8 essential tips for physician entrepreneurs

While there are many creative people who go into medicine, the challenge of turning experience into innovation can be stifling. My classmates at Johns Hopkins, fellow residents at Harvard, and peers came from a wide variety of backgrounds. But medical school, internship, and residency don’t afford students much time to tinker around.

“Free time” in academic medicine means working in a lab with the “publish or perish” dictum hanging over one’s head. Yet there are many of us who are interested in what you might call the white spaces in medicine: voids in the medical industry where the solution might seem obvious, but doesn’t yet exist. The problem is, of course, that between cost, time, and life’s various obstacles, it’s hard to bring these ideas to life.

For several years, I worked with a reconstructive surgeon who invented a new tool to tie knots during laparoscopic surgery. He built it during residency in his moonlighting hours. The prospect of a $25,000 bill from his patent lawyer and then a $15,000 bill from his prototype maker turned his tool into a paperweight. He just walked away from it.

An orthopedic surgeon, a neighbor, invented a better screw for a hammer toe repair. He convinced his father and brother to bankroll a ten million dollar company. Between prototypes, FDA 510k clearance, patent attorneys, and clinical trials, even ten million didn’t go far enough. My friend owns less than one percent of the equity in his company. His screw is being used, but he’s still in debt.

For the past eight years, since my own recovery after bilateral mastectomies, I have used my moonlighting hours (late at night after a day divided between working in a practice and raising four kids) as a medical entrepreneur working on a post-breast surgery recovery bra. Already, through a program with Massachusetts General Hospital, Baylor, and University of Pennsylvania, it’s being used in Botswana, where all women diagnosed with breast cancer undergo mastectomies.

By dipping into savings, I finally brought my idea to life. The smiles on the patients’ faces say it all. It’s why all the hours and stress of innovation are worth it, and why I would encourage any doctor with an idea to take up the challenge. As I went through the process, I gleaned some insights on what physician entrepreneurs might need to do in order to turn ideas into innovation:

1. Be the mouthpiece. Perfect your elevator pitch. If you can’t get up in front of a group of people and explain it clearly in 30 seconds, try again.

2. Don’t spend money unless you absolutely have to. This is the time to barter, trade, and call in the favors. Every penny is valuable to a self-funded innovator.

3. Ask for help. Ask your friends in finance for help. Also, consider hiring consultants in industries that are essential to your innovation. This can actually save time and money in the long run. Consultants have a wide network and can often steer you to others who will make critical contributions.

4. Do reconnaissance work. Go to industry meetings and ask questions. Try to learn as much as you can about your potential competitors and the space you’re hoping to inhabit.

5. Borrow carefully. The sooner you take investors or sell portions of your innovation, the less equity and money you risk having at the end of the project. Be sure you trust and understand your backers and their terms.

6. Don’t waste precious time. Be judicious about whom you meet with. A lot of people will come out of the woodwork when they hear your story, and seeing every single one will stall the process.

7. Never give up your day job. Don’t forget that your first passion was to become a doctor. Your experiences with patients will be critical for feedback and modification to whatever you are devising.

8. Be passionate, and follow your gut. If you haven’t tried it on yourself, forget it. My medical school professor Sol Snyder injected himself with hundreds of drugs during his days in the lab. Who’s better to know that something works than you?

Elizabeth Chabner Thompson is a radiation oncologist and founder, BFFL CoThis article originally appeared in The Doctor Blog.

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