When we think of the classical innovator, the imagery of an individual exiled to his/her garage tinkering for hours and possessed by an idea with an awkward personality and unruly hair to match. The Wright Brothers, Edison, Tesla, Bath…names that have been ingrained in the pages of history only to be supplanted by an audaciously contrasting picture of the stereotypical Silicon Valley entrepreneur, lavishly clad in shorts, slippers and a t-shirt. Indeed, entrepreneurs and innovators come in all shapes and sizes, but what if I told you that you, as future health professionals, may be part of a growing wave of entrepreneurs across the nation?
Between board exams, standardized assessments and clinical duties, this concept may sounds completely preposterous, outlandish, blasphemous, especially as you continue to be inundated with the breadth and complexity of your training. To venture outside the confines of the Krebs cycle and metabolic acidosis would be almost inconceivable to a traditional medical trainee. But alas, we continue to exist in an exponentially dynamic era of technology that is far removed from its primitive beginnings of vacuum tube arrays that occupied entire rooms. Between creating funky Instagram filters and being ferried home in self-driving cars, technology has also made significant strides within the field of medicine over the last few decades. Today we live in a period of immunotherapies, personalized medicine based on individual genomics, wearable health devices with ECG, 3D printed prosthetics and organs, to name a few. Indeed, it has occurred to me that the greater role of technology in medicine likely means that perhaps physicians can have a pivotal role within the innovation landscape of health care technology.
Fortunately, the University of Michigan has implemented the Paths of Excellence (PoE) program as an extracurricular activity to supplement our core curriculum for this very purpose: The opportunity to significantly augment our education across multiple disciplines and become “an agent of change.” This sounds promising, but how does one in the midst of their medical training prepare himself/herself to become an agent of change? Perhaps it starts with searching deep within about what we are passionate about. As you can surmise from my technology monologue in the beginning of the article, I am personally passionate about the ways in which physicians can be pivotal in modernizing medicine through technology.
Early in medical school, we learned about eight possible PoE paths: Ethics, Global Health & Disparities, Health Policy, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Medical Humanities, Patient Safety/Quality Improvement/Complex Systems, Scholarship of Learning & Teaching, and Scientific Discovery. We were given an introductory lecture for each Path and an opportunity to apply to whichever Path we were most interested in through an online application. I was personally intrigued by Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Scientific Discovery, so I decided to apply to both. I am particularly interested in learning more about the innovation in medicine as well as the outcomes research surrounding new innovations, so both of these Paths were a good fit for me personally. While both have been incredible, I would like to focus on Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) as a concept that is likely new to most of us as perpetual students within a long medical training.
As a San Francisco Bay Area native, I am familiar with entrepreneurship in the context of computer science innovations. I was often surrounded by my classmates who had buried themselves in a basement well stocked with Mountain Dew and ramen noodles, emerging the following year with devices creating ripples in space-time. I may have exaggerated a little, but the Silicon Valley lingo of block chain and artificial intelligence was a foreign concept to a Cell Biology major (i.e., me!) in medical school. However, the question of innovation in medicine was still lingering to me, and I&E was very beneficial to my learning more about this thriving area.
The I&E Path is very proactive in having regular meetings with students, bringing in special guest speakers, and having three advisers designated to guide students in formulating a project for capstone purposes. The I&E Path is also partnered with Fast Forward Medical Innovation (FFMI) at UM. FFMI’s mission is to make biomedical innovation and entrepreneurship a natural academic behavior that accelerates UM’s ability to move great ideas to patient impact.
Together, I&E and FFMI have several opportunities for students to learn and work with faculty to experience medical innovation happening right here at UM. Here are some of these opportunities:
- Foundations of Innovation – a program tailored to M1s who are interested in learning about innovation and commercialization. This course covers a variety of topics including: Needsfinding, Customer Discovery, Stakeholder Mapping, Design Thinking, and crafting a perfect pitch.
- FastPACE, a 4-week hybrid biomedical innovations and commercialization course under FFMI in which medical students can be given the opportunity to work with existing teams in beginning to understand the framework of commercialization. This course takes place twice a year – fall and spring.
- FullPACE, (A more comprehensive version of FastPACE) takes students through a 12-week course structured into lectures and mentored sessions from faculty, industry experts on the basics of market discovery, regulatory frameworks, intellectual property and strategies for commercialization and seed funding. As a result, the course aims to facilitate learning with a project concept you are inspired to pursue with a multidisciplinary team. This course takes place during winter semester.
- Kickstart and MiTrac – Offer the opportunity for I&E students to intern with faculty on their early-stage/mid-stage funded projects. FFMI serves as a “match maker” for students and interested project teams.
The FFMI team is a fantastic resource to tap into. They’ve graciously dedicated their time on numerous occasions to help me brainstorm possible project options to consider. In parallel, students can also take advantage of MI-Pitch Club to test drive concepts that are beginning to take shape by creating a short presentation for monthly pitch clubs and receive feedback. An integral component of MI-Pitch Club is the Design Challenge, a 1-hour team challenge to come up with a 60-second pitch outlining a solution to a problem posed at the event. Therefore, the event not only helps upcoming innovators develop critical thinking skills, but also helps them learn the components of pitching a successful concept to potential investors. An additional opportunity for I&E students to gain exposure to innovation is Sling Health. Sling Health is a national network of student-run, non-profit biotechnology incubators with a chapter at the University of Michigan. This group allows for students from multiple educational backgrounds to submit project proposals and pursue mentored investigations of new innovative concepts with hopes of leading to commercialization. One of our very own alumni in the medical school was instrumental in starting this chapter at the University of Michigan.
The I&E Path of Excellence has an illustrative guide on their website, which offers a pathway to your education in innovation and biomedical commercialization. Your path could include participating in MI-Pitch Club followed by signing up for elective courses and finally culminating in a capstone project concept. Examples of elective classes best taken in the Branches include: The venture capitalist, business development, and student-led innovations electives that are usually 4-weeks long or more. Overall, a student’s approach to entrepreneurship is not limited to the programs and groups described above, but the I&E Path has made significant efforts over the years to create partnerships and help organize a student’s journey in the form of a general curriculum as a guide to entering a completely novel space for many. The I&E Path is very supportive of self-driven efforts towards projects of individual efforts, and I would highly recommend speaking to the Path coordinator and director for brainstorming project topics (contact info provided below).
Regarding my own personal journey, I had been waffling quite a bit without having a clear interest in mind until my third year of medical school. Several emails later and through a faculty contact I had made in my M1 year of medical school, I was very fortunate to join an innovations team under the Coulter Translational Research Program that was developing a biomedical device to efficiently leak check large bowel anastomosis intraoperatively. The opportunity to learn basic financial modeling, interpret market research data, decipher the regulatory landscape of this class of biomedical devices, and develop a reimbursement model with the team was tremendously gratifying and illustrated the complexity of approving devices in medicine. Whether it be a device that 3D reconstructs the brain and electro-mechanically tracks instrument position in neurosurgery, or simply a new scrubbing soap, I learned quickly the importance of considering the customer and barriers to approval in all aspects of device planning. The team went on to win $80,000 in seed funding for advanced prototyping, and the project became the basis for my Capstone for Impact project.
While the experience built fundamental innovations skills and allowed me to learn from a tremendously talented team, it was more than ever a crucial catalyst in my life as a student. Not only was it empowering to identify the contributions a physician can make in a multidisciplinary innovative team, but it was also inspiring to further pursue a deep passion for health information systems as a current project I am working towards with the Department of Computer Science.
The prospect of finding or creating a new project and working through the hurdles characteristic of all health care innovation may seem initially daunting, but migrating out of one’s comfort zone and working through the hoops from the most basic level can be a tremendously fulfilling experience as a student. The very process of identifying your passion, identifying barriers, distilling down a problem to its very essence and working to make an idea a reality is perhaps a paradigm for what we all strive for as future physicians, whether your passion rests in quality improvement, health policy or scientific research. As students who are continuing to navigate in the new curriculum and take advantage of the many educational facets it offers, I hope you feel as enlightened as I was with the Paths of Excellence, and strive to be ambassadors for our profession to deliver the highest quality patient care.
Candice Stegink, MA, the I&E Path of Excellence coordinator, contributed to this blog post. If you are interested in learning more about the program, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Path Director Mark Cohen, MD, at email@example.com.