What it means to “level up”

What do we mean when we say we’re looking for a breakthrough?

Most of us think of that lightning bolt moment: Alexander Fleming discovering the first antibiotic in a speck of mold, a sudden rush of achievement that just can’t be replicated.

When we say we want a breakthrough—whether it’s a shattering innovation in the lab or an angel investor that swoops in and takes our company to the next level—we think of geniuses and miracles, of once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Moments, of course, we can’t predict. Actions we can’t really create or control.

Or can we?

Recently, pePartners, Openly Disruptive and Radiant CX joined together to cohost Level Up, an event for thought leaders, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and investors within healthcare and health science. As frontline innovators, we’re in the business of not waiting for a breakthrough, but actively cultivating it, whether a major finding in hospital research or hatching a scalable business model.

“Innovation isn’t about me having an idea. It’s about working with others. It’s about collaboration. It’s something we do together,” said pePartners founder Martin Myers. “This event is analogous to what pePartners does; we curate and match growing companies with capital partners who bring value beyond capital.”

The idea that a major breakthrough is something we can synthesize, rather than the result of genius to which we’re genetically predisposed, is something that Cody Stringer knows well. He’s the entrepreneurial specialist for Mercy Research and Development, a group that’s shepherds medical innovations to market, from drug delivery contact lenses for corneal wound repair to re-assemble breakaway glasses frames for child optometry patients. When Cody presented at Level Up, he began his remarks with an assertion: “Your ideas are worthless—and so are mine.”

In his field, Cody has found that a brilliant idea for an improved surgical device generally can’t gain traction with a Medtronic or a Johnson and Johnson until the product has adoption and revenue—and Mercy isn’t in the business of manufacturing and sales.

“If your idea is to get a patent and wait,” he said. “You’re five years behind the ball.”

Cody’s breakthrough was to more heavily utilize the startup accelerator model—to license clinically relevant, commercially-viable data and product models to smaller commercial partners. In lieu of building a plant, he found a way to turn to execution in order to make ideas sellable, and bridge the gap between innovation and market value.

Since that breakthrough, Cody says, “startups have become the number one priority of Mercy’s commercialization model—largely because we execute. Where the rubber meets the road and innovation takes flight is where great ideas meet effective

Of course, innovators in the healthcare sector don’t only have to break through the barrier between idea and product, but also the many barriers between product and market success. Some of the largest barriers are the challenges of the regulatory system.

Acera Surgical founder Matthew MacEwan faced this challenge head-on in his own research and development funnel. During his medical education, Matthew learned from physicians that surgical meshes were insufficiently pliable and often rejected by the body. Matthew wanted to develop a product that minimized patient rejection rate while remaining biosafe. Rather than developing a new material that would need to go through the expensive regulatory gauntlet, he used the same polymer present in current surgical materials and put it through an electrospinning process that converted it to a nanofiber fabric.

Remarkably, the body accepts it like a natural structure in the body—like the collagen to which it bears an uncanny microscopic resemblance. The process simultaneously produces a soft fabric that’s much easier to manipulate, resulting in an easier-to-use product much less likely to be rejected by either the body or regulators.

With that breakthrough, Matthew now faces the challenge many entrepreneurs face: what next? For businesses in any industry, the decision to pursue the capital necessary to scale, to exit, or to pursue an IPO can be a challenging one. pePartners’ corporate finance and transaction strategist Cath Avila is an expert at navigating this territory.

“A lot of people think of [going public] as a kind of magic,” Cath said. “I’m here to tell you, however, it’s not. It wasn’t unheard of for innovative start-ups to go public in three to five years; now, it’s more like seven to eight. So many founder/owners are clueless. They fail to realize that you need to start strategizing from day one.”

In healthcare, that strategy might require business leaders to look outside of the U.S. Cath pointed out that 46 percent of global funds are being raised in the Asia/Pacific region; and, as many of the thought leaders in attendance also pointed out, pursuing development in Europe can be a great way to push ideas more quickly through the regulatory process.

And, that might be the key to leveling up: looking outwards toward the world of resources available to you, and reaching for those moments of breakthrough together, rather than just focusing on them alone.

“A breakthrough is never just a single moment of truth,” Dan Reus, principal of Openly Disruptive, said. “It’s a continuum of moments of truth. You have to be agile, and ready to take your next steps.”

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