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Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign celebrates 20 years of innovation education

A training program for health technology innovators, the center has generated medical technologies that have helped millions of patients and inspired similar training programs worldwide.

- By Stacey McCutcheon

Paul Yock, left, and Josh Makower co-founded Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign, a training ground for health-technology innovators.
Rod Searcey

The Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign has launched a host of innovations, including a treatment for prostate disease without devastating side effects; a faster, more accurate way to diagnose heart arrythmias; and a device that helps women taking birth control pills miss fewer doses.

The center has also been a training ground for thousands of people in medical innovation, produced a book, spread its training model around the world and started an initiative to promote diversity in medical technology.

Twenty years after its launch, the center’s founders and university leaders are celebrating these successes of one of the first university training programs for health-technology innovation.

“Stanford Biodesign has led the way in making sure that work done within the walls of the university transcends them,” said Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “Creative solutions developed there have saved lives and improved health around the world, and this model of translation was a prelude for the way we are working across the university today.”

“Stanford Biodesign’s deep connections to the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem are critical enablers to this program’s success,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “The ability to interact with a network of experienced health technology innovators adds tremendous value for faculty, fellows and other trainees interested in making medical innovation a reality.”

Seeing a gap between innovation and patient care

One of the reasons Paul Yock, MD, professor of medicine and bioengineering, founded Stanford Biodesign in 2001 was that there are so many decision makers in medical innovation, often with competing interests, that some inventions, even life-saving ones, never reach patients.

Yock and his co-founder, Josh Makower, MD, professor of medicine and bioengineering and the director of Stanford Biodesign, developed an educational model underpinned by interdisciplinary collaboration, hands-on mentoring from industry professionals and a focus on translation. Stanford Biodesign trainees typically start by immersing themselves in hospitals, clinics and other care settings to observe the delivery of care and look for “pain points” where treatment options are significantly lacking or suboptimal.

Biodesign fellows Amanda White and Dimitri Augustin develop a medical device prototype.
Rod Searcey

“For years, universities thought that it was good enough to invent something and throw it over the fence for the business world to implement,” Yock said. “But that’s a flawed model. The interplay of stakeholders involved in getting new medical technologies into patient care is incredibly complex. You have to take all of their perspectives into account before even beginning to invent.”

“The fundamental premise is that innovation is a discipline — a process that can be learned, practiced and perfected,” said Makower, the Boston Scientific Applied Biomedical Engineering Professor and the lead architect of the approach to inventing that has become known as the biodesign innovation process.  

Training innovators

Stanford Biodesign’s first educational offering was the Innovation Fellowship, a hands-on, full-time program in which, over the course of an academic year, 12 medical professionals, engineers and business experts work in teams to identify unmet needs; screen those needs to determine which problem, if solved, would have the greatest impact on patient care; invent a solution; and ready it for the market.

Added later were project-based graduate and undergraduate courses in which students in medicine, engineering and business learn and apply the biodesign process in a more abbreviated way. The center also developed a fellowship for Stanford medical and engineering faculty interested in entrepreneurship, an executive education program, and seed grant programs so trainees can work on promising projects after completing their fellowships and courses.  

Stanford Biodesign has trained 182 innovation fellows, 2,225 Stanford students and 74 Stanford faculty members. Fifty-two companies have been founded based on technologies invented at Stanford Biodesign, and those technologies — such as a wrist stimulator that relieves  hand tremors caused by essential tremor and a wound irrigation system that prevents surgical site infections — have helped more than 4 million patients.

“My goal was to equip young innovators with the tools, expertise and connections they need to identify meaningful problems in health care, invent medical devices that solve those problems, and bring those devices to the bedside to help the providers and patients who need them,” said Yock, who holds the Martha Meier Weiland Professorship and is the director emeritus of Stanford Biodesign.

Sharing the Biodesign process

To help innovators beyond Stanford, Yock, Makower and their team codified their innovation process in a first-of-its-kind textbook. Biodesign: The Process of Innovating Medical Technologies is in its second edition; has sold over 20,000 copies; and has been translated into Japanese, Chinese and Korean. More recently, Stanford Biodesign developed a more accessible set of learning materials: The Student Guide to Biodesign, a modular, multimedia series, is freely available to anyone in the world.

For years, universities thought that it was good enough to invent something and throw it over the fence for the business world to implement.

To spread its approach to aspiring innovators around the globe, Stanford Biodesign developed partner programs in India, Japan, Ireland and Singapore, among others. Some of these programs started as joint fellowships in which trainees from other countries came to Stanford to learn the biodesign process, then returned home to introduce the process to their own countries. The goal is to address problems in care abroad as well as launch innovation training programs. The center has had a hand in inspiring and advising more than 30 educational programs in 18 countries.

After completing an educational program with Stanford Biodesign, some trainees start companies to bring their technologies to the market, while others return to medical practice with a new understanding of how to evaluate and address the problems they see. Still others lead innovation within larger health technology companies. Nearly all the alumni share their knowledge and expertise with aspiring innovators, creating a multiplier effect, Yock said: “The real product of Stanford Biodesign is the innovators we train.” 

Stanford Biodesign has also launched initiatives to improve racial and gender diversity within Stanford Biodesign’s programs and in the larger innovation community. One example is Diversity by Doing, which is dedicated to improving diversity and inclusion in the health technology innovation ecosystem.

Stanford Biodesign alumni say the program has profoundly affected the way they approach their work.

“You don’t think about problems the same way once you’ve graduated,” said Dorothea Koh, a 2008 fellow and a serial innovator who launched an artificial intelligence chatbot assistant for doctors that provides instant, hospital-specific answers to queries about drugs, clinical tools, hospital protocols and more in Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. “It comes back to a very simple mission, which is to help people.”

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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