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Inventors prescribe new solutions for medical marketplace

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A year ago, Charlotte inventor and entrepreneur Louis Foreman, the mind behind product development firm Enventys and the reality TV show “Everyday Edisons,” decided to venture into a completely different realm: the business of health care.

He had come in contact with people who had ideas for the industry – from surgical devices to more affordable artificial limbs – and they weren’t all health care professionals. Some were patients or family members of one.

But inevitably, their ideas reached an impasse on their way to the marketplace, a pipeline requiring a daunting flurry of patents, lawyers, business plans, complex financials, prototypes, clinical trials, manufacturers and retailers.

Now, Foreman has helped create another option: Edison Nation Medical, a public-private partnership between Foreman’s staff and Carolinas Healthcare System that is designed to develop everyday innovators’ ideas into health care products and get them to patients faster.

Founded in July 2012 and based in a refurbished hosiery mill in uptown Charlotte, Edison Nation Medical is designing the latest in medical innovation in the 8,000-square-foot facility loaded with 3-D printers, tools and prototypes.

And it’s through a means as game-changing to the profession as the devices themselves: crowd-sourcing.

Looking to the ‘front lines’

While medical innovation has traditionally come from the top down (hospital administration to practitioners) many health care systems and research institutes are now embracing outside ideas.

One reason: Insurance companies and government agencies such as Medicaid and Medicare, are increasingly focused on patients’ outcomes, says Dr. Grace Buttriss, a nurse scientist affiliated with Novant Health and Queens University of Charlotte’s Blair College of Health.

“They’re looking to decrease length of stay and decrease readmission rates for the same diagnosis,” Buttriss says. “And because of this, they’re looking at the people who are on the front lines, providing care, (to see) what they think could be done better.”

Buttriss said Novant recently launched its own internal innovation website, soliciting employees’ ideas for better patient care. Buttriss, who attends the meetings where the submissions are evaluated, said that one employee’s idea prompted Novant to partner with Rubbermaid to develop a rubber casing (akin to a thick phone case) for an expensive device used with newborns.

Edison Nation Medical isn’t a contest. But it’s competitive, just like the health care market.

Step one is joining the free online community, edisonnationmedical.com – what Foreman calls the “modern-day suggestion box.”

There you can see any ideas Edison Nation Medical is soliciting, as well as submit unrelated ideas. The fee is $25 per idea.

For example, Edison Nation Medical recently partnered with the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Foundation, which is sponsoring a search for innovations to help treat and maintain one of the most common lung diseases.

The pool of ideas is then evaluated by the 11-person Edison Nation team. The best ones move on to the next stage: product development.

And thanks to the CHS partnership, they can be tested at real medical facilities before being introduced to the marketplace.

“We’re bringing it to the bedside,” says Dr. Jean Wright, head of innovation at CHS and the hospital system’s liaison for the Edison Nation Medical initiative.

Profits are then split 50-50 between the inventor and Edison Nation Medical.

Foreman won’t disclose the total number of submissions over the last year but says about 100 ideas are at the licensing stage, about 100 are in the process of being monetized, and a number of ideas are between those two fence posts.

Marrying resources and expertise

Vice president for business development Ken Paulus enthusiastically describes the patent-protected prototypes Edison Nation Medical has already developed and is currently getting into stores.

One, submitted by a surgeon, is a rubber glove with measurements on the pointer finger, eliminating the need for doctors to guess at measurements or fumble with other tools.

Another idea-turned-device – submitted by a former patient whose IV kept falling out, bruising his hand – is a clip that holds the IV tubing in place. It keeps the line stable, even if the patient moves.

Paulus says they consider ideas that meet three criteria: they must improve patient care, create efficiency and offer a measurable return on the investment.

The third prong is particularly important because of the size and structure of the medical marketplace, he says.

“Ultimately, it’s a race to the bottom,” Paulus says, a competition to offer the best product at the cheapest price.

Having a system such as CHS test and approve products also helps enter the market more quickly, as many hospitals hesitate to gamble on a new product unless another one has done it first.

Wright says CHS is far from the first to develop a program for studying medical innovation, citing prominent programs at the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Virginia Mason Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle.

But many of those hospitals do so in-house.

Edison Nation Medical, on the other hand, marries the resources of one of the nation’s largest hospital systems with a private company’s native expertise, Wright says.

Proven track record

Foreman’s track record was important as the idea for Edison Nation Medical evolved.

He launched Charlotte-based Enventys, a for-hire product development company, in the old hosiery mill building in 2002.

Rather than take ideas all the way to shelves, as Edison Nation Medical does, inventors hire Enventys engineers and developers to develop a consumer product that the inventor then builds a business around.

From Enventys grew “Everyday Edisons,” an Emmy Award-winning reality TV show, launched in 2007, that airs on PBS. Thousands of people from around the world submit ideas, and then the show features select inventors as Enventys helps them commercialize the invention.

That work inspired Edison Nation, an online community of everyday people who have great ideas but don’t necessarily want to quit their day jobs to pursue them.

As hundreds of products went to market thanks to Enventys, Edison Nation and “Everyday Edisons,” Foreman noticed another trend: Many successful products were health care-related – including an orthopedic knee brace now licensed to one of the largest brace manufacturers in the world, an affordable prosthetic hand and a spinal surgical device that’s saving hospitals tens of thousands of dollars per surgery.

Then, after Foreman spoke at a conference a couple of years ago, a CHS administrator approached him with a proposition: Would he consider a partnership?

Foreman says he expects Edison Nation Medical to generate many ground-breaking innovations over the next five to 10 years.

That prospect is exciting, he says: “We’re going to have an impact on health care. We’re going to be able to point to dozens, if not hundreds, of products that accomplished what our goal was in the beginning ... lower costs, improve outcome and make procedures more effective.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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