St. John's institute brings out the inventive side of health system
By JUDITH VANDEWATER
Doctors are problem solvers by nature. Dr. Roger Huckfeldt suspects that, like him, many doctors have lists of ideas for inventions sure to make them more adept at critical points in procedures or make life easier for patients.
Yet most community doctors don't have the time or connections to transform good ideas into prototypes and products. They file away their notes and product sketches and never pursue them. Huckfeldt's working to change that.
As medical director of the St. John's Medical Research Institute at St. John's Health System in Springfield, Mo., his goal is to make it easier for aspiring inventors to see their ideas through to fruition.
The nonprofit St. John's institute is focused on advancing practical solutions to work-a-day challenges in health care delivery and disease prevention.
When the institute was launched three years ago, it gathered under its auspices all the research being conducted throughout the St. John's system. "We thought if we put it all together, it would be more efficient and we could really grow the business of medical research so that we could find new solutions for some of the problems that we saw in our patients as well as in patients across the country," Huckfeldt explained.
One need not be a star medical researcher or successful inventor to catch the attention of the institute. Huckfeldt routinely entertains ideas from clinicians and other employees of St. John's Hospital and other hospitals in the St. John's system whose credibility as idea generators comes from practical experience in their profession or craft.
Some of the projects involve bench science; others translate bench discoveries to bedside application and some are conceived for direct-to-consumer sales. The institute also is engaged by pharmaceutical companies to manage St. John's participation in late-stage drug trials, Huckfeldt said.
Drug companies reimburse St. John's for clinical trials, but the bulk of the institute's budget comes from the health system, which provides it with an annual allowance commensurate with the projects the institute has under development. Huckfeldt said it can cost well over $1 million a year to operate the institute's research labs.
The business plan calls for revenues from product licenses and direct sales to make the institute self-sustaining within a few years' time. The institute tries to keep about 25 products and projects in its pipeline and hopes to launch one product a quarter. Private, federal and state grants are expected to provide an ongoing contribution to development capital.
Making a market
Last year, a state grant helped launch Inveno Health, the institute's for-profit commercialization arm. Inveno Health's two-person staff is tasked with conducting market analyses of proposed products and figuring out the best way to deliver products to market. In some cases, the institute will develop the product as far as it can, then license it for final development and commercialization. In other cases, it will develop the product, brand it and sell it directly to the end user.
Matt Price, Inveno Health's operations manager, said when a product creates a new product category, Inveno Health likely will prove the invention's worth and work out any kinks by testing it within the Sisters of Mercy Health System, the parent system of St. John's. Currently, Inveno Health is working to raise the institute's profile within the St. John's and Mercy health systems to grease the tracks. "We almost have to sell the research end of what we are doing here, and that allows us to 'sell' the product" to product testers and early adopters, said Price.
He said this strategy will be used to prove the merit of a positioning platform invented by a Springfield plastic surgeon. The doctor wanted a device to keep an infant from shifting during cranial reconstructive surgery while giving the surgeon 360 degree access to the baby's head. Dr. Bharat Shah, the inventor, also is developing a system of polymer braces and ties to be used to hold a broken jaw in place. The invention will offer an option to the sharp metal wires now in use.
Shah isn't the only inventor to bring multiple product ideas to the institute. About half of the current projects originated with serial inventors. "They've learned how easy we can make the system," Huckfeldt said.
He is a prolific inventor himself. A former trauma and burn surgeon, Huckfeldt has nine projects of his own under development. His long-acting, alcohol-free, skin-softening hand sanitizer, Hands First, went on the market in August and became the institute's first commercial product. It is being sold under a licensing agreement with a Springfield-based manufacturer.
Huckfeldt said the product encapsulates his expertise as a burn surgeon. "My whole life has been taking care of skin," he said. "We wanted to build something that not only lasted longer than anything out there for protecting skin against bad bugs, but, as importantly, provided protection for the skin. Your hands should feel better at the end of the day than they do in the morning, and that is certainly not what we see in health care workers who have to use alcohol-based products, 20, 30 or 50 times a day."
Dr. Bruce Hedgepeth, a radiologist colleague, came up with the idea for another device that Inveno Health will bring to market in the near future — a plastic sleeve that pops the cap off a tracer chemical vial or liquid pharmaceutical while maintaining a sterile field. The sleeve creates a protective barrier between the nurse or technician who holds the vial for the physician and the needle the physician uses to draw fluid into a syringe.
Huckfeldt said that nine out of 10 ideas brought to the institute have originated with St. John's medical staff or employees.
To get the review process going, inventors fill out a disclosure manifest listing everything they have thought about in connection with their proposal. "This is to protect them," Huckfeldt said. He reviews the idea or product proposal and initiates a discovery process.
The staff at Inveno Health analyze whether there is enough sales potential for the institute to recover its projected development costs. "Sometimes the answer will be no, but we'll do it anyway" if it fills an important need, Huckfeldt said. There is a patent search, a scientific background search and a literature search, all paid for by the institute. An inventor need bring no cash to the table.
An operating group reviews the results from the discovery stage and considers whether the project is a good one for the institute.
Huckfeldt said that questions asked include, "Do we have the capability to do it? Is it something that really needs to be done? And, can we afford to do the project?"
If the institute decides to move forward, it works out an agreement with the inventor. "We try to make it easy for them to stay involved, and if we keep them actively involved, we are much more likely to be successful," Huckfeldt said. However, he added, "We believe if a product is successful, we should compensate the inventor even if they just bring us an idea and they are not able to help with the creation or testing or any of the follow-up."
The institute covers the cost of research and patent filings. Inventors "have zero risks, and we have a more-than-reasonable payback to them that starts once we've recouped all of the costs of the research," he said.
Cora Scott, director of media relations for St. John's Hospital, said the channel for staff inventions "is good for physician recruitment and retention. This really is a physician satisfier," she said.
Copyright © 2010 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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