Big pharma companies may generate a lot of innovative new drugs and medical devices, but internally, they have a reputation for being slow to evolve their technology, workflows and corporate culture. This risk averse nature can get in the way of their ability to accelerate development, or identify new opportunities to increase revenues or cut costs.
The problem is so chronic, that one recent 2019 report predicts a 0% return on investment for pharma R&D in the next few years due to the lack of change in the traits, processes, and fundamental culture of modern pharma R&D organizations.
Though one big pharma company is bucking this particular trend thanks to its design thinking approach to innovation.
Medtronic, the Minneapolis-based global medical technology manufacturer best known for its life-saving pacemakers, has gained notoriety in the industry as a company lead by executives who see the value of evolution, taking risks, and testing new ideas to stay ahead of competitors.
The company’s founder, Earl Bakken defined his idea for meaningful innovation as part of the company’s founding mission, and the company has built it into everything they do. Bakken’s vision inspired him to develop the first wearable battery-powered pacemaker in 1957, and the company’s commitment to innovative thinking has helped it land more than 53,000 patents and save millions of lives.
Lately, Medtronic is focusing its internal innovation efforts on rapid changes in digital technology. Every aspect of the pharma industry is being transformed by artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation, and Medtronic wants to be a leader in this space.
To ensure its employees have the space to generate and test big digital ideas, in 2015 it launched the Applied Innovation Lab, a 2,200 sf collaboration space in Minnesota where teams of employees, customers, healthcare providers and partners work together to solve healthcare challenges together. “To make innovations meaningful for patients, you must first understand patients,” the company says in a report about the lab.
Medtronic’s innovation teams have always relied on design thinking and human-centered design to drive their project processes, and the lab is an extension of that value proposition.
The lab features several standard simulation environments, including a patient’s living room and a hospital emergency room with patient monitors created to scale. It also features a 20 foot, 360-degree video environment that can create a virtual version of any user environment they couldn’t otherwise easily access, like a clinic in Ghana, or the company’s training center in São Paulo, Brazil.
The lab provides Medtronic teams with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the patient or customer experience so they can understand “not just their healthcare need, but how that need fits into their everyday lives,” the company proclaims. It’s part of the company’s long-standing commitment to use design thinking in every innovation effort.
It was a big investment, but Medtronic leaders supported it because they believe that immersive experiences make it easier for their people to empathize with and relate to the patient challenges they are trying to solve. Projects launched in the lab include a study of childhood hearing loss in India, and treatments and tracking for hypertension in Kenya, with several more under way.
The lab appears to be paying off. Since launching it, Medtronic has been named one of the world’s top innovators four years in a row, and it continues to be the largest medical device company in the world earning close to $30 billion annually.
It’s to assume that once a company hits a certain size, agility goes out the window. But this story proves that no matter how big you get, as long as leaders recognize the value of customer centricity, and make it the cornerstone of their innovation efforts, they will be able to easily adapt to whatever trends come their way.
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