What’s your innovation style? Lion or ant?

shutterstock_182805821From a series on researchers and innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Kaifeng Liu, MD, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, takes his inspiration from ants.

“We’re often amazed by the power of large animals—whales, eagles, lions and tigers,” he says. “But these animals are genetically born with the strength to overpower other animals. Ants are small and hardworking. They work inch by inch and create a teamwork culture. Most of us are like ants. We have an average level of talent and are not able to perform like a lion. But we can work like ants and create beautiful things by working hard as part of a team—day by day, little by little.”

Liu has taken this inch-by-inch approach in a radical redesign of the conventional suturing needle: “I started to play with the surgical needle in graduate school in 1986.”

Nearly three decades later, Liu has devised an extremely short magnetic needle that transforms the current method of suturing—stitching with a needle and thread—that has been used for thousands of years. Liu’s needle allows tissues to be stitched in very tight spaces and spares surgeons the cumbersome process of switching the needle from needle holder to tweezers. It is currently available for licensing.

How could the magnetic needle impact pediatric care?

Pediatric patients have much smaller lumens, trachea and urethra than adult patients, so some surgeries that can be performed laparoscopically on adults must be performed as open surgeries on infants and young children. The smaller needle would allow surgeons to perform some of these operations as laparoscopic surgeries, which translates into a reduced risk of complications and a shorter recovery.

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If you were CEO for one day, what would you do?

I would invite hard-working people with average wisdom, a peaceful mind and differing abilities to work together. A hard-working group with diverse skills and perspectives can achieve many things through collaboration. Their work can be a source of inspiration for others.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a carpenter or mechanic. I like to disassemble and reassemble things, whether they are real or imaginary, still or moving.

Do ants have an advantage over lions in device development?

There are many frustrations in device design and development. Ants are patient; they work within the scope of their abilities and never seem frustrated. This approach would work well for device developers.

To successfully develop a device, you would have many failures, and you would ask yourself to be persistent and patient. An ant has this kind of working spirit, not very smart, but without complaints. It works non-stop. Ant team culture is super; there is no in-fighting or arguing, and groups are well organized.