MD Anderson’s employees are full of ideas -- ideas about new ways to treat cancer, new ways to improve patient care, new ways to reduce preparation time for certain procedures and so much more. Discovery is one of our core values, so we’re focused on it every day.
But turning those ideas into realities takes more than creativity or business savvy alone.
That’s where MD Anderson’s Center for Entrepreneurship Advancement (CEA) comes in.
Filling the gap to make ideas a reality
“Many of our faculty and staff are wired to be innovators, but their education and training haven’t given them the tools to make their ideas reality,” says Christopher Taylor, CEA director and program director in Strategic Industry Ventures. “The center is designed to fill the gap through educational offerings and a variety of programs.”
CEA is intended to be the go-to resource at MD Anderson for entrepreneurs of all kinds. It offers education and programs, working in conjunction with other MD Anderson resources, such as the Office of Technology Commercialization.
CEA offers a four-hour workshop on commercialization fundamentals, an Entrepreneurship Academy, and the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, the premiere federally funded innovation and commercialization education program in the United States.
Connecting innovators to business mentors is another area of focus. Led by Program Manager Alejandro Tortoriello, Venture Mentoring Service-Houston provides team-based business mentoring for real-world guidance, and Texas Venture Connect is a virtual mentoring network across the UT System. This year, the center is expanding its offerings to include the BIO2Oncology Tech Accelerator and a women-focused community called WIN4Oncology.
Our quest to end cancer requires innovation, and Cancer Medicine Division Head Patrick Hwu, M.D., factors CEA into the equation of our success. “CEA’s support of our entrepreneurs is a critical element in our institution’s mission, by allowing our faculty and staff to create impactful solutions to address real-world needs in cancer care,” says Hwu.
Taylor says commercialization differs from academic research, and he encourages people to reach out early to accelerate the process and avoid missteps. According to Taylor, many of the resources CEA offers even apply to people who may not have entrepreneurship aspirations.
“It’s disappointing when an idea doesn’t come to fruition simply because the person followed the path they knew instead of the path needed to commercialize successfully,” Taylor says. “We hope many will connect with us early and use the resources available to help bring their ideas to market.”
“Leveraging the fantastic resources offered by CEA to understand entrepreneurship and commercialization will allow our innovators to improve the odds of successfully translating their ideas and work to the bedside, where it can make a difference for our patients,” says Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer ad interim and senior vice president for Discovery and Platforms.
“I loved to watch ‘MacGyver’ on TV as a kid,’’ Bird says, referring to the 1980s show featuring a resourceful secret agent who could solve almost any problem with a Swiss Army knife and a roll of duct tape. “I love to innovate and figure it out along the way.’’
While doing medical mission work in West Africa before joining MD Anderson in 2012, Bird says he “MacGyvered’’ devices to help patients, including a wound vac to help speed wound healing. “I used whatever I could find – a scrub sponge, plastic tape, tubing, and a generator and vacuum I found at the local hardware store – to make a wound vac,’’ he says. “It made a huge difference in speeding up the healing time for children in the hospital.’’
Fast forward to 2019. Ideas continue to spark, including some ideas that Bird hopes can become marketable solutions to help patients and physicians.
“I’m passionate about new technology such as digital health and medical devices that could be used to deliver the best care to our patients,’’ he says.
Some of his ideas include:
An app that aligns patients with the most appropriate providers, products and services using data and algorithms to make the right match
The use of robotic surgery in orthopedic oncology
New physical therapy technologies for patients who are bedridden or undergoing chemotherapy
The challenge, Bird says, is turning a good idea into a marketable product.
“In medical school, I didn’t learn anything about communication or entrepreneurship. The Center for Entrepreneurship Advancement helps with understanding business and marketing concepts, teaching physicians how to think about things like market share and how to message your idea.’’
Concepts such as business plans, negotiating, strategy development, finance and marketing just aren’t intuitive from a clinician’s standpoint, Bird says.
But CEA’s Venture Mentoring Service has helped with that.
“Mentors help you refine your pitch, to make the message as strong as possible to raise money and build resources,’’ he says. “They help you realize what value you’re bringing and how you’ll generate revenue.”
Are you a problem solver like this team?
“I don’t think of myself as an inventor, but I’ve always been a problem solver,” says Priya Bhosale, M.D.
She gives one example from her internship at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital where she worked long into the night to take care of 70-80 patients. She developed process efficiencies that dramatically reduced the length of time to provide care for these patients, improving their experience as well as hers.
Similarly, Sujaya Rao is energized by finding better ways to get things done.
She’s director of division research development and co-founder of MD Anderson’s Quantitative Imaging Analysis Core, a centralized platform to provide standardized imaging metrics for clinical and research scientists. She also created the Image De-Identification Service Request application here.
Bhosale and Rao have teamed up and are taking advantage of resources in the Center for Entrepreneurship Advancement to further their latest idea, a device to better prepare certain patients for MRI imaging.
“We had this idea and heard about the center’s resources,” Bhosale says. “Both Sujaya and I were excited to find help to turn our idea into reality.”
They attended a half-day I-Corps workshop and then were accepted to the I-Corps Regional Program and then the I-Corps National Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
“We got so much out of these programs,” Rao says.
“It was an immersive experience where you really felt like you were working in a start-up company,” Rao says of the National I-Corps experience. “Our customer discovery phase was intense. We traveled about 35,000 miles in six weeks talking to people all over the country to evaluate if there was a market for our idea.”
Both say the experience has been extremely valuable. And while it is a time commitment, they know they’ll be able to transfer what they’ve learned to other ideas they have.
“I’m excited to get this one finished and focus on some of the other ideas already spinning in my head,” Rao says.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.