Creating a safe place to fail:

Inside Henry Ford Health System’s Innovation Institute

Inside a repurposed, 80-year-old auditorium on Henry Ford Health System’s campus in Detroit sits the Henry Ford Innovation Institute. In 2011, the old auditorium was converted into a cutting-edge space for commercial, medical and technological innovation. Outfitted with 3-D printing capabilities, the latest in computer-aided design and manufacturing software — not to mention renovations that make it look more like a modern art-tinged think tank than a hospital campus facility — it’s here that Henry Ford ushers bright minds from all levels within its workforce to carry innovations from idea to reality.

“Dr. Scott Dulchavsky, our chair of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, had the idea for the center and was able to get some seed money to build out a collaboration space within the system,” says Mark Coticchia, vice president and chief innovation officer for Henry Ford. “He did so with a mentality that, like they say in the movies, ‘If I build it, they will come.’”

Although the Innovation Institute was built without any specific programs ready to launch along with the completion of the space itself, a place to collaborate and ideate was an important start, Mr. Coticchia says.

After the renovations on the Institute were complete, it was in need of programming and direction, which is where Mr. Coticchia came in. His prior roles include vice president for research, technology management and economic development at Cleveland-based Case Western Reserve University and director of technology transfer and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University, amounting to more than 30 years of experience in technology commercialization and venture development. Since the establishment of the Innovation Institute, he has overseen the strategies and methods used to engage employees and source valuable ideas both internally and externally to Henry Ford.

Mr. Coticchia took time to speak with Becker’s Hospital Review about how innovation is tied to culture, how ideas become solutions and how healthcare innovation centers can make the world a better place.

Editor’s Note: Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: What are the core values of the Innovation Institute?

Mark Coticchia: While technology management is at the core of what we do — Henry Ford dedicates roughly $70-$100 million annually to basic research — I didn’t want the tech transfer component to be the sole focus of the Institute. So in addition to tech management, we created the research education and training piece of the Innovation Institute as a pillar of our innovation program. We also created a corporate innovation program that works to sources ideas externally. We define “wicked problems” of importance to healthcare and patient quality of life and use an open innovation model where we can bring together a multidisciplinary team comprised of not only internal professionals,, but also external contributors, to solve these major problems. The teams collaborate to develop a new product, service, or even a new company, if the idea has the legs to become a business, that solves a marketplace need for the public good.

I call it “engineering solutions to healthcare.” I’ve spent my career looking at research results that weren’t necessarily strategically-driven. They were driven by faculty researcher curiosity, and the challenge was to try to find a home for those research results. I’ve kind of turned that model on its head, saying let’s be proactive with tech transfer, let’s define the problem and engineer a solution with the resources we have internally and externally and come up with new products and services for the marketplace.

Q: How much of developing an innovation mentality is changing culture?

MC: Frankly, a lot of this has to do with changing the culture. That’s a notion that’s often overused, but indeed, educational institutions are set up to deliver education, hospitals are set up to deliver healthcare. Operations like mine, innovation-tech-commercialization venture development, aren’t quite natural fits. The key question is how do you embed innovation into the culture? And the answer is through our Innovation Institute, through our education and training programs, by demystifying the process and injecting educational programs to train the next generation of medical innovators. We actually have a formal curriculum we offer, covering everything from intellectual property to new ventures to collaborative idea generation. Through education on these topics, a diverse group of professionals can convene to learn about innovation and how to apply innovation techniques to their everyday work. There have been a lot of changes we’ve been able to spur in the system overall from that. One of them is our multidisciplinary approach to innovation. We have nurses working with IT professionals, docs working with procurement, and we’re facilitating different ways of looking at how we deliver quality healthcare. That’s something we’ve instilled and continue to instill in the way we operate.

Q: Has that culture of collaboration produced partnerships that surprise you?

MC: When the Institute began I thought, along with the rest of my team, that a lot of our logical partners would be medical manufacturers and people in the medical business. But what we’re finding is that not just medical companies are emerging as ideal partners. We’ve enacted mutually-beneficial partnerships with automotive companies, textile manufacturers, surprisingly in all kinds of industries where others have learned things or developed processes or methods we can apply to the way we deliver healthcare to be more efficient and effective.

Q: What other strategic benefits would you attribute to the creation of the Innovation Institute?

MC: When I was given this charge, one of the things we discussed at the highest levels of Henry Ford, including with our CEO Nancy Schlichting and our COO Bob Riney, was using the Institute as a tool for the attraction and retention of talented employees and a tool to gain recognition for the inventions, the innovations and discoveries that are made at our institution. There is value in developing a reputation of innovation and being on the cutting edge. There is also the contribution to economic development — all of those kinds of things are extremely important to our system. Not just the generation of income, although that’s important and that opens up a lot of avenues. The primary driver was reputation and opening up new revenue streams based upon the know-how and the intellectual assets inherent in our system.

Q: What is the process of moving an innovation from idea to solution?

MC: Let’s say you’re a doctor and you have an idea, so you come to us. We sit down with you, we listen to the idea, we vet it for what I call technical or medical merit. We vet it for its intellectual property protection capability and then we vet it for the marketplace. So we do that triage: technical merit, commercial merit and intellectual property merit, and make a decision as to whether it’s something we’re going to take on as a project. Maybe 50 percent of the ideas we take a look at, though they aren’t going to have much commercial merit, they may be something we want to pursue anyway for the benefit of the health system. I call those mission-based activities. For example, we have these sterilized containers that can be difficult to open, especially when you have to open 50 of them daily. The nurses who had to open them were actually hurting their fingers because the containers had a very strong plastic tie that you needed to pull and break. So we developed a little lid opener, for lack of a more technical word. We designed and manufactured them right here and gave them to all the nurses that were engaged in that activity. That’s something we’ll never commercialize for our benefit, but it is something that is of great value, it was mission-based and made it easier for our people to do their job and to do it well.

Now from a commercial standpoint, if we decide something has merit, we will have evaluated it to identify who the potential licensees are, and we will have talked to those potential commercial partners and gotten their view as to how attractive the idea is to them as a marketplace solution. Then we will collaborate to either license it to them or co-develop it them to create a new product, service or even a spin-off company. Frankly, 90 percent of what we see doesn’t make it to that stage, but for the 10 percent that does, we have the capability and the network of people, technology and capital resources to move them things into the marketplace.

Q: How do you encourage the Henry Ford community to keep bringing in ideas when 90 percent of them don’t take off?

MC: There are very few healthcare organizations that have programs like this — that are outlets for ideas. Our employees know it’s a place they can go try things, have some fun and try to make a difference. We’ve run many competitions and challenges and a lot of our employees have written us and said they never thought they’d have an opportunity to contribute this way. They never thought they’d have the chance to network with the people they were networking with to come up with solutions. And it’s worthwhile to bring in ideas because even though we might not carry them forward, sometimes the departments themselves have taken on the idea and implemented it because they thought it was worth moving with. A safe place to fail for us important, it’s one where people can come and can try things and if they don’t work, that’s OK. Maybe with a little know-how from other perspectives we can give an idea a different direction and create a solution based on something else. After applying some lateral thinking, ideas can move in different directions and solve bigger problems. These things happen all of the time. Over the years I’ve done thousands of invention disclosures and vetted thousands of ideas and the takeaway is to be able to engage folks. Not tell them ‘no’, but show them why or where the roadblocks and obstacles are and determine whether the challenges can be overcome. And if they can’t, we’ve given it a good go and we encourage people to come back next time with a different idea; remind them it’s a safe outlet to test what gets traction and what doesn’t.

Q: How important do you think having a dedicated physical space is to the innovation process?

MC: I’ve always been a big proponent of virtual capabilities when it comes to people, technology and capital, but I think it’s absolutely essential to have a place within the institution where people can come to gather, work, tinker and toy. We have the technological capabilities housed here to experiment. Having a place generates a spirit of collaboration and partnership that I think is really important. I can’t tell you how many brainstorming sessions we have around ideas, or gatherings we’ve had for education and training. This physical space, while not necessary for a commercialization program or an innovation program, augments the robustness of what we can do.

Q: What do you see in the future innovation centers?

MC: One of the most exciting things about the Innovation Institute is I don’t know what I’m going to see in the next hour, let alone tomorrow, in terms of what our next big project will be. I think what we’re seeing here is a growing number of people thinking about needs and better patient care, people that are generating ideas that frankly had no place to go before and now they do. That to me is progress and that to me is encouraging for a community, beyond just an organization.

There are a couple dozen commercialization or venture or innovation programs at healthcare institutions around the country. They all have a little different flavor, a little different direction, a little different approach. I think what you’re going to see over the next 10 years is a proliferation of these types of programs in healthcare institutions, because what you have here is not just research assets, you have intellectual assets and know-how that can be harnessed into new products and ideas can be commercial engines. But I happen to believe that just like we tapped into our academic and research institutions for economic development and commercial benefit, there is a huge opportunity in this country to tap into our healthcare institutions as being an engine for economic development.