Anatomy of a Doctorpreneur: Doctor led Startups Part ⅖ The Idea

“Please report to the administrator’s office…”

It was the early 1980s and Dr Archie Brain was living in the nurses accommodation block. Whilst sprucing up his room, the cleaning lady had stumbled upon a collection of home made, orchid styled latex objects that had been hung out to dry. Suspicious of what use they might be being put to, she had reported the matter. Fortunately, Dr Brain was able to convince the administrator that it was all part of his legitimate research.

Prototype Laryngeal Mask Airways

Changing the world of medicine can throw up all sorts of unexpected problems!

Those of you with an interest in anaesthetics will recognise the name. Dr Archie Brain invented the Laryngeal Mask Airway (LMA). He took it from an idea, to a listed company (LMACO) and an essential piece of life saving anaesthetic equipment in use all over the world! His story holds some interesting lessons for would be health innovators.

Welcome back for part ⅖ of my series of posts about the world of health innovation and startup culture.  There is a hope and belief that through innovation and the application of emerging new technologies, medicine can continue to improve health and wellbeing outcomes whilst also meeting the challenges of rising costs, complexity and demand. Artificial Intelligence, Social Networking, 3D Printing, Smart Devices, the Internet of Things… The list and possibilities go on.

These posts are based on my notes and reflections from the Doctorpreneurs day conference held at St Thomas Hospital London on Saturday 5th November.

Today we will examine that most vital piece of the anatomy of a medical startup… The idea behind it all.

Part one in the series was an exploration of the “Doctor Founders” behind medical startups. If you missed it then catch up here.


Where do health innovation ideas come from?

In essence, a health technology startup is built upon a solution to a problem or more specifically a need.

Doctors are exceptionally well placed to spot problems and to innovate solutions. Those without the valuable of experience working at the “coalface” of patient care are not so well placed to spot the unmet needs in healthcare.

‘Well all this holding of facemasks does seem to me to be a bit awkward really.’ – Thought Dr Archie Brain


But, patience is important. Archie Brain spent a long time looking for the right problem to solve. He designed, built and patented 12 ideas, from venipuncture devices, to rotating beds to combat bedsores. Granted in 1982, the LMA patient was his 13th.


How do I Find a need to address?

Not all needs are the same. I have noticed that startup/product ideas and the needs they serve might be classified as follows…

1: An established need without a solution – Some problems are well known and are crying out for a solution. Dr Jamie Wilson founder of MyHomeTouch, is attempting to solve the problem of bed blocking caused by patients waiting for social care packages through improving the quality and responsiveness of social care providers.

2: A need that has already been identified and solved elsewhereDoctoring, a GP led team, took part in the lunch time pitching competition. Doctor only social networks have proven popular and commercially successful in other countries, particularly in the US and India, but no company is active in this space in the UK. The doctoring team hope that UK doctors share a need for this service with their overseas colleagues and that there mobile app can meet this need.

3: A need that people are already addressing, but you think you can do a better job – There are hundreds of smartphone apps available to remind patients to take their medications. Despite this, a team of medical students won the pitching competition with their app Suvera. They hope to find success in a proven but early market with their superior team and better designed product.

4: A new need that people don’t know they have yet – New technologies make it possible to do things that were previously impossible. 10 years ago, as a GP, discussing a difficult clinical case with colleagues meant either talking it over in the coffee room at the practice or ringing a single oncall specialist at the hospital. Years later we have smartphones, a public online GMC register of doctors and social networking technologies. Combined, they make it possible to create platforms to enable clinicians to seek second opinions from a wide network of colleagues. The “wisdom of the crowd” for medicine. Medshr are one of a number of startups convincing doctors that they have a solution for this new possibility.


How do I know if the idea is any good?

Famously, 9 out of 10 startups fail. It is important to know if a product or idea is not going to be successful before too much time, effort and money has been wasted. Speakers at the Doctorpreneurs event had the following advice.

1: Fail fast – A quick demise is favourable to a lingering death. If your idea is going to fail, then it is better to fail fast so you can minimise losses and move on to the next idea. Learn more about the virtues of failing fast in the the popular book Fail Fast, Fail Often.

2: Talk about the idea – Share your idea early and widely. Many would be founders instinctively want to hide and protect their idea. Will a colleague steal the idea, beat them to market and eat their lunch? However, the reality is that very few people actually want to found a startup and very few of those that do actually follow through and do it. Feedback from colleagues, patients, friends and investors will help determine if the idea has legs and to improve and fine tune the details.

I showed the (LMA) other consultant anaesthetists who were there and they all thought this was rather fun, you know. Nobody was saying, ‘Eureka!’ or anything, it was just quite fun.” – Dr Archie Brain
Dr Archie Brain with his creation


3: … But do know what to protect – The above being said… Within an idea for a product or service, there may be items of unique information, processes or technology that will make it difficult for others to compete with you or replicate your business. Where this is the case it is important to seek patents and use Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to protect the value in this Intellectual Property (IP). For most ideas it will be possible to test responses to the overall concept without revealing the recipe for your “Secret Sauce”.

4: Will it make money? – Lots of good ideas in medicine won’t make you rich. Innovations that improve patient care or cut costs to the NHS without making the “inventor” any money are their own reward. But this post is about creating a business. It is important to do your sums and establish if the product is financially viable. How big is the market? What will people pay? What will your costs be? How will you grow the company?… What is the business case.

5: Develop a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – Friends, colleagues, family and even potential customers and investors will be inclined to tell you that your proposal has potential. People like to be encouraging. Even mediocre ideas have a habit of sounding promising. But, will it work? Will people use it? Will customers actually pay for it? Will investors put up money? A MVP is the simplest possible version of a product. Kept cheap and easy to roll out, it has just enough features to allow the developer to learn about how people are using the product and if there is a market. MVP not catching on? Then it’s probably time to move to the next idea and be glad you didn’t put in more effort to make it perfect.

6: Are there competitors? – Whilst it might not make sense to take on large competitors in an established market. The presence of competitors can confirm that there is indeed a market for a similar project. If you are convinced that you can do things better than the competition then go for it. Do you remember when Friends Reunited was the dominant social network?

7: Take a global perspective Cupris founder, ENT Surgeon Julian Hamann, advises that what might not be useful in the UK’s NHS might be great for other countries or health economies. Insurance based health systems might be more interested in activity tracking products to identify low (or higher) risk patients and adjust premiums accordingly. Developing countries might value cheap near patient testing.


What next?

Decided you have the ambition to create a medical start up? Convinced that you have a great idea? Next you will need to access skills not only from the world of medicine, but also in the fields of technology, law, finance and business. In the next post I will reflect on what makes a great medical startup team.

If you want to learn more about founding a medical start up, taking your idea to the next level, or getting involved in the digital health revolution, then the Doctorpreneur website is a great place to start.


If, like me you are based in the East Midlands, then a new HealthTechNottingham group has been formed by a group of local doctors and their friends in the tech industry. They can currently be found on


Please look out for the next articles in this exciting 5 post series about medical startups.

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Unusually for my blog, I have named and quoted a number of the great people I met or heard speaking at the Doctorpreneurs event. If you are one of these people and you would like me to correct information or remove a reference to yourself, then please contact me and I will do this.

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