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Incremental vs. Disruptive: A Parallel Entrepreneur on What Innovation Really Is

Incremental vs. Disruptive: A Parallel Entrepreneur on What Innovation Really Is

When asked to define innovation, many people give an answer that separates the solution from the problem. “Doing that assumes that you know what the problem is,” says InCube Labs founder Mir Imran, who holds more than 200 issued patents and has founded more than 20 life science companies—sometimes launching multiple ventures in parallel. It is a mistake to separate the process of innovation from careful consideration of the problem, he explains.

The Way to Look at It

Mir Imran, who helped develop the first FDA-approved automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillator, has founded more than 20 life sciences companies.

Through his experience as an entrepreneur and investor, Imran has learned about innovation from the inside out. He offers the following definition:

“Innovation is the process of defining the problem and understanding the problem—not solving it,” Imran says. “The solution comes later. Understanding the problem is at the heart of it.”

He explains: “You pick something and you say ‘this is what I know about it,’ ‘this is what I don’t know about it.’ ‘And the things I don’t know, I’m going to find more about,’” he recommends. “As you peel the layers of that problem, after a while—if you are lucky, and if you have the background to really understand and tackle it—you will have understood it in its entirety,” Imran explains. “Or you will have gotten as close to understanding it as you can come. And then the solution will emerge from that understanding.”

Instead of sitting back and attempting to solve the problem, the problem solves itself. “You are just the agent of understanding and opening up the issues. And as your understanding deepens, the solution becomes obvious,” he says. Once the problem is thoroughly understood, it is also possible to end up with a set of solutions.

A Path Seldom Followed

Most innovators and entrepreneurs don’t follow this approach, Imran notes. “Instead, they fall in love with their technology,” he says. “For instance, a mechanical engineer who works with catheters looks at the whole world through the lens of a catheter,” he adds. And consequently, such an engineer will be tempted to solve problems with that tool.

“That’s a classic example of a solution looking for a problem to solve.”

Another example of this can be found in nanotechnology, where researchers commonly announce that they have made a breakthrough that will enable the solution of a number of problems. “That’s a classic example of a solution looking for a problem to solve,” Imran explains. As a result of that approach, there is usually not a good fit between the proposed solution and the targeted problem. “Occasionally, you might get lucky, but that’s randomness. That’s not deliberate innovation.”

Nevertheless, this approach is common. “I grew up as a scientist and a technologist, and I’ve seen it in myself and in every engineer I’ve worked with,” Imran says. “To most engineers, innovation is about technology and applying whatever they have learned,” he adds.

And, as it turns out, medical device engineers often lack a multidisciplinary scientific background, which can prove crucial in addressing many clinical problems. “They often look at an issue through the lens of a single discipline,” Imran says. “As a result of that, they are only going to see a small portion of the problem.”

Understanding a problem completely, or as well as reasonably possible, is a process that can take months or years—even decades. “And many times, you may not be able to understand it even though you try to; it may not yield to you,” Imran says. When that happens, you might lack the necessary background. Or the question might not be framed correctly.

Incremental Innovation

At the MD&M West event held in February 2013 in Anaheim, Imran will participate in a panel discussion with MD+DI's 2012 Manufacturers of the Year on February 12. The following day, he will host a roundtable discussion with entrepreneurs. 

The process for incremental innovation is slightly different than for disruptive innovation. “Incremental innovation is much more bounded,” Imran says. Basically, an inventor has a widget and wants to improve it. To do that, she observes how the widget is used and the environment it is used in. “And she identifies the areas of friction where the user has difficulty with the widget or the widget requires too much time to do something with,” Imran says. “And by that observation, the engineer or scientist can come up with a list of improvements to make.”

Incremental innovation isn’t limited to tangible devices. An inventor can observe a procedure and attempt to come up with a better way of doing the same thing.

This approach is common among physician innovators. “They are dealing with certain tools, processes, and things, and they say: 'I wish [this device] was longer or shorter,' 'I want to reach that part of the organ,' or 'I need a curvature like this,’” Imran explains. Physician inventors often come up with new ideas for products they use: surgical instruments, a procedure, tools, and so forth.

Disruptive Innovation

When you start thinking about disruptive innovation, the process gets more complex, Imran says. And as a result, this form of innovation requires questioning the very fundamentals of the problem. “So you have to sort of step back and really question everything—the foundation of where the problem rests.”

This approach requires asking basic questions such as:

  • Why are we treating chronic pain the way we are?
  • Why are we treating atrial fibrillation the way we are?
  • What are the long term outcomes?
  • Does it make sense to do it this way?

Disruptive innovation is not common among most physician innovators, who are locked into a given perspective. They might consider what they have been taught in medical school or how they practice medicine and seek to optimize it. They are not trained to question whether the way they are, for instance, diagnosing or treating patients is the best possible option. Doctors rarely take on their own understanding of a problem head on—questioning the textbooks and teachers who taught them how to practice medicine.

“Each interaction gives you insights.”

But disruptive innovation requires an approach like that. It starts by identifying clinical problems that lack a good solution. Then, start defining the issues and the process of digging into them. Ask, for instance, what kind of patient does this condition affect? Why does the condition manifest this way? What is happening at the cellular level?

You can learn a great deal about a problem by watching its interaction with current therapies—even though they might be inadequate, Imran says. “Each interaction gives you insights.” Even failures can be useful because they give you information about the problem.

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