Nigel Syrotuck

Quickly forgotten? Why some discoveries fly under the radar and others dominate screens

dominate screens dreamstime_xs_7063243How your medical device can do either

On Feb 11th of this year, gravitational waves were detected for the first time at the LIGO facility in the USA. Theorized in 1916 (by Einstein), they were finally proven, answering one of science’s most fundamental questions in our understanding of physics and the universe.  Did anyone else notice that “this totally off-the-chart significant event that happens once in a lifetime” disappeared from headlines as quickly as it arrived? Why didn’t it dominate screens?

There have been amazing inventions over the history of human innovation. From the wheel to the first steps on the moon, advancement is the motivation for scientists and engineers across the globe. Meanwhile, the public waits for the day a cure for cancer or teleportation is discovered, to change their lives forever. In reality, most discoveries and inventions don’t really make a splash in one terrific moment, and marketing can be the key to their success. Otto Rohwedder, who patented the first bread slicing machine, spent over 10 years developing it and many more months convincing a baker that it was a good idea before it became the best things since…

Let’s take a look at other inventions and discoveries that are truly ground-breaking, even though the public doesn’t seem to understand their importance:

  • Water on Mars
    • Continuing the space theme, there is, in fact, water on Mars. When I was a wee child, that was supposed to be the biggest discovery of my generation: where there is water, there is life. But then when ice was found, it was: where there is liquid water, there is life. Well, there is liquid water, where is the excitement?
  • Hypoallergenic animals
    • Ya, we can bio-engineer cats and dogs to be non-allergenic. Seems like a big deal to me!
  • Cochlear implants220px-Electric-Acoustic-Stimulation-EAS
    • In the 60’s, Bekesy won a Nobel prize for showing that a cochlear implant could work, and the first cochlear implants was inserted in 1976.  Deaf people can hear and blind people can see!
  • Insects with geared legs
  • IntraOcular Lenses (IOLs)
    • Most people, at least young people, don’t seem to realize that almost 1% of the population would go blind every year if it weren’t for intraocular lenses.

What do these all have in common? Some, like cochlear implants and IOLs, have been around so long they start to lose interest.  Others are leaders to further discoveries, and so they themselves are somewhat anticlimactic: water on Mars was supposed to mean life, but we haven’t got to that part yet. Hypoallergenic animals are expensive and not getting cheaper anytime soon. And some are slow to hit their milestones, with large gaps between advancements – it’s tough to develop a technology over 10 years and maintain excitement.

On the flip side, products like milk continue to be popular after 1000 years on the market due to clever marketing campaigns. The voyager transit of Pluto and the Rosetta missions are very well known to the public. They both garnered an amazing amount of press despite not being nearly as ground breaking (at least not Earth-ground breaking). Yet they were sudden and tense, almost like the climax of a movie, and logistically the ‘big date’ is known years in advance. They also had new high-def pictures that were great eye-candy, but more importantly there was a new picture every day or two, spreading out the news stories over weeks. It’s almost a good thing the transmission bandwidths were so slow.

So what if the LIGO team had released information in this way? Could gravitational waves have truly caught the public eye and accrued more press time? More importantly, can this lesson apply to medical devices?

You might think that medical devices should easily be able to mimic those space missions by releasing results periodically to attract the most attention, sustain excitement, and collect the most funding. It’s certainly possible, but let’s consider one big difference first: if an unmanned spacecraft mission fails, no one gets hurt. Likewise, space agencies are unlikely to fold overnight from a single failure, and don’t have quite as much expert interpretation needed for their results. SpaceX had three failed rocket booster landings, yet sold them beautifully to the news for what they are: very difficult, very ambitious tests.

Those thoughts considered, medical devices undergoing big tests with a “will it work or won’t it” attitude, followed by weeks of results match this pattern perfectly. For example, when the first artificial heart was implanted, there was the thrill of the patient waking up and the newly installed device actually working. There is also a human connection as the patient returns to a normal life, and a follow-up of knowledge as the engineers process and interpret data. The risk of a public failure is still present, but the public also understands that not all tests are successful, and barring patient injury, a failure can be seen as another step forward just as SpaceX has shown.

To me, it all comes down to risk and reward. NASA and the ESA risk a lot when they stream live feeds that dominate screens, but they have a lot of confidence in their success. Medical devices with the confidence to succeed, the ability to fail, and the ambition to attract the respect of the public eye are certain to have abundant media coverage with the right marketing strategy. I look forward to the first medical device marketed in this manner and the rewards it will bring to the team bold enough to try it.

Nigel Syrotuck is a Mechanical Engineer at StarFish Medical. He has definite thoughts on almost everything in science (how the first medical Tricorder should be marketed for media success), that he puts on paper without making prototypes as he does in medical device product development.

Lead image:© Crazy80frog | – Father And Son Looking At Tv Screens Photo

Cochlear Implant: Wikipedia Zipfer

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One response to “Quickly forgotten? Why some discoveries fly under the radar and others dominate screens”

  1. Caroline says:

    I like how you are able to communicate your opinions on science and technology in such an entertaining and accessible manner.

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