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Spurring Innovation for an Orphan Market

Spurring Innovation for an Orphan Market

 Kolaleh Eskandanian, Executive Director, Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation ,  27 October 2016

The Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Health System opened its doors in April 2011, thanks to a $150 million gift from the government of Abu Dhabi. The Institute’s mission is to make pediatric surgery more precise, less invasive, and pain free. It has funding available to incubate projects that demonstrate potential for commercialization and address an unmet pediatric need. The Institute is a catalyst for multidisciplinary collaboration – teams of engineers, scientists, and clinicians work together to address complex pediatric problems that benefit from a multidisciplinary approach.

The Institute’s philosophy is based on Open Innovation. In addition to supporting its own innovations, the Institute always looks out for the best ideas beyond its own walls. Through annual competitions, pediatric device innovators, startups, and research labs from around the world can participate for a chance to receive funding and consultation services from the Institute. The selected teams also receive access to Children’s National clinicians and the Institute’s network of investors. Through this process, new partnerships and collaborations are formed – all to accelerate the commercialization path for promising pediatric medical products.

There are opportunities and challenges associated with innovation in the pediatric market. On the one hand, pediatrics is well positioned to spot and stop diseases of adulthood that have their origins in childhood and thus making pediatrics the focus for medical innovation. On the other hand, the pediatric market is considered small, children are viewed as generally healthy, and thus investing in this small market is not profitable for large companies. Yet, pediatric products, particularly pediatric devices, sorely need innovation. Children have medical device needs that are considerably different from adults. Designing devices for children requires considerations such as growth and development, anatomical and physiological differences, hormonal influences, and activity level. The challenges also include small markets, minimal financial incentives, and regulatory issues.

Operating in this complex environment, the Sheikh Zayed Institute always looks for novel ways to move innovation from its labs into the market and to children. Using healthcare startups as the vehicle for commercialization is one way.

Healthcare startups largely depend on venture capital, which is based on high rates of return. Because the “valley of death” in startup formation is hard to cross for pediatric innovators, the Sheikh Zayed Institute serves as a de-risking incubator, with goals to help innovators with business planning, regulatory support, clinical trials, prototyping and preclinical work. Because the Institute is part of Children’s National Health System, the innovators have ready access to clinicians and patient populations. In less than five years, thanks to the Institute’s resources, Children’s National innovators have founded over a dozen healthcare startups. Some early startup success stories are directly linked to the access to the Institute’s network of clinicians and investors. These startups are already thriving. They are developing tools for virtual doctor visits, detecting and measuring pain, augmented reality imaging, robotic rehabilitation devices, and apps for home health monitoring. These startups tap on local talents and create high-tech high-paying jobs quickly.

Of particular interest, one of the Institute’s startups, eKare Inc., that is dedicated to the design and development of wound assessment solutions using computer-vision and mobile technology, has found its way to prove its utility in the United Arab Emirates, thanks to a partnership with the Ministry of Health and Avicenna Partners based in Dubai. eKare’s innovative technology is creating new possibilities in how we deliver wound care across the healthcare continuum, from inpatient hospital and skilled nursing facilities to ambulatory clinics and telemedicine.

For the Sheikh Zayed Institute, this is just the beginning.

In conclusion, to move innovative pediatric products to the market and to children, incubators such as the Sheikh Zayed Institute must work in tangent with startups. Seed funding, consultation services, and access to clinicians and investors – are all integral ingredients to de-risk technologies at the incubator level and make them investment-ready for the startups. Once created, startups naturally face many challenges to achieve sustainable growth and make profit. A supportive ecosystem and a strong management team are key to their success. While failure rates for startups are high, for those companies that succeed, the returns to the Sheikh Zayed Institute and the impact to children’s health, everywhere, can be significant.