Focusing on biomedical devices and digital health technology, TMC created the Innovation Institute to attract and nurture the brightest minds globally who are passionate about medicine. What better place to advance new technologies than in the Houston innovation ecosystem? Hear from the people who wanted to be part of the effort.
Amber: Hi, I’m Amber Ambrose and this is HXTV. We’re championing Houston innovators and entrepreneurs, and it’s brought to you by PKF Texas, the CPAs and Advisors to Houston innovators for over fifteen years. So, thank you, PKF Texas. We’re here today at TMC Innovation Institute, and as you may notice we have a little something different here today, we have more than one guest, we have multiple guests. But first, I’m going to introduce you to the director of the TMC Innovation Institute, Erik Halvorsen. Welcome to the show.
Erik: Thank you for having me.
Amber: So, I know a lot of people here already know about it and a lot of our audience does, but just in case they don’t, tell us about TMC Innovation Institute.
Erik: Sure, so the TMC Innovation Institute started about four years ago out of a strategic vision from our board of directors and the leadership; the CEO and Bill McKeon, who was the Chief Strategy Officer, now the CEO, and it really came out of this looking at the Texas Medical Center and saying, we’ve got 21 hospitals, 59 organizations, the biggest medical center in the country, amazing research, 10 million patients a year, 2 billion dollars of research, MD Anderson, Texas Children’s Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine, all these institutions that are nationally and internationally known. The Texas Medical Center Corporation owns most of the land that they sit on and, as most people know, own and operate the parking garages. The joke was that the Texas Medical Center maybe should have been called the Texas Parking Company because we didn’t have any really of our own patients or any of our own doctors, they were really all spread out through the member institutions.
This came about saying, well how do we take this revenue and this money and this amazing environment and do more with it to impact health care. Innovation was the first initiative to come out of that. Other ones include health policy, clinical research, and genomics. Innovation was one of those things that every institution knew was important and knew they needed and realized they probably weren’t very good at it, and so they wanted a place that was going to help them with that. Ultimately, what we do here is identifying external innovations, usually in the form of startup companies that are developing innovative medical devices or digital health technology and we bring them to one of our programs where we can work with them to refine their ideas, test their ideas, and most importantly connect those companies to the clinical stakeholders across the medical center, ultimately, for the benefit of the patients that are there.
Amber: Sure, so it’s continuous improvement but you have a dedicated place for it.
Amber: And it benefits the ecosystem because we’ll have new startup companies and new ideas, which is a great segue to—we have a special group of people up here today. Tell us about the program that they are in right now.
Erik: Sure. A lot of times people refer to this whole building, this 700,000 square foot building that we’re in today as TMCx, but that’s our accelerator program, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that, but one of the programs that people don’t know as much about that we run here is called a Biodesign program, or a Biodesign fellowship. We’ve got three of our current fellows here today and I’m going to ask them to introduce themselves in a second, but at a high level what the program really is is we recruit some of the smartest people we can find in the country who are very passionate about solving unmet needs in healthcare.
It’s a one-year paid fellowship where they literally start off with nothing other than their brains and drive and we put them in various clinical settings; ORs, ERs, inpatient, outpatient; and they are just categorizing things that could be the next company, the next product. They go through a very rigorous process to go from three or four hundred of those, ultimately coming out the other end with a company and a product all within twelve months, which is a super aggressive timeline, as they’ll tell you, probably. And that’s why we hire the best and the brightest to do it. It’s a very unique program and I think it’s a tremendous experience, but I’m biased.
Amber: Well, let’s hear more about it from the fellows.
Erik: So, do you guys want to go ahead and introduce yourselves and also just give a little bit about your background.
Adrian: Good afternoon. I’m Adrian Trömel, with a background in material sciences out of Europe and then went to do my MBA here in the US, specifically to bridge research and business and bring those kinds of innovations to the medical field.
Vivek: My name is Vivek Sant. I’m actually a physician, and I studied electrical engineering in college initially. I ended up in medicine, I’m currently a surgical resident up in New York. I’m here for a research year or two and my goal is to eventually be able to create devices that I can one day use to help my patients.
Kristin: Hi, my name is Kristin Brune. I did my undergrad degree at UC Davis in biochemistry and molecular biology where I did research in the field of clinical glycomics, and I just graduated from Cornell University where I got my master’s degree in biomedical engineering where I used the biodesign process to create a biomaterial delivery device.
Erik: You guys have really strong backgrounds, obviously, medicine and engineering and business. You had lots of options of doing various things. What drew you to the Biodesign program? Why apply, why spend a year of your life or more, if you’re successful in launching a company, doing this?
Kristin: For me, I think, just needs based innovation. It’s so easy to, especially engineers can be guilty of this, to come up with a really cool gadget but find that there’s really no need or problem behind it. I think the idea of starting from a fresh slate, going into hospitals and clinics, figuring out where the needs and problems are, and then developing something to address one of those needs. That’s what drew me to the Biodesign fellowship.
Vivek: For me, this was truly an incredible opportunity to be able to lean how to develop surgical devices for my patients. I think it’s awesome for physicians to get to take care of their patients, but I wanted something more. I wanted to be able to actually do something about all the various problems that I see in the hospital. Some people take the approach of research. For me, I’m a doer and with my engineering background I really wanted to take that full circle and be able to make devices to help my patients.
Adrian: On my part it was, I would say a combination of those. As a researcher I saw a lot of products trying to be pushed to the market. So, taking what my teammate then said is here you find a way to identify what the market needs and it pulls it out of the team, and then in what place can one get this exposure to get clinical experience, product development experience, and then really validate all of that experience in one year to develop and found a company. And therefore, de-risk that to be able to found a truly viable innovation.
Erik: I talked at a very high level about the process. Tell everybody, go through the process for them, what that biodesign process is including sort of where you are today and what the rest of your program looks like.
Adrian: For us, we’re currently at the end of, I would say, the first of three stages. The three stages, specifically, you can call them identify, invent, and implement. We go in at identify to observe in various clinical settings, as Dr. Halvorsen here was saying, and identify all the unmet clinical needs and problems one can find, validate those, filter those, and identify those which are the most pressing, the most dangerous with the largest markets. We then go into the second stage, which is invent. We identify and ideate in different solution spaces and choose the most promising solution to the most pressing problem to finally implement, which means to found a company. As said, we’re currently at the end of that first stage, down to our top fifteen from over four hundred identified needs. After that, what the means is we’re going to be down to our top three, which will all probably be needs which will be able to become a viable company, but which one of those will become the biodesign company of the 2018-2019 class is the question we will then have to answer.
Erik: Have you guys found that as you’ve gotten from four hundred down to fifteen it’s getting harder? Any in fighting or disagreements so far?
Vivek: I’d say overall, I think we’ve had a very good group chemistry and team chemistry. I’ve been very lucky to have two really incredible teammates. So, not necessarily fighting, but to your point I think all of us are very passionate about various needs. Some of them are the same needs, some of them are different needs, but I think we’ve been able to figure out a good process for being able to fairly evaluate each need. All of us are very passionate about sometimes different needs and I think it’s been really awesome getting to see everyone’s take on everything.
Erik: You came in with a lot of expectations about what the Biodesign program is and you’ve got a long way to go still, obviously. As you said, you’re at that point where you’re kind of getting fifteen and then down to three and down to one and then it shifts. Automatically at that point it’s build, build, build, right? Build the product, build the company. Up to this point, what has been the highlight of the program so far, maybe something unexpected? What’s been a highlight for each of you in the program?
Kristin: I think just the amazing things that we’ve gotten to observe. So, we’ve observed in over eleven different specialties and different settings. We’ve observed different hospitals, we’ve observed at clinics, and just some of the procedures that we’ve seen performed have been amazing. That’s been—from seeing a craniotomy to shadowing a sports medicine physician, just the knowledge and experiences that we’ve gained through our observations, it’s been truly incredible.
Vivek: I would say something pretty similar to Kristin. I would echo everything she said but my take on this is the environment in Houston I’ve found awesome for innovation. Folks here are just much more receptive to folks reaching out to them. We’ve reached out to various physicians and said, hey, this is our fellowship, this is what we’re working on, and so many of them just reply back within minutes and—well, sometimes longer, but reply saying, I’m very interested and I’d love to hear more, I’d love to help, love to bring you guys up to speed.
Adrian: I’ll frame it a bit differently. One way one evaluates startups and early stage companies is you look at the product, the market, and the need, and the team. We’ve gotten exposure in each and every one of those. We’re mitigating and addressing the market risk through the structure of the Biodesign fellowship. We’re given support to develop the technology and the product and the biggest risk that we thought going in is we didn’t know each other going in. What I’ve been really positively surprised by, and we get on phenomenally well, is by the team. Having learned in all of those and now found amazing colleagues with whom to work and found a company, I think has been one of the most satisfying parts of this Biodseign fellowship.
Amber: And I have one question just as an observer of the conversation for the sake of clarity. Are they broken up into teams and each team comes up with a company, or is it the class of fellows comes up with one company as a whole?
Erik: They’re recruited to two teams. One medical device team and one digital health team. Like Adrian said, the risk for the people coming into the program is they’re not quite sure who they’re signing on to be with. That’s their risk that they’re doing it. They’re kind of hoping that we did a pretty good job. Picking smart people is not the problem, we’ve got a lot of those. Picking the ones that we think are going to have the right chemistry, it’s a hugely collaborative effort and just like with any startup company, and they’re not even a startup company yet, there are so many challenges an so many hurdles that they’re going to have to—you know, getting that right, communication and collaboration and personalities together is more important than what’s on the resume, so that’s been good. I will say that we have launched now four companies out of the program and I think we’re going to hear from one of them in the next session and they’ve been successful. They’re going out, winning business plan competitions, raising money, becoming real companies building real products.
Amber: Helping patients. Well thank you all for joining us today on HXTV to learn about the Biodesign fellowship here at TMC Innovation Institute. Thank you very much. And YouTube, y’all don’t forget to subscribe to HXTV. Thank you.
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