David Dobson

The Innovation/Time to Market Trade-off in Medical Device Development

Over the last 30 years there have been a dramatic series of changes in the way products are developed.  The technologies we employ in medical device development have advanced substantially and the cost of equipment used in this activity has gone down greatly.   Even more importantly, a shift of emphasis has taken place.  Where once utility was the primary reason for creating a new product, now innovation is the mantra we follow.

From where I sit, there seems to have been three distinct eras in the modern world of product development.  I like to call them by the below names:

“Figure out a way to make this work,” era (1970 to 1985)

“Get it done now,” era (1986 to 2005)

“Does it make sense, is it different, will it really meet a real need?” (2006 to present)

The early stuff (1970 to 1985) was all about solving the basic problem of manufacturability.  We used mechanical pencils, drafting boards and track machines.  We employed our newly minted design skills with only minimal consideration for those who used the product we were creating.  We rarely considered how the operator used the device and if we could improve the user experience in order to increase efficacy and pleasure of use?  We may not have considered the end user like we should have, but boy-o-boy we made the stuff we designed look cool.

The mid-1990’s brought on something different, we called it ‘Time to Market’.  All kinds of productivity tools and companies were launched in those heady days.  Back then I worked for a company called ‘Compression’.  The name ‘Compression’ came from the idea of reducing the time it takes to bring a product to market.  We would achieve this lofty goal through the lavish introduction of the latest technology.  We quickly became a crazy creative machine that lived for speed.  I loved working for this company.  We were part of a new breed of design and engineering houses that had the strategic advantage of employing all the latest software and hardware productivity enhancing tools.  We had the coolest and best workstations (remember those purple UNIX boxes?), wildly captivating solid modeling and imaging software, and the instant miracle that resulted from rapid prototyping.  There seemed to be no limits.  What we could imagine, we could design and create almost instantly.  Our only barrier to utopia was the limitation of the software.  Who would want more?

Although decreasing ‘time to market’ was and is a noble goal, there was a major deficiency in this approach.  If getting to market quickly is the primary emphasis of a product development program, then that opens the door to all kinds of compromises.  Driving programs to rigid timelines at the expense of taking time to thoughtfully consider the broad group of stakeholders who use and are affected by a new product is short sighted and risky.  The end result is often a great looking and highly manufacturable product that was created at lightning speed, which then falls flat on its commercial face when it’s realized that it doesn’t address the full orbed needs of a product and its stakeholders. ‘Time to Market’ may get you on the shelves quickly, but it does not ensure the ‘right product’ is developed.

So what’s a company to do if they want to lead their market with innovative well targeted products that are available to their channel in a timely manner?  The answer seems to be found in understanding how to scale innovation to meet user needs and balance this effort with the commercial requirements of a company.  Needless to say, this is easier said than done.  It requires a mature and broad appreciation for the fundamentals of a business and a skilful understanding of how and where to apply scarce development resources.  Complicated as it is, there are a few companies that know how to engage in this dance.  A good place to start is with a well-seasoned product development consultancy.  If you send me a note, I might be able to make a good suggestion.

Determine Readiness


Commercialization Consult
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