Arash Samimi

Why Medical Device Startups Should Listen to The Ecosystem

A Three-Pronged Strategy to Stay Ahead

Listening Strategy for Startups
A medical device is a convergence point where various technologies and regulations come together to impact patient health. Within the diverse ecosystem of the medical device industry, there are fluctuations driven by new entrants, new technologies and new markets. These forces create market shifts and open up opportunities. KPMG has published an interesting whitepaper on the subject.

Medical device startups need to stay competitive, pivot to adapt, go to the next stage of growth and possibly disrupt the field by blitzscaling. The medical device ecosystem is pulsing and startups want to be the first to hear the right signals and capture the emerging needs. This requires them to listen. I mean listening in its broader sense, i.e. listening to our ecosystem.

What could be a good medical device startup listening strategy? I believe that startups need to adopt a three-pronged strategy to stay ahead:

  1. Identify what and who to listen to,
  2. Architect targeted communication channels,
  3. Take strategic actions in response to the right signals.

My goal in this blog is to share insights on some of the essential aspects of listening. Let’s dive deeper into my three-pronged listening strategy.

1. Identify What & Who to Listen to

First and foremost, listen widely to patients, physicians, customers and multi-industry cross-pollinators. Let’s go through three examples of what and who startups need to listen to.

Listening to Stakeholders – from patients and physicians to regulatory bodies

Stakeholders are those individuals or organizations who can impact the outcome of a startup. They range from patients, physicians, and hospitals to insurance companies and regulatory bodies. Medical device startups need a breakdown of stakeholders throughout the product lifecycle. Among them, listening to patients’ needs and physicians’ insights is the key. Another listening focus should be on regulatory bodies, as changes in regulatory landscape or implementation of new regulatory frameworks can impact the go-to-market strategy. Examples include FDA’s upcoming regulatory framework for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) in Software as a Medical Device or the growing interest in real-world data and evidence to support the risk benefit assessment of device submissions. Follow discussion papers and action plans published by FDA or other regulatory bodies in order to better plan and adapt early on.

Listening to Competitors

One key reason for listening to competitors is to capture the unmet market needs, create a unique value proposition and send out a stronger marketing message. If early enough, a startup will then have the opportunity to blitzscale and become the first mover to address those needs or strategically prepare to adapt with market changes.

Zimmer Biomet’s move toward creating gender-based implants is a good example of how addressing unmet needs can shift the market and impact every other companies. Their website states: “Zimmer was the first orthopedic company to recognize that when it comes to knees, men and women are different. Our groundbreaking research demonstrated that the differences are not just about size; it revealed distinct differences between the anatomical shape of a male and female knee.”

Zimmer’s Gender Solutions knee implants disrupts the market by addressing an unmet need and correcting the “shortcomings of historical designs”. Furthermore, Zimmer was fast in shifting the market dynamic by reaching out to patients directly and impacting physician-patient conversations. Since then, gender-based implant solution has become a true demand and several companies such as Stryker and DePuy have entered in the space.

Listening to Cross-pollinators

No industry is in vacuum. Indeed, cross-pollination has always served as a driver for innovation. This is when an industry leverages technologies from another industry to create new solutions. For example, medical device and Nondestructive Testing (NDT) industries have proved successful cross pollinations. An example of this is the application of electromagnetic nondestructive testing techniques such as the eddy current. While it is primarily used to identify defects in engineering components, such as pipelines, eddy current technique has also found its way into brain imaging. The Magnetic Induction Tomography leverages eddy current sensors to image bleeding within the brain tissue. There are other cross cutting technologies, too. For instance, cloud computing infrastructures have been expanding into new territories ranging from autonomous cars to medical devices. Today, patients’ data can be sent to cloud where data is stored and analyzed. The test result is then accessible to physicians from anywhere around the world. One such example is the Fionet, a cloud-based rapid testing system for diseases such as malaria or Ebola. The Fionet combines handheld point-of-need device connected in real time to cloud data services. This in turn enables “off-site health supervisors to see and adjust front-line healthcare activity and needs. As a startup, listen to cross-pollination and major waves arriving from various industries, creating new disruption opportunities.

2. Create Targeted Communication Channels

Medical device startups need a set of communication channels that glue them to customers, patients, physicians and all the identified stakeholders. Whatever tools or strategic partnerships are used, the architecture of communication channels need to promote loyal relationships, patient’s perspective and physician engagement.

Loyal Relationships

Building stakeholder relationships can make listening more targeted and effective. That being said, startups need to have a good focus on their sales or customer development team. This is because a sales team acts as consultants and advisors to clients. Or their focus is to understand customer needs. They build multi-level relationships with physicians, surgeons, hospitals, clinics and more. The point is, because of the loyal relationships they create, sales or customer development teams can capture firsthand insights and feedback.

Patients’ Perspective

Patients are at the heart of medical innovations. How can we bring patient’s perspective to product development? This requires an engagement strategy to listen to our patients’ group and to understand their experiences. A good strategy example is the “FDA Listening Sessions”, which are designed to learn about patient’s experience with a disease or condition. This is where FDA brings together patients and medical reviewers to ensure treatments best meet the existing needs. Startups may use this approach as an engagement model to support research, regulatory decision making and approval of our new product.

Physicians’ Engagement

Take physicians and the field of diagnostic devices as an example. Are you listening to them? When looking at the current market trend, there is more focus on new ideas that relate to diagnostic devices (wearables, monitors and digital tech) versus the therapeutic ones (procedures and interventions to cure a disease or mitigate an illness). Certainly, regulatory barriers or lack of incentives is a good reason for that. However, one hidden reason could be the fact that physicians are now less involved with the medical device innovation process and that they have less autonomy to bring a new device into their practice.

Greenlight Guru has published a podcast about this innovation challenge. Then, how can startups better listen to physicians, bring them in as inventors and engage them in the process of medical device innovation? Physicians are busy and overextended and in-person visits could be limited. However, digital communication channels are transforming engagements. They can further support your face-to-face channels.

3. Take Strategic Actions

Once communication channels are built to listen and engage, startups need to be a damn good information sponge and a “damn good router” [E. Schmidt]. The only way to prove that an organization is actually listening is through taking strategic actions to stay ahead. For example, by investing in enabling technologies, getting closer to the end user or starting first-time collaborations and partnerships. This is a topic for another article.

In a Nutshell

A medical device startup is sitting at the intersection of new technologies, regulations, patients, physicians and various other stakeholders. A small change in these elements can ripple in the medical device ecosystem and make a big impact. At the same time, medical device startups need to stay competitive, deliver values and grow. This highlights the need for continuous listening to the startup ecosystem. That can be done by architecting a system for listening – identifying stakeholders, building communication channels and taking strategic actions to stay ahead.

How do you listen to your ecosystem?

Image: 16137439 © Charlieaja |

Arash Samimi is a Systems Engineer at StarFish Medical. He helps clients realize their creative ideas that can deliver values to healthcare in transformative ways. Prior to StarFish, he worked with early-stage medical device companies, built new industry-university partnerships, co-founded a social-mission startup and led fundamental research projects for defense and manufacturing industries. Arash holds a PhD in applied physics from Queen’s University.

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