In the history of innovation breakthroughs, some myths remain strong. In the hardware world, game-changing devices get built in the garage. For life sciences, the eurekas come in basement labs. In these origin stories, the heroes are usually a pair of scrappy, go-it-alone engineers or scientists. They build everything from scratch and on their own, giving rise to the Apples, HPs, Medtronics, and Roches of today.
Yet, that’s not how innovation works—or has ever worked. The Bakken brothers built their first portable pacemakers by collaborating with customers who had decades of experience and know-how. Hoffmann-La Roche launched the modern pharmaceutical industry by bringing the recipes of local apothecaries to scale with industrial mass production. Jobs and Wozniak pulled ideas from Xerox, IBM, and the Homebrew Computer Club to catalyze the personal computer revolution. Their ideas and determination changed the world.
In health care, this understanding is just beginning to take hold, and it will profoundly change the way the best organizations differentiate themselves in the market and amplify their value and impact.
Innovation Without Reinvention
Ask any startup entrepreneur today whether they discovered or invented all the technology that goes into their product or service, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. They don’t start at “Step 1,” building everything they need from the ground up. They start at what I call “Step 7:” working from a platform of capabilities, tools, and insights already available. This allows them to focus as much of their resources and attention as possible on the unique value they (and only they) can bring to the market.
It’s a no-brainer. Resources are finite. Speed and efficiency are critical. Pride of ownership is irrelevant. The needs of the customer top the needs of internal stakeholders or established processes every time. Ergo, they meet every problem by looking for the best and most expedient solution, sourcing whatever tools, insights, research findings, capital infusions, or SaaS applications they need or can find.
Step 7 thinking is standard in dynamic or disruptive industries, where innovation, speed, and rapid growth are essential. Consider how the latest generation of tech giants have come to dominate their markets.
Zillow, the real estate listing platform, didn’t establish market prices for every house in America; painstakingly collate addresses on a digital map; invent a way for buyers and sellers to communicate; build massive warehouses to store and protect their data; or populate their website and search results with ads from service providers. Instead, they aggregated data from mortgage brokers, tapped Google for location services and ad buys, adopted Twilio for communication, and stored their data securely on AWS.
That freed Zillow to focus on the value they could bring to consumers. Imagine the time, resources, and energy they would have lost had they insisted on proprietary, home-grown solutions end to end. They’d be a startup footnote at best, not the dominant company in one of the biggest markets in the country.
New Ways, Old Thinking
Zillow isn’t alone in using Step 7 platforms to accelerate innovation. I dare say it’s become the norm in virtually every industry—that is, except health care. The traditional bias in health care is toward ownership and control over all assets, processes, and capabilities, including those that are non-core. This puts a tremendous drag on resources, and has a dampening effect on innovation, speed, and growth.
And while life sciences and medtech are far more experienced at outsourcing, collaborating, and acquiring key strategic assets, even these health care sectors have only begun to tap the potential of a Step 7 approach.
The technology stacks that Zillow, Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and others assemble help clarify consumer needs, create a unique user experience, and leverage digital scale and speed to build an expanding network of users and suppliers. In life sciences and medtech, the purpose of a Step 7 technology platform is to bring better processes, new solutions, and market-changing ideas to health care on behalf of patients.
Roadblocks to innovation come in many forms. For startups, the barriers are often technological and financial. For fast-growing companies, they often hinge on talent scarcity and the need for speed. For established organizations, barriers might involve entrenched beliefs or risk-averse cultures. And in discovery-driven enterprises such as life sciences and medtech, the barriers to innovation start with data.
The complexity is such that an organization rarely “knows what it knows” or can leverage its knowledge in a way that optimizes product development or drives new insights. Knowledge comes from many sources across and outside the organization, ranging from scientific and clinical information, to user knowledge and patient insights. Most of that information is siloed and non-standardized.
The Ecosystem is the Computer
The traditional approach to solving that challenge—constructing data warehouses, bridges, tunnels, side-roads, and workarounds needed to overcome a hodgepodge of legacy infrastructures—has gotten health care nowhere fast. Step 7 thinking means starting with solutions that aggregate all data streams in real-time, while also making that data standardized, accessible, and useful. This frees an organization to focus its resources on activities that build the future instead of fixing the past.
What comes after Step 7? A network effect of knowledge generation that few can imagine today. With access to all of its data enabled, life sciences and medtech organizations can cross-pollinate at immense scale and speed, across teams, inside and outside its walls; with data, information, and insight flowing in myriad directions simultaneously. As the number of participants (clinicians, vendors, business units, researchers, patients, and so on) expands and the level of activity proliferates, the ecosystem grows richer, more diverse, and more impactful.
Health care, as an industry, is highly path-dependent, replete with entrenched processes, legacy infrastructures, data silos, vested interests, rent-seeking, and paternalistic attitudes toward patient care. The ecosystem enabled by Step 7 thinking is a multiverse of possibility and potential, a marketplace of solutions where new discoveries can emerge from any source at any time.
On the brink of that capability, the question that discovery-driven organizations should ask themselves now is simple and profound: How innovative do you want to be?
Abhinav Shashank is the CEO and co-founder of Innovaccer, a leading San Francisco-based healthcare technology company.