Mir Imran, CEO at www.incubelabs.com, spoke on “invention, innovation, and entrepreneurial thinking” at www.bio2devicegroup.org and www.eppicglaobal.org joint event at Wilson Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, Palo Alto.
There are many examples of innovation, in history, said Imran. However, for the most part, innovation has been left to chance. Imran said, it was important for him to think about how to turn innovation into a process, so that it can be made a daily practice inside an organization, and not be left to chance or a random occurrence.
Through examples and stories, Imran shared how innovation is practiced at Incube. Incube is an applied research lab and was found in 1995. Incube has evolved into a star incubator of companies, but is unlike other incubators, where external companies with promise, get incubated, in-house. At Incube Labs, only in-house created companies are incubated, most of them originating from one or more of Imran’s patents.
Imran said, “I am agnostic to technology”, and boasted of a world class multi-disciplinary team, at Incube Labs. He said the only way one can excel while remaining agnostic to technology, is if one is a broad thinker and can embrace all technologies, so as to apply the most optimum solution for a problem. At Incube Labs, all team members are compelled to work outside of their chosen field. All team members pick up new skills and grow in breadth and depth, in the process.
Imran has found 28 companies, to date. Twenty-six of them are in life science arena and 2 are in the area of security. Despite his 400+ US patents and about 1500 foreign patents, according to Imran, filing patents, is not a measure of success, inventions don’t always translate into innovations; and even less frequently, they translate into entrepreneurial success. Clearly, Imran has managed to translate his inventions into huge commercial success.
Some of Incube portfolio of companies
Imran discussed three different models of innovation. Technology favored innovation model is frequently found in academic institutions. The focus here is on finding applications and filing patents for a new technology that is invented, and then licensing the IP or starting a company around it. The problem with this approach is that entire focus is on specific technology and on forcing it to fit a problem, said Imran. Skill based innovation approach begins with applying a skill, and again it takes away from focusing on the problem.
Imran then discussed his own need based model of innovation. In this approach, innovation begins with identification of a poorly solved or unsolved problem. Picking the right problem to solve, and framing it appropriately, assumes that one has the requisite broad background to understand the problem, and it is the single biggest challenge of innovation, said Imran. Once the problem has been identified and defined, then one can focus on developing solutions and filing patents. However, the entrepreneur must assume that an initial solution may be a partial solution.
The entrepreneur is called upon to analyze the commercial value of the solution and be prepared to “kill”, when a solution does not meet the required criteria. Imran said, in previous models of innovation, the entire focus remains on the technology or the skill, and not on the problem. One needs to be brutally honest when assessing the commercial viability of the identified problem, said Imran.
Imran then discussed incremental vs. disruptive innovations. An incremental innovation improves upon existing product or service, resulting in an improved product or service. In this model, there is lower risk, lower possibility of failure, and one operates in a crowded IP space. Frequently large companies embrace this kind of innovation. Disruptive innovation is when one develops a NEW way of describing a big problem, which may result in a highly impactful solution. In this approach, there is higher risk, higher possibility of failure, and potential for strong IP. Together, these two models form the innovation continuum, said Imran.
At Incube, the process truly begins with finding worthy problems to solve. It involves identifying the high level attributes of the problem, including the size of the problem, costs associated with the problem, identifying attributes of current solutions, including efficacy, side effects, cost, quality of life impact, understanding the progression of the disease, various biomarkers, genotypes and phenotypes that can be used for diagnosis and monitoring, and so on. Even for viable problems, before launching a company, one must go through a focused risk analysis to identify market worthiness of solutions. It should include detailed analysis for potential IP, efficacy and cost considerations, assessment of clinical trial length and costs involved, analysis of reimbursement issues, financing requirements, and potential for corporate partnerships.
Imran proceeded to discuss Incube’s commercialization process and how vertical integration at Incube enables efficient execution. In recent years, because the cost of building life science companies has dramatically increased, there has been a compression of returns. In order to reduce cost of building companies, Imran acquired Modulus, a contract manufacturing company. This has enabled Incube companies to operate without requiring their own manufacturing capability, and has contained costs. The venture funds, InCube Ventures and a crowd funding portal, VentureHealth, have enabled financing for the companies.
Imran shared examples and lessons learned from some of his past successes and how he has applied the lessons learned to his several current companies. Neurolink is focused on new pharmacologic drug therapy for epilepsy, with repurposing of an old cardiac drug. One of his exciting new companies, Rani Therapeutics, is not focused on a specific disease, but on delivering injectable drugs (biologics) orally, via smart pills and is thus providing a breakthrough solution for delivery of therapeutic peptides, proteins, antibodies, and vaccines and has demonstrated greater than 50% bioavailability in large animal models. Imran said it is a truly disruptive, transformative technology, with strong patent position. Intrapace is built around an implantable sensor based gastric pacemaker for the treatment of obesity. Nfocus Neuromedical developed endovascular neurosurgery solutions to treat intracranial aneurysms, and was recently acquired by Covidien. Also, Spinal Modulation, which developed a novel therapy for the treatment of chronic pain, was recently acquired by St. Jude Medical.
One of Imran’s companies, Intella Interventional, a cardiology company, ran into difficulties. Imran managed to salvage it but he said he learned an important lesson, to not fall in love with the technology, and to not rely solely upon physicians to give the right answers. “Also, talk to the skeptics”, said Imran. Imran said he also learned from the failures of two of his companies. From the failure of Surface Genesis, which had a flawed licensing model, Imran said he learned that he needed to do business modeling, earlier in the process. His company, MDIsource was launched about 3-4 months before the market crash of early 2000, and it failed on account of bad timing. Sometimes events outside your control can also have an impact.
Imran said that in the course of his innovation journey, he learned several important lessons. It is important to be current with the literature, and also listen to the naysayers. However, entrepreneurship is a lonely journey. In the end, an entrepreneur must be his or her own guide, and must be willing to blaze their own trail. Despite deep knowledge and extensive literature review, successful entrepreneurs understand that published articles do not account for total truth, and they understand that 50% of scientific data is likely to be flawed or limited in some way. Entrepreneurs must be willing to take risks, be willing to fail. In the pursuit of innovation, failure is a constant companion and success an occasional visitor, said Imran. He said, “question everything, including what I have said”.