Reduce Risk & Increase Impact: Building a Smarter MVP in Medtech

A good minimum viable product can help convince stakeholders, validate concepts, and provide crucial momentum for startups.

Scott Nelson, Co-founder and CEO

May 30, 2024

8 Min Read
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Pakin Jarerndee / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Your great idea needs flesh and bone to come alive. In medtech, a good minimum viable product (MVP) — no matter how rudimentary — holds immense power. It can help you convince stakeholders, validate your concept, and provide the crucial momentum that your startup needs.

As the co-founder and CEO of FastWave Medical and the founder of Medsider, I've gathered invaluable insights from industry veterans on building strategic MVPs. In this article, I'll distill their wisdom into a practical roadmap for navigating this critical stage.

Use off-the-shelf solutions

Angus McLachlan is a mechanical engineer whose pursuits in electrical muscle stimulation for spinal cord injuries catapulted him into healthcare innovation. Today, as the co-founder of Liberate Medical, McLachlan is developing a non-invasive neuromuscular electrical stimulation device aimed at strengthening the lung muscles of patients on mechanical ventilation. By synchronizing pulses with each breath, the device mimics natural breathing, keeping the lung muscles from weakening.

McLachlan’s journey with Liberate Medical is a lesson in inventive problem-solving. “In the early versions of the prototype, it's very important to work out the core, unique functionality with your technology,” he said.

For Liberate, this was the synchronization of electrical stimulation with breathing. The team built an MVP concentrated on this essential functionality and left the secondary aspects, like user interface design, for later stages.

To build the first MVP, the team repurposed commercially available stimulators, integrating them with a custom-designed breathing sensor and timing algorithm. “We bought a bunch of stimulators that were already commercially available, and developed a separate device that essentially had the breathing sensor and algorithm that conveyed the timing for the stimulation,” he said.

By repurposing existing products, they not only circumvented the need to acquire safety certifications for their prototype, but also significantly reduced development costs and timelines.

The Liberate team even used an inexpensive 3D printer to create the user interface and the button pad for its first MVP, and although it didn’t look too chic, it enabled Liberate to commence its earliest clinical studies.

Showcase your idea to the right audience

Dr. David Albert is a physician, inventor, and serial entrepreneur who has developed life-saving technologies and products over the last 30 years. AliveCor, founded by Albert has become synonymous with personal ECG devices. Its product line includes a pocket-sized, AI-enabled, machine learning-powered ECG sensor that delivers real-time medical-grade heart data, allowing patients to manage and share data, as well as to connect with cardiologists for comprehensive cardiovascular care.

He knows how to be capital-efficient — with just $200,000, his team at AliveCor built fully functional prototypes and developed an app, too. Thanks to their frugal yet effective approach, they built AliveCor from a startup into a significant business.

Albert knows the power of a good prototype. “Talking can only get you so far. It’s showing something tangible that really makes people understand your vision,” he said.

And it’s a lesson learned firsthand. When Albert was preparing for a consumer electronics show, he made an unscripted four-minute video of a prototype on a whim. “I just happened to click the box that said, ‘Send the link to my LinkedIn connections,’” he said, “I had three or four hundred.” His video became a viral sensation, garnering 300,000 views in just two days and capturing attention from national media. “I had Good Morning America and Fox and Friends and all these people calling me to come to CES,” according to Albert.

This was far from a lucky break. Albert shared the right content with the right audience. The professional network he had cultivated up to that point was obviously a substantial asset in making the video a viral sensation. But that’s not all — it highlighted another key principle: taking advantage of opportunities.

“Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to advance your innovation,” he advised.

Strip down your MVP to its core essence

Parag Gad, a biomedical engineer from UCLA, shares two key ingredients for building winning MVPs in the complex world of medical devices: a laser focus on core functionality and a data-driven development approach. He founded SpineX with the mission to translate cutting-edge scientific research into medical devices. Today, SpineX is developing devices that improve the lives of adults with neurogenic bladder conditions and children with cerebral palsy.

Gad shared two pivotal pieces of advice for building a successful MVP in the medtech startup space. Firstly, he cited Peter Thiel's concept from the book Zero to One, regarding a focus on defining the MVP, or more precisely, stripping it down to its bare essentials.

"What does the MVP need to embody?” according to Gad “It may not be perfect or ideal and might lack some desired features, but it must fulfill its core function.”

By asking the right questions, you refine your MVP to its necessary minimum. Reflecting on SpineX's initial alpha device, he admits that, though it seems rudimentary in hindsight, it was effective and served its intended purpose.

Second, Gad champions data as the ultimate decision-maker. "Continuously ask yourself, 'What is the data telling me?'" he said.

The data could be clinical in nature, user feedback, or engineering related. One’s own biases can cloud judgment, so basing decisions on cold, hard evidence and real-world insights is key. That’s why Gad encourages a relentless pursuit of evidence and information, urging entrepreneurs to be unabashed in asking questions and gathering the necessary information.

Don't fear feedback, seek it out

Kevin Goodwin, with his 30-year journey in ultrasound technology, is changing the way ultrasound devices are used in hospitals. His innovation began at ATL Technology, where he founded Sonosite, launching the first point-of-care ultrasound (PoCUS) device in 1999. This device stood out for its portability — a stark contrast to the traditional, stationary ultrasound machines confined to radiology departments. After Sonosite's acquisition by Fujifilm in 2012, Goodwin co-founded EchoNous in 2015. Today, with the brand line Kosmos, EchoNous is utilizing machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide more accurate and detailed results in heart, lung, and abdomen assessments.

Unlike those seeking easy feedback, Goodwin emphasizes the importance of engaging discerning, more critical customers right from the start. The sterner judges they are, the better. “Don’t look for ‘soft’ focus groups that will go easy on you,” he advised. “Instead, find customers who are tough graders but open to innovation.”

In his case, he targeted cardiologists to get feedback on Kosmos. It was a group that had previously been overlooked in this space and presented the perfect challenge, as these professionals traditionally rely on basic, non-diagnostic equipment. He found willing participants for Kosmos among approximately 30 physicians across multiple disciplines in the US and in a major hospital in Greece. The skepticism from the Greek doctors, particularly about the hardware's performance, provided invaluable insights into the future development of the product.

Today, the same Greek doctors who were initially skeptical, use Kosmos to confirm their diagnoses. “In some cases, it's been found to be more accurate than a doctor,” Goodwin said.

Show, don’t tell the future

Dr. Alberto Rodriguez-Navarro, founder and CEO of Levita Magnetics, is not just a skilled general surgeon with over a decade of clinical experience, he's an inventor with multiple patents and a clinical researcher with publications in peer-reviewed journals. At the helm of Levita, Rodriguez-Navarro is utilizing magnetic technology to make surgery less invasive. Their platform technology minimizes incisions, which translates to no visible scars, less pain, and faster recovery.

Rodriguez-Navarro’s first piece of advice is to collaborate with early adopters — those who can appreciate novel technology, even if it’s an ugly duckling for the time being and can envision its future potential at the same time. These early adopters, especially physicians who are experienced with start-ups, are crucial for providing valuable feedback beyond initial impressions.

His second strategy is educating the stakeholders with tools — or, show, don’t tell. An MVP is essentially a tool for communicating what the product is and how it works. If you can find a good way to communicate your vision, it can endorse your prototype. "We create detailed and polished 3D animations that show not just the present but also a glimpse of the future," he explained. This leads the end users and other stakeholders to say, “Okay, it might look ugly now, but it will look like that in the future.”

This visual tool helps the audience understand that the first prototype is just the start. It illustrates the future potential of the product and sets expectations for the evolution of the technology.

Prototype smarter, not harder

Let’s go through the insights we gathered from these five innovators in the medtech space:

  • Clearly define your MVP: Focus on core functionality and leave the non-essential features for later. Make sure your MVP fulfills its primary function, even if it's not yet perfect or feature-complete.

  • Utilize already-available components: Integrate existing products into your prototype instead of custom-designing everything from zero. It’ll help you save on costs and potentially streamline required safety certifications.

  • Be demonstrative: Use demonstrative tools like videos, animations, gifs, or whatever works to get your point across. It’ll help you convey your vision, how your product works, as well as what it will look like in the future.

  • Use your network: Announce your milestones to your professional network. You never know where the opportunities may arise.

  • Ground your decisions in data: Base your development choices on a variety of data sources, like user feedback, market research, and competitor analysis to avoid biases and ensure grounded development.

  • Seek feedback from the toughest crowd: Target discerning customers for feedback, especially those open to innovations.

  • Collaborate with early adopters: Work with users who can appreciate both the current state and future potential of your technology.

About the Author(s)

Scott Nelson

Co-founder and CEO

Scott Nelson is the co-founder and CEO of FastWave Medical, a medical device startup developing intravascular lithotripsy systems for cardiovascular disease. Additionally, he’s the founder of Medsider, where he interviews founders and CEOs of promising, early-stage medical device and health technology companies. As a medtech growth architect, he founded and scaled Joovv from $0 to over $20M in profitable revenue in less than 3 years. Prior to that, Scott held various leadership roles at fast-growing startups and multinational strategics, including Touch Surgery, Medtronic, Covidien, Boston Scientific, and C.R. Bard.

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