The Tricky Side of Tackling Latent Clinical Needs


There may be nothing more exciting for a medical device entrepreneur than the discovery of a latent clinical need.  But not long after the throbbing from the over-zealous celebratory high-fives has subsided, an uphill battle generally awaits the clever innovators. For whatever reason, the tough part about working on latent needs doesn’t get a lot of attention. To that end, I thought that it might be an interesting topic for discussion, and I could begin my tossing in my own $0.02.

To take a step back, it might be useful to define what (at least in my mind) a latent clinical need is: a compelling clinical problem that is generally overlooked or undetected by the medical device community. Like many things in life, a great latent need is often obvious in retrospect — the true genius lies in the insight or viewpoint that drives the discovery process. In this way, discovering a latent need is a lot like finding Waldo in the Where’s Waldo books . In both situations, there’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot of interesting things that you (and many others) will see almost immediately. The most exciting find lies hidden, and only the right perspective will let you see it. And of course, once you see it, it can be bewildering that you and others didn’t see it sooner.

Beyond the excitement of working on something truly novel,  the discovery of a latent need can also lead to a profound first-mover business advantage.  It’s fairly rare in medical devices, but solving an under-appreciated clinical problem can lead to rather broad IP protection, as well. The proverbial low-hanging fruit may still be obtainable , and it may be possible to generate a solution that is elegant, simple, and proprietary. From an engineer’s perspective, that’s about as thrilling as the day you figured out that you could spell ‘hillbillies’ on a calculator by punching in numbers and holding it upside-down.

The tricky part about working on a latent need revolves around fundraising. Specifically, it’s very possible that you’ll have a hard time convincing investors that your need is actually a valid clinical problem. Because latent needs are obvious in retrospect, people may have a hard time believing that your insight is novel, and for this reason it will be human nature for them to wonder why other companies aren’t in this space. Instead of focusing on the potential of your company, the tendency could be to focus on finding out why other companies have passed on the opportunity;  just what is it that you are missing that others have seen (perhaps the exact opposite of the actual situation)?

So, if you’re keeping score at home: an investor may want to see a novel concept in an uncrowded market with broad IP protection, but for a validated clinical problem and a solution pathway that literature or experience would suggest likely to be successful. Well, it’s tough to hit all these areas, and in lieu of a perfect fit it’s understandable why someone would choose to invest in a less exciting advance in a well-understood market over a riskier project that involves a wide-open market that you’ll need to develop from the ground-up.

But all told, this could be a blessing in disguise. It will take a true forward-thinking investor to share your vision and look beyond the pattern-matching mindset that’s easy for us to fall into. You’ll want to take full advantage of this individual’s involvement, because building a new market and solving a true latent need will indeed be difficult. You’ll likely face challenges and setbacks that no one could have predicted, and you could benefit from a dynamic, gifted investor/board member by your side. Acknowledging my bias as an eternally optimistic engineer who gets his kicks from working on exciting new stuff, I still think the benefits of working on a latent need outweigh the downsides. Hopefully, I’ll come across my fair share in the years to come.

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