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Can innovation be taught?

Dr Matt Oldakowski, an entrepreneur, researcher at Curtin University and co-director of Perth Biodesign, runs an intensive six-month program that teams engineers with researchers, business professionals and clinicians. He answers the question in the affirmative.

Before heading the program, Oldakowski and course co-director Intan Oldakowska spent five months in Stanford University’s renowned Biodesign Global Faculty in Training program, learning the Biodesign innovation process and how it can be taught, thanks to support from Accelerating Australia and MTPConnect.

It follows the order of ‘identify, invent, implement’, beginning with clinical immersion and identifying unmet healthcare needs. “They follow around a clinical mentor, like a senior doctor, for a couple of days and watch the problems,” Oldakowski told create, discussing the Biodesign teams. “If you come as a complete outsider with naivety as to how the field’s progressed, you ask questions like, ‘Why are you even doing that at all? Why don’t you just do this?’ You have these unique perspectives that really make for innovative ideas.”

Teams of five identify “about 20 to 30” problems based on what they see, sit down as a team, validate their ideas with doctors, pick one problem after a couple of months, and then — after brainstorming a collection of possible solutions — whittle it down to three top concepts.

Dermacool, one of Perth Biodesign’s five 2018 teams undertook their clinical immersion with the Fiona Wood Foundation and developed a way to reduce progressive tissue damage for burns victims at the pre-treatment stage. Eldin Rostom, a member of the team, finished at Curtin University in 2017 with first class honours and works as a graduate mechanical engineer at McDowall Affleck. He counts Perth Biodesign as one of his favourite post-grad experiences. It helped him develop professionally “all over the shop”, with experiences in project management, concept design, prototyping and risk management.

Changing horses

Any promising idea also needs to make commercial sense. Besides finding an unmet need, prototyping ideas, and investigating patenting, teams must consider reimbursement, business models and raising funding. Oldakowski has co-founded companies to commercialise innovations he’s had a role in, including Cervical ChinUp, EarBuddy and REX Ortho. The latter is based on an expandable yet removable orthopaedic screw with superior fixation to bone, which he has worked on since 2012.

“The clinical environment is quite segregated from the engineering aspect,” Rostom told create. Doctors were skilled at their jobs, he added, but could approach clinical issues in a “dogmatic” way. “An analogy that we use at Perth Biodesign is: the doctors are sort of like jockeys riding horses, which are their procedures,” he said. “They’re getting better horses to ride faster, or they’re upskilling themselves to become better jockeys. Then you go in as an outsider, as an innovator, and you’re like, ‘mate, we could give you a car. Why are you riding horses?’.”


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