4 Expert Insights into Innovation & Commercialization

Trained as a medical doctor and cancer researcher, Dr. Nishi Viswanathan has spent most of her career as an entrepreneur and business professional. She’s always looking for innovative breakthroughs to drive better health outcomes and lower the cost of care.

And she’ll be the first to tell you when it’s time to talk about commercializing a promising idea. (Spoiler alert: It’s day one.)

Dr. Viswanathan comes to Innovation Lab to head our commercialization experience, bringing a wealth of front-line leadership in driving healthcare innovation and bringing products to market. She formerly led Texas Health Catalyst, a program that accelerates promising healthcare technologies from idea to impact. In that role, she identified critical unmet needs to match them with promising solutions, mentored innovators and managed key industry partnerships at Dell Medical School and the University of Texas.

Building on her own time at the research bench, Dr. Viswanathan also once directed marketing and product development at a startup that develops and commercializes theranostic solutions for cancer imaging and drug delivery.

Dr. Viswanathan recently shared her insights on the role of commercialization in the innovation process.

Why is innovation critical in healthcare today?

Innovation has always been critical in healthcare. Although we continue to make vast improvements to disease management, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what we can cure. I’m always optimistic about product innovation because new frontiers continue to open up with advancements in science and technology. Also, there is a well-established process to reward those who invest time and resources to discover and commercialize novel technologies.

I worry more about non-clinical and systemic problems in healthcare. Those include the lack of interoperability, poor care coordination, disparities in outcomes, misaligned incentives, skyrocketing costs of care, low health literacy and, most of all, our inability to bring about behavioral change, which is at the root of everything. We need more innovation in these areas because we could impact a much larger population and help people stay healthy. However, innovators in these areas butt heads against numerous challenges and innovation by itself isn’t sufficient. To make a dent, change needs to happen both top-down through proactive policymaking and bottom-up through advocacy and consumer empowerment. We still haven’t figured out a formula for all this. In some ways, we need to innovate the way we think about innovation.

What is the one thing that you really need innovators to know about how to be successful in the commercialization process? Does that vary depending on whether the innovation is, say, a product or a technology?

There are always differences in commercialization pathways and business models for every technology. However, at the core, one thing sets successful innovators apart: They are more passionate about solving a pain point than they are about their technology.

This attitude is helpful at every step along the way. Initially, it helps innovators confirm problem-solution fit through a holistic understanding of the problem and proper problem framing. Next, it helps them evaluate competing solutions in an unbiased manner. Instead of telling themselves, “My idea is better and if I build it, they will come,” they start asking themselves, “Why would someone change what they have been doing for years and switch to my solution?” This healthy skepticism about their own solution helps them hone their value proposition. And at later stages, their desire to fix the problem keeps them flexible enough to pivot as the market demands or consider entirely different approaches to solve the same problem.

As someone with experience across the broad innovation landscape, when do you prefer to begin discussing commercialization strategies with innovators? And why is that?

On day one!

It’s never too early to think about commercialization. Sometimes even the design of a product is driven by the commercialization pathway. For example, if you’re building a diagnostic product, you need to consider regulatory implications before you determine whether the answer is a supplementary clinical decision-making tool or a reliable way to make an accurate diagnosis. How do you decide between the two options? It depends on your target customer and the problem you’re trying to solve.

In the case of digital health solutions, there is typically a very low barrier to entry. Anyone can build a piece of software in a few months, but success depends on creating the appropriate business model and gaining market traction. And to do this, innovators need to pay close attention to how solving the problem can generate value for the customer. It is interesting how we circle back to the problem every time.

I’ve worked extensively with clinical and academic innovators in the past, and many of them are not driven by monetary gain. I often see them get flustered when challenged to think about questions such as “Who will pay for this?” or “What is the return on investment for an investor?” In their minds, noble intent trumps everything. They have invented a potential game changer and it must be built and used ASAP so that it can begin saving lives. But the reality is that for a product to reach its intended beneficiary, multiple players along the chain need to benefit financially. If there isn’t a business case, an idea might never turn into a viable product.

You’re still early in your tenure, but can you share what makes the Innovation Lab commercialization process unique? Why should innovators bring their ideas to the Lab?

Right from the beginning, I was fascinated by the Lab’s unique business model. Now that I have started working closely with every team, I’m impressed by the efficiency with which things move through the pipeline. The sense of ownership and accountability you see here is incredible. Every project is run like a small startup with its own team including a clinical engagement expert, a product manager, a technical expert and a commercialization executive. It is very hard for innovators to replicate this cross-functional structure on their own. The Lab also has access to its member healthcare systems to test and validate products. We know it takes a village to bring a healthcare idea to the market and the Lab literally provides this village.

By working with the Lab, innovators can focus on providing subject matter expertise and outsource all the heavy lifting including market validation, product development, clinical evidence generation and commercialization. Most innovators I know would give anything to get access to such a robust support system.