Want to make a bundle in med-tech? You might want to do a gut check.
Yes, you’ll need steely resolve and meticulous long-term strategy to succeed in the competitive world of medical technology innovation. But the gut may also be the source of therapy innovation.
“There’s a trillion bacteria living in your colon right now, as we speak. That microbiome impacts your body in a way that is incredibly important in terms of autoimmune disease, food allergies, your bowel habit, how you digest your food,” Minneapolis gastroenterologist and med-tech inventor Dr. Robert Ganz said. “The opportunity there is unbelievable, just in detecting it, trying to figure out what kind of bacteria you have, and the kinds of ways that that affects the metabolism.”
Ganz’ observations came Thursday during a standing-room-only panel discussion on medical innovation on day two of the Minnesota MedTech Week Conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The conference, organized by trade group LifeScience Alley and UBM Canon, attracted more than 5,000 people to the expo floor and was kicked off with remarks from Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. She touted the industry’s 28,000 well-paying jobs at more than 440 medical technology manufacturers in the state.
Ganz comments on the innovation panel came in response to a question occupying many minds at the conference: What areas of medicine are ripe for technological innovation?
Dr. Gwenyth Fischer, a University of Minnesota pediatrician and founder of the Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium, told the audience that sick children are sorely in need of medical devices that can be used in the home.
Just as with adults, children with chronic health conditions are much cheaper to treat in a home setting, but only if the medical equipment will allow for it. The need has become particularly acute in pediatric medicine because medical advances in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) have resulted in far more babies and young kids with severe medical needs leaving the hospital alive.
“Thanks to great NICU technology, they’re now making it out and getting home. Those kids have trachs, they have ventilators, they have shunts that are in their heads,” Fischer said. “They have a lot of care that currently occurs in the hospital that is expensive, and could be moved to the home. That is a big area, both in neonates and also in older kids with chronic health conditions.”
And despite the incessant hype about medical apps from Silicon Valley, doctors say there’s still a strong need for mobile health applications that are designed to perform accurately enough to be used in a medical context.
“I don’t know how many of you have FitBits, but to me a FitBit is virtually worthless,” said Dr. Robert Schwartz, a Minneapolis cardiologist and medical device inventor. “Every EKG sensor I see out there, from a medical context, is useless.”
He urged the mobile-health device makers to more strongly consider what is happening at the human interface with their devices, and what types of detailed data are needed for medical assessments.
Once a team of doctors and engineers has coalesced around an idea, another hurdle that increasingly looms large is finding the funding to design it and then prove it works. Global accounting and services firm EY recently concluded that early-stage medical technology firms struggled since 2014 to increase their venture-capital funding, even as the broader VC market is booming.
Here, too, is an opportunity for innovation.
A morning panel discussion Thursday that featured speakers from UnitedHealth Group and North Memorial Health Care posed the question of whether payers and providers might be interested in helping fund some of the upfront costs to develop technologies that may end up making health care more efficient in the long run.
Brett Edelson at UnitedHealth said some projects are already being entertained, but they are very specifically tailored to unique needs. A major question has been how the insurer can share in the long-term “upside” if the product is successful.
Kelly Macken-Marble, president of ambulatory services at North Memorial, said the health system has already worked with private companies on projects to allow texting and chatting between patients and clinicians, and to develop a database of biological measures in cancer treatment.
“We would love to do more of that,” she said.