Via Fast Company, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) have partnered with Stanford to create a program that focuses on creating smarter and cheaper medical devices. Four Fellows from AIIMS and IIT are chosen each year to spend a semester at Stanford’s biodesign lab, where they learn the basics of medical-technology design and development. They then come back to India and observe medical care practices in both urban and rural contexts. In the course of these field observations, they identify areas where devices can be made more efficient, and experiment with ways of making them more affordable.
That model, where ideas for new products bubble up from clinical practices observed in developing countries, is a relatively new one. Typically, big companies would consult practicing doctors for suggestions, but that only got them so far. “Physicians are generally good at identifying incremental problems, suggesting, for example, a change in a handle,” but not good at imagining breakthrough technologies, says Dr. Rajiv Doshi, the U.S. executive director of SIB and a consulting assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Stanford. Instead, revolutionary American innovations tend to come from startups, which — driven by market dynamics — introduce products to the developing world at high prices.
But in 2009, GE flipped that model on its head when it introduced a $1,000 electrocardiogram device and a $15,000 portable ultrasound machine that it had developed in rural India and in rural China, respectively. That new paradigm, dubbed “reverse innovation,” has the promise not just to bring lifesaving technologies to developing countries but also to establish lower price points for products in existing markets — and, presumably, to generate a healthy stream of sales in both markets.
This is an interesting approach with a lot of promise, since it combines sophisticated learning and technology with hands-on research and experience. It will be exciting to see if this model of research and innovation is also implemented in other arenas of product development.