubts his ability to levitate his spacecraft using his mind alone. "Size matters not," Yoda tells him. "Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?"

The medical device industry is full of tales of inventors who worked on projects that faced long odds. An apt example is the Luke arm (named after Luke Skywalker)--a mind-controlled prosthetic from DEKA Research that can perform tasks assumed impossible for a prosthetic arm: operate zippers, hold delicate foods such as grapes or eggs without crushing them.

6. Pay Careful Attention to Customers Feedback

George Lucas has faced considerable backlash from his fan base for his editing of the original Star Wars trilogy, as detailed in the film "The People vs. George Lucas." In addition, the three prequels Lucas made also failed to please the general public. Articles published in the last few years include: "No More Wars: 10 Reasons George Lucas Should Have Quit After Jedi," "George Lucas Was Terrible At Predicting The Future Of Star Wars," and "How I Forgave George Lucas and Learned to Love Star Wars Again."

For medical device companies, the question of who customers are is a bit more complex. While doctors and patients are two of the most obvious, the needs of payers, hospital administrators, and regulatory bodies are uniquely important as well. Whoever your customers are, it is vital to take their feedback seriously. Recent interviews with Lucas almost make it seem like he is not to happy with Star Wars fans. "You go to make a movie and all you do is get criticized and people try to make decisions about what you're going to do before you do it," he said, also stating that his favorite Star Wars character was the Jar Jar Binks. Maybe he's trolling?

7. Don't Be Overly Motivated by Fear--or Reward

"Fear is the path of the dark side," explained Yoda.

While fear can be a powerful motivator, it is also important to have a positive vision for your company and how your technology can help people.

Being motivated primarily out of fear can lead to adversarial relationships with other team members, not to mention important external organizations such as FDA. 

In the Star Wars saga, the Jedi warriors were the role model for how to address problems--with calm focus.

Yoda also counselled Jedis to let go of attachments while maintaining discipline: "A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind," he said in Empire Strikes Back. "Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!"

Yoda's instruction to be unencumbered by attachment also coincides with design thinking, which instructs product developers to resist falling in love with promising technology ideas too soon. Instead, the methodology stresses careful observation and empathy with users and considerable brainstorming, prototyping, and obtaining user feedback. 

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at MD&M West, February 9-11 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntzChris Newmarker is senior editor of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker

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