How to Identify Crossover Technologies That Work for Medtech

Not every cool gadget from the consumer tech world can be applied successfully to healthcare, but the crossovers that work seem to make the hunt for that diamond in the rough worthwhile.

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Cross-pollination, the idea of taking something that has proven useful in one industry and applying it to another industry, has become an interesting trend in innovation-oriented fields like medtech. Sometimes borrowing seemingly-simple ideas from other corners of the technology world can lead to surprisingly impactful solutions to challenging healthcare problems.

So how do identify and adapt technologies from other industries for use in medical devices? What level of maturity does a technology need to achieve in another industry before you can take it and consider it for medtech? And why is it so important for medtech professionals to stay alert to this trend? These are some of the questions that a panel of experts tackled at MD&M Minneapolis last week.

New tech platforms like virtual reality is a prime example of a technology that is being used across industries, including in medtech to solve unmet needs, according to Alex Thaler, senior global product manager at Minneapolis, MN-based Smiths Medical. "Virtual reality is being used to take patients into another world entirely," Thaler said. "For example burn patients or children getting IV sticks. VR can take them and put them into an alternate environment where they can be happy and peaceful."

As for maturity, that is the $64,000 question, said Dale Larson, director of commercial initiatives at Cambridge, MA-based Draper Laboratory.

"How mature does it have to be? I don't have an exact answer," Larson said. "Obviously, the more mature the better ... I think it's mostly about the power of the problem you're solving. If you're solving a bigger problem, people are willing to take a little bit bigger risk."

Thaler added that the technology has to match the need, so it's important to identify a clear clinical problem that you're trying to solve before venturing out to look for a potential crossover technology.

How mature a technology has to be before bringing it into medtech also depends on how you envision using it. If you plan to apply it to a product line extension, for example, it's easier to sell internally, Thaler said. "Transformational technology entering a new industry is obviously a much more powerful innovation, those types of innovations are the ones that will make us excited to get up in the morning, yet it's a harder challenge."

Offering another perspective, Srihari Yamanoor, a mechanical engineer with experience spanning medical device design, CAD/CAM, and sustainability, said maturity can be a double-edged sword.

Sharing an example of a successful cross-pollination story, Thaler talked about devices like the AccuVein device that borrows barcode technology from the retail world and applies it to the healthcare environment but illuminating veins to help clinicians find patients' veins for blood draws and for starting an IV.

Both Larson and Thaler also shared valuable takeaways from crossover projects that failed. Read about those examples here.

"One of the key takeaways here is to make sure you have a good set of requirements," said Bonnie Kee-Bowling, senior engineering manager at Minneapolis, MN-based New Wave Design and Verification. "If you're going to go out looking for something in another industry, make sure you have written down, in detail, both physical and functional requirements that you're looking for because I guarantee you that most of the other industries that you're going to look in have that list."

Kee-Bowling moderated the panel discussion on cross-pollination and has a unique perspective on the topic given her diverse technical background. She has direct experience with advancing aircraft propulsion systems, smart munitions, U.S. Army ground combat systems, passive medical devices, software, and electronics. 

Bonnie has over 31 years of technical leadership experience in researching, developing, designing, and testing complex systems. She has direct experience with advancing aircraft propulsion systems, smart munitions, U.S. Army ground combat systems, passive medical devices, software, and electronics. Additionally, she has extensive knowledge in program management.

It is imperative that medtech professionals stay on top of this trend because it's not just medical device companies that are bringing in crossover technologies for healthcare applications, Yamanoor pointed out, noting that Google, Apple, and others have been actively moving in on the medtech turf.

"From a competition standpoint and from a strategy standpoint, we have to look at what the technology industry is doing because they are trying to expand into, basically what has been a silo and it won't be in the future," he said.

"And they're doing that with very, very deep pockets, which will transform a lot," Thaler added.

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