All startups face challenges. But sometimes, it may serve companies better in the long run if their founders don’t know just what those challenges will be.
At least, that’s according to a couple of medtech CEOs, both of whom say they’re reaping the benefits of their early naïvete now—and that they wouldn’t necessarily have even embarked on solving certain healthcare challenges had they known how high they were aiming.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” said Perry Davidson, CEO of inhaler maker Syqe, which will present next week at the MIXiii-BIOMED conference in Tel Aviv. Davidson and his colleagues set about creating an inhaler for pharma-grade cannabis back in 2011 with “no personal background in this field.”
“I think the reason we were able to pull it off was because we thought it was going to be easier. We were always inherently optimistic … in retrospect, if we hadn’t been that way, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made any progress,” he said.
As respiratory drugmakers know well, inhaler technology is no cake walk. Just ask the slew of generics companies that tried and failed for years to copy GlaxoSmithKline’s Advair technology—including Teva, which ultimately partnered with Syqe to distribute its inhaler in Israel.
But Davidson and Syqe “had no idea there were such huge challenges in the inhalation space,” which he believes played to the company’s advantage. “I think that ended up helping Syqe solve problems from a completely different angle,” he said. And to show for those efforts, today, Syqe has a cutting-edge device that can be used not just for cannabis, but for all types of drug delivery.
Fellow Israeli company and former Fierce 15 winner Zebra Medical Vision has a similar story to tell. When it began work on its artificial intelligence-powered image analysis system, it needed access to data so it could train its algorithms. It went after a lot of it—much more, CEO Eyal Gura said, than was reasonable to expect. Why? “Lack of knowledge of healthcare.”
“If someone new comes to the healthcare field, you think you can do everything,” Gura said. “People from the healthcare field knew that you’re not supposed to come to hospitals and ask them to give you all their data because it will never happen. Only someone that is naïve and has no context” would go that route, he added.
In the end, though, Zebra got what it wanted: enough data to train 48 algorithms to detect certain markers in diagnostic imaging. One of those algorithms already bears an FDA approval, and three more are advancing through the regulatory process in the U.S. Meanwhile, eight of them bear CE marks and can be marketed in Europe.
“Typically, medical device startups were built around one medical device, so you had the entire team working on one device, one regulatory pathway, one go-to-market,” Gura said. And while Zebra’s way of doing things makes for “very heavy lifting” for a startup, it’s made for a quicker payoff, too.
So what can traditional healthcare players do to achieve the same type of out-of-the-box thinking? Don’t look at the stats pharma has “on any challenge they would like to solve,” Davidson said. And “pull in talent from completely other disciplines,” he recommended, adding, “that’s what worked for us.”