The Modern-Day Physician-Innovator: Todd Alamin, MD

The medtech industry is built upon the ideas of creative physicians thinking outside the box; here’s advice from a modern-day physician-innovator.

Given their understanding of disease and pathophysiology, innovative physicians have been the source for many of the major technology advancements throughout the history of medicine. Although commercializing medical technologies today has become more complex than ever – physician still play a vital role in conceiving new products and getting them to patients.

Todd Alamin, MD

Todd Alamin, MD, an Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Stanford University and serial medical device entrepreneur (founder of InnoSpine, acquired by Kyphon; and Simpirica), recently sat down with the Biodesign Alumni group to discuss his experiences being involved in both clinical practice and medical device entrepreneurship. From a deep personal history of combining medtech innovation and clinical practice specializing in spine surgery, Todd was able to provide insights into what makes for a successful physician-innovator.

  • Find the right partners. You are only as valuable as your network. Physicians are domain experts in their clinical field; but with technology development, regulatory processes, and medtech sales and marketing becoming more and more specialized and time-consuming, it is critical to find engineering- and business-trained partners to help bring new product ideas to reality (a tribute the importance of cross-disciplinary teams, as emphasized in the Biodesign process). To do this, Todd stressed the importance of maintaining a good network.  He indicated how he has seen partnerships come from various places (professional contacts, friends, and even family). He also emphasized not to overlook any situation, as you might meet your next collaborator at your kid’s birthday party (as he once did).
  • Just “do” it. Although physicians may want to leave the execution of an idea to others, Todd advises against it. Todd is a “doer”; he likes to get hands-on. From his early achievements with InnoSpine, which he launched without formal training or experience in the development process, he has maintained this philosophy of “doing”. Although as mentioned above, it is important to find partners who are experts in their own fields, it is critical to stay involved. He stressed that as a co-founder, you must get hands-on with every aspect of the company; even the hiring process, which might seem mundane to physicians.  However, being intimately involved in the hiring process is the only way to ensure the hire has the right experience and is a good cultural fit. Even in other areas, such as working with patent attorneys, Todd advocates a hands-on approach. No one knows your idea better than you do, and no one may care about its success as you do.
  • Keep practicing medicine; stay close to the clinical needs. Many MDs graduate and never go into residency but instead go into business or other medically related fields. However, for those who are equally passionate about patient care as well as innovation, Todd advises to keep practicing. By being close to patients and working with other clinicians, those who practice have a deep and rich understanding of the clinical needs that drive innovation, particularly as health care continues to evolve rapidly. Being in clinical practice also lends credibility when pitching your idea to outside investors, who often rely heavily on physician input.
  • Understanding physiology and avoiding a “science project.” Todd talked about how his successes have come from advances in his own field where he has understood the science behind a disease process, and that it was critical to avoid areas where the science is still being worked out. The problem with taking on “science projects” is that, trying to tease out the basic physiologic mechanism of a disease process can alone take a career’s worth of work, and is better left to grants and universities than for businesses that need quicker returns on investment.  He stated how it has been tempting to work on these types of projects in the past, especially when the impact can be so great.  However, these frequently are not in the realm of a medtech entrepreneur’s scope, and the financial and time commitments for these projects, especially in today’s tough investment and regulatory climate, can often be too great to achieve.
  • Leveraging the physician network in unconventional ways. With his first company, InnoSpine, the initial investment partly came from other spine surgeons who liked the idea. With this seed money, Todd and his sole engineer partner, Biodesign Fellow alum David Miller, were able to test, prototype, and develop the device on a small amount of money – never needing to take on conventional VC funding—even all the way to a successful acquisition. Being a spine surgeon himself played to his benefit – he knew the clinical space, he had good contacts, and he was able to move quickly with a minimal investment. Also, having financial backing not only from experts in the field but future customers gave his nascent company huge and early credibility.
  • Balancing doctor and start-up duties. One of the key challenges of being a practicing physician and involved in start-ups is balancing time. However, Todd humorously remarked that there is a silver lining: as a physician, you always have a “good excuse” to get out of non-constructive meetings (the ones that drag on and on…), and that carrying a pager can sometimes be a lifesaver.

As a physician, your training has prepared you for the practice of medicine; however, many of the same skills you gained during medical school and residency training (problem-solving, managing teams, risk mitigation, multi-tasking, staying productive while sleep-deprived) are applicable to the task of developing new medical technologies. Thanks to Dr. Todd Alamin for taking the time to speak with the Biodesign Alumni group and sharing his experiences.

Richard Andrew (Andy) Rink, MD is the 2012-2014 Biodesign Surgical Innovation Fellow at Stanford Biodesign, and will complete his General Surgery Residency at Northwestern University in 2016.


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