The entrepreneurial spirit that brought us personal computing, mobile technology and social networks has fundamentally changed the ways in which we shop, do business, communicate with others and generally connect with our world. Yet it has left medicine largely untouched. Electronic medical records are in their infancy, mobile applications for health are disconnected, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to applying the power of Big Data to medicine.
At our SINAInnovations Conference held November 12-14, Jeffrey Hammerbacher, who led the original data team at Facebook, and is currently Assistant Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Founder and Chief Scientist of Cloudera, was asked why health care and biomedicine are so far behind when it comes to entrepreneurship and the data revolution. His answer: “Failure hurts a lot more here.”
He could not be more right. Hammerbacher’s experience in data science comes from a place where new applications are built to be broken so that better solutions can emerge. Success is measured in clicks. Failure is a pit stop on the way to the next breakthrough. In health care and medicine, lives hang in the balance of all we do. Success is measured in lives saved. It is our moral obligation to proceed with caution when introducing new surgical techniques, therapies or different ways of doing business.
But it is also our moral obligation to pursue new discoveries and to transform them into devices and therapeutics that improve public health. The time for innovation is now. The pipeline for major drugs is empty, and there are major public health menaces that we do not have therapeutics for, like dementia, obesity and the consequences of diabetes. It is a moral imperative for the public good that academic medical centers bring their ideas to commercialization. This requires a new culture of medicine that challenges health care’s traditionally conservative approach by creating a new paradigm for innovation and entrepreneurship. So how do we do it?
At our innovation conference we convened prominent leaders from academia, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, investment community, and students and faculty at The Mount Sinai Medical Center to examine all aspects of innovation, from how it can be taught and fostered within academia, to how it can accelerate drug discovery and the commercialization of emerging biotechnologies. The following recommendations emerged:
- Create a Structure for Innovation – Great findings come from unexpected places. “To generate new ideas and get beyond our normal patterns of thought, we need the expertise of many people who are willing to think differently and to cut across disciplines that traditionally exist in separate silos within and outside medicine,” said Geoffrey Smith, Director, Center for Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This means more collaboration inside institutions and new partners, such as engineering graduate schools, who can build devices and delivery mechanisms for today’s drugs.
- Harness Data and Embrace Technology Across Disciplines – Big Data is revolutionizing medicine, helping to usher in a new era of precision medicine that will allow physicians to predict, prevent and treat disease more quickly and effectively than ever before. Academic medical centers must invest in both the visionary scientists with the expertise to analyze the data and the infrastructure for them to do it in.
- Develop New Funding Models – The appetite for investing in biotech is a fraction of what it was fifteen years ago. Academic medical centers must develop new models for investment, including venture philanthropy, intellectual property and balanced partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry that are transparent and have similar interests. In this challenging regulatory environment, a better model for generating revenues from repurposed drugs is needed to incentivize commercial entities to invest their resources in them for new diseases. “It’s important for scientists to get involved in how we regulate technology, and in advocacy and funding decisions,” said Elazer R. Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor Health Sciences and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Create New Paradigms in Training and Education – “To meet the challenges ahead – in research, patient care, and education – academic medicine must create its own new paradigm for innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Dennis S. Charney, MD, the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs of The Mount Sinai Medical Center. “We must adapt current educational programs to prepare students for the workplace that exists for scientists beyond academic research positions. The reality is that the overwhelming of PhD graduates in the U.S. do not go into academic research and yet current programs only prepare them for that job. There is an opportunity for nimble institutions to get ahead of the curve, create curricula to assimilate and pursue new models. For example, setting aside a percentage of graduate students’ time to pursue non-doctoral research projects related to design and innovation, and providing academic recognition for those who pursue patents and other interdisciplinary work with biotech and pharma.”
Failure in medicine does hurt more than failure in other industries. Outcomes matter a lot more. But with a thoughtful approach, academic medicine can embrace entrepreneurship and save countless lives. As Hammerbacher noted at the SINAInnovations conference, “It is not a failure of medicine and biomedicine that they have not innovated in their current infrastructure. But it would be a failure not to learn and borrow from strategies for innovation in other industries.”
You can view candid comments from participants, and view highlights from the three-day conference here.
Kenneth L. Davis, MD, is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Mount Sinai Medical Center