From idea to product: 6 tips for surgical innovators

surgical innovation tips

Gabriel Ramos, MD, is a second-year general surgery resident from Puerto Rico and Boston Children’s Hospital’s first Surgical Innovation Fellow.

Learning how to think like a clinician-innovator is a journey that all clinicians should take. But be forewarned that the journey does not end with developing this new mindset. It starts with it.

What does it take to sustain innovation both inside and outside of the operating room? As a surgical innovation fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, I learned to go back in time and immerse myself in the mindset of my toddler years, constantly asking “Why?” and “What if…?” This mindset is critical to sustaining innovation and solving clinical, research or administrative pain points.

Often, the hardest part of innovation is coming up with the right idea. Numerous factors must align, especially in surgical innovation, since the typical operating room is a difficult, distracting and stressful environment.

Turning on the light bulb

Gabriel Ramos, MD, Boston Children's Hospital's first Surgical Innovation Fellow

As surgeons, we commonly experience the challenges of poor visualization, prolonged periods of tedious dissection and episodes of chaos. That makes it difficult to detach and focus on innovation while in the operating room.

In the Surgical Innovation Fellowship, we use the approach of having surgical residents observe (but not participate in) surgery. This allows clinicians to gain a deeper understanding of the countless processes that happen simultaneously during a surgical procedure. Key moments that create inefficiencies are when cutting-edge innovation happens.

Many of the greatest ideas and innovations are not in the operative field, where surgeons focus their tools and time, but are sourced from the multitude of processes that must happen to facilitate a smooth operation.

The importance of observation can’t be underestimated. Innovators should continue to apply their observational skills across the following six areas.

  1. Find your passion

Passion drives innovators to continue ideating, dreaming of improvements and pushing the boundaries. Observe what excites and drives you and use it as the basis for your innovation. My surgical background drives me to create with my hands, and I have found my passion in developing medical device innovations. Let my experience serve as a basis for yours. Be confident and strive to find your passion.

  1. Survey the landscape

Evaluate what is already out there to address the problem or pain point. Chances are high that many of your great ideas have already been investigated by someone else. Don’t let this discourage you; be ready to stand on the shoulders of those before you. Perform an above-average web search for your idea. This will help you better understand the problem, identify potential partners, gain insight into the market, understand any regulatory concerns and work more efficiently. Your institution’s intellectual property or technology transfer office can help you navigate; contact them early.

surgical innovation

  1. Talk to customers early

Customer discovery can save time and effort. Through my surgical innovation fellowship, I have worked on the development of three medical devices over the past year. We endlessly iterated on our first device concept, but when we talked to potential customers, we realized that their needs were different than what we had envisioned. The earlier you talk to customers, the faster you can iterate according to their needs.

  1. Develop a good team

One of the most overused phrases is “innovation doesn’t happen in a bubble.” For good reason — it’s true. Ultimately, innovation needs the integration of a team. One person can’t do it all, so finding a good team early on is key. New team members also bring different perspectives and new networks of contacts. In our device innovation endeavor, the team from Boston Children’s Simulator Program (SIMPeds) has provided valuable know-how and engineering capabilities to push our project forward.

  1. Learn from “failure”

To use a baseball analogy: Don’t let the fear of striking out today get in the way of a game-winning home run tomorrow. Your first innovation is bound to be imperfect and have shortcomings or miscalculations. Let this be your fuel to persevere to excellence. It takes a few strikeouts to learn how to swing.

  1. Find a champion

To validate your product, especially a medical innovation, you will need to capture the attention of a commercial institution at some point. This institution might be a strategic partner, to further the development and sales opportunities of your innovation, or an investor, to finance your innovation. Determine whether you should target a subject matter expert, a business executive or another stakeholder — and then reach out.

For more information

One of the first steps I took was to read the Innovator’s Roadmap, developed by the Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator at Boston Children’s. The Roadmap gave me valuable insight into the roads travelled from concept to commercialization.

Learn more about the Surgical Innovation Fellowship.