When we think of health and tech innovators — and any startup, for that matter — we think of hard work and perseverance (and maybe being in the right place at the right time) as the key drivers for success.
While these ingredients are critical for an innovation to gain momentum and diffuse through the mainstream market, these factors don’t guarantee success.
There are some very real challenges that every health innovator will face and need to overcome. In many cases, the hardest-working innovators, even those with superior solutions, can be knocked down and knocked out by seemingly impossible and unexpected obstacles.
The lack of awareness and preparation for these challenges can make the innovation journey seem downright impossible, which can in turn make health innovators feel isolated, discouraged, or worthless.
There are three common challenges across different phases of the innovation process to plan and prepare for to ensure you don’t get derailed: the Valley of Death, Pilot Purgatory, and the Trough of Sorrow.
I know, it sounds like a big dose of doom and gloom. But I’m not here to sugar-coat the arduous nature of the journey — I’m here to help you prosper and succeed.
Let’s look closer at each of these commercialization challenges, as well as a brief overview of strategies to overcome them. And, if you’d like to dig a little deeper into common pitfalls and how to avoid them, you can download our infographic, “The Case for Commercializing Healthcare Innovation.”
1. Valley of Death: Idea-to-Product Phase
The Valley of Death is arguably the most “famous” of the three. This occurs in the initial phase of the process, where the innovation is still in development.
This valley gets its name because many innovators exhaust their financial resources before they’re able to establish recurring revenue from their offering — effectively killing the innovation before it even has the chance to get off the ground.
In many cases, this manifests as a scrappy startup running in the red. Perhaps they’re trying to bootstrap a pricy innovation, or living in a cycle of sales pitch after sales pitch where investors aren’t willing to take a risk without a proven business model, clinical validation, or sales revenue.
Conquering the Valley of Death
Here are a few tips for innovators to better manage their cash flow:
- Consider releasing a “minimum viable product” to gain momentum and valuable feedback, as well as a “minimum viable marketing” strategy to earn maximum results from minimal investment of time and resources
- Explore ways to reduce your overhead, like working in shared or home offices, using cloud-based software over expensive in-house systems, and automating as much as possible to maximize efficiency and staff resources
- For radical innovations, consider crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, or health-industry-specific platforms like MedStartr and RedCrow.
- When looking for venture capitalists or “angel investors,” be forward-thinking in your approach: how can you demonstrate value and communicate your story in a way that sets yourself apart? How can you persuade investors to commit resources without clinical evidence or proof of the business model?
- Research grant and loan opportunities from private and federal entities, small business development centers, and business accelerators. Also look at third party healthcare startup contests.
Once you’ve secured initial funding and developed the new product innovation, you can move on toward gaining clinical or medical validation, which brings us to our next challenge…
2. Pilot Purgatory: Product Validation Phase
Pilot purgatory, also called “death by pilot,” occurs when an innovation enters the pilot phase and never comes out.
In some cases, this happens because innovators get trapped in a cycle of pilots with different businesses and organizations, but no one ever actually purchases it after the pilot is complete.
In other cases, the innovator might focus on changing and adapting their innovation to cater to the unique needs of one or two pilot partners, only to find that those needs aren’t viable for the mainstream market.
It’s critical that innovators set some ground rules and progress checks before entering the pilot phase, to ensure that your efforts are fruitful in the long run.
Prevailing over Pilot Purgatory
Here are some guidelines for piloting:
- Avoid partnering with the “late majority” or “laggards” — companies with cultures that don’t embrace innovation and breakthrough technologies and processes. Stick with early adopters and the “early majority” that are more likely to buy in the long-run.
- Set performance-based expectations, with upfront agreements that the pilot company will purchase the innovation if certain criteria, milestones, and KPIs are met during the pilot.
- Once you’re in the door: network, network, network. Connect with the Chief Innovation Officer and the chiefs of all departments that will use your innovation. Turn them into champions for your innovation!
- Proceed with caution when it comes to co-creating and adapting your innovation with partners: this can lead to excessive altering of your innovation to the point that it’s no longer a good fit for the industry as a whole.
After the innovation has been clinically validated, it’s time to promote your innovation beyond early adopters to the mainstream market. But first, you’ll need to know the right niche to pursue.
3. Trough of Sorrow: Product-Market Fit Phase
Also called the “Founder’s Blues,” this challenge speaks deep to our core of humanity — because under every incredible, brilliant, and superhuman innovator, there’s a person who needs to be reassured that temporary failures won’t stay permanent.
But, when it consistently looks like you’re at a dead end in finding market success, being an innovator can take its psychological toll. Initial excitement can quickly morph into uncertainty, exhaustion, and sadness.
This is well-documented: one study shows 72% of entrepreneurs suffered mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, ADD, and addiction — with only 7% of the general public reporting these issues.
And sadly, the startup world has seen a number of innovator suicides in even the most promising startups.
The extreme stresses and pressures of launching an innovation are serious, and they deserve attention. Innovators, their teams, and their loved ones can work to create an environment that supports the troughs just as much as the peaks.
Nurturing through the Trough of Sorrow
Here are some strategies to ensure health innovators are cared-for during the hard times:
- Develop a self-care plan as methodically as you develop your business plan: make time to care for your body and mind, spend time with loved ones, and book appointments when professionals are needed.
- Surround yourself with people who believe in your vision — people who will say, “It’s all going to work out,” when you’re feeling hopeless.
- Remember: there’s no shame in temporarily putting yourself before your innovation. If you feel overwhelmed, take a breather. Delegate tasks and restructure the workflow so that you can take some downtime.
- Shift short-term mindsets into long-term ones: research shows that perseverance and grit matter more to success than talent. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Finding Market Success
There’s nothing quite like bringing your innovation to the world, with the ability to improve quality of life for millions or even billions of people.
On the other side of that coin, there’s nothing quite like the trials and tribulations that you’ll face along the way.
To be truly successful in a turbulent landscape, it’s important to go in with a flexible, adaptive plan that gives your brand structure and reliability while rolling with punches.
Download our infographic, “The Case for Commercializing Healthcare Innovation,” to learn more about common pitfalls and failures of commercializing an innovation, along with some vetted and validated strategies to avoid them.
Or, tune into The Health Innovators Show, a weekly podcast and video show about the leaders, influencers, and early adopters who are shaping healthcare and digital health.