What does it take to innovate? Dr. Leonard Pinchuk, holder of more than 100 issued U.S. patents—two of the top-five all-time best selling products in cardiovascular therapy—shared his insights on the inventing process with San Antonio’s biomedical community as the most recent recipient of BioMed SA’s 2017 Award for Innovation in Healthcare and Bioscience.
Dr. Pinchuk began his career in 1983 at Cordis Corporation and left in 1987 to co-found Corvita Corporation (angioplasty catheters, vascular grafts, stents, stent-grafts), which went public on the NASDAQ in 1994, was acquired by Pfizer, Inc. in 1996, and was then sold to Boston Scientific Corporation in 1998.
In 2002, Dr. Pinchuk founded Innovia LLC, which went on to incubate eight companies working in the fields of intraocular lenses, glaucoma shunts, radiation oncology catheters, urinary catheters, gene therapy and futuristic biomaterials. One of the Innovia spin-offs, InnFocus, Inc., developed a novel medical device to treat glaucoma and was acquired by Santen Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. (Japan) in 2016. Dr. Pinchuk currently serves as the Chief Scientific Officer at InnFocus. He continues to serve as Innovia’s CEO and President and also enjoys an appointment as Research Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami.
Before the award dinner, Dr. Pinchuk visited UT Health San Antonio and met with a small group of graduate students for a brief lunch organized by the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Office of the Vice President for Research.
During the visit, Dr. Pinchuk talked about his experience starting his own companies and how companies fail.
“Small companies fail from a general term known as isolation…people think they know what they are doing but they don’t,” he said.
Dr. Pinchuk suggested that if students want to start a company, they need to think about their skills.
“If you are a technical person, find someone who is not.”
He also suggested that students find a board of directors to help with fundraising.
“The most important person to get on the board is someone who has raised money before and someone with credibility so it’s not your first choice to get your uncle so and so just because he has some business experience.”
Shaimar Gonzalez, a graduate student in the Cell Biology, Genetics & Molecular Medicine discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program who attended the lunch explained that although she has family members that have companies, she learned a lot from his talk.
“Dr. Pinchuk was really approachable and knowledgeable. He mentioned that sometimes mistakes need to be made because that is a way to learn. Through his mistake was actually how he got recognition for his work because he sold an invention for a few thousand dollars and later on it was sold for more than a 100 million, she said.
When the lunch finished Shaimar talked to him regarding provisional patent.
“I asked him if you were to work in a company but you have an idea how could you generate the invention without entering in conflict with the company that you are working with. He mentions that as long your idea is not completely related to the company mission, which you can verify by looking at their documentation regarding patent and intellectual property, you can get a provisional patent,” she said. “The company might own some of the rights if your idea is close to what they are doing but they don’t own your brain. I think this is the advice that stood out to me the most and wished I knew it when working in the industry.”
Shaimar said that the talk gave her ideas on what type of person she needs to hire to have a successful start-up company, how payments should be distributed, type of patent to fill and when, etc.
Rafael Veraza, a student in the Translational Science Ph.D. program, who plans to start his own company said that the advice was helpful.
“The lunch with Dr. Pinchuk was a great opportunity for talking to someone about the reality of being a scientist and an entrepreneur, and a great honor to have a one on one with someone that has accomplish so much and has excel at the art of technology innovation,” said Veraza. “One thing that stood up for me was that he advised us to have fun with what we are doing, if our job or our work is not fun then innovation does not follow.”
During the lunch, he talked about how he is able to transfer his creativity in painting to generate inventions and how creativity in other areas can be transferable to great inventions and innovations. This was a theme of his evening talk as well.
“I’ve been accused of being curious,” he confessed, jokingly, on stage. It also helps to be simultaneously driven by accomplishment and resilient to failure in an environment where one needs to take constant risks in order to create and innovate. Risk-taking is key – it’s wonderful to be easily inspired by new ideas, but in order to be an inventor you can’t just passively absorb ideas, you need to act on them and be an “outputter, not just an inputter.”
Dr. Pinchuk referred to a three-legged stool as a metaphor for innovation: the first essential “leg” represents the society at large. Inventions don’t happen in a vacuum, nor should they. One of Dr. Pinchuk’s earliest inventions was a makeshift prototype he welded together using pieces of scrap metal and repurposed wheels – an in-line roller skate. He never pursued it because he didn’t think it was novel enough. However, one doesn’t need to be the first to think of an idea – “You just have to make it practical enough for use in real life.” Seemingly small design improvements can lead to much wider adoption of a technology.
The second leg of innovation refers to the process: creation, observation, interpretation, and iteration. Telling the story of the genesis of his own inventions, Dr. Pinchuk described a process of repeated failures, subsequent reflection and production of new improvements that resulted in better stents with each round of testing, observation, and redesign.
Dr. Pinchuk ended his talk with an open invitation for everyone to engage in the process of innovation. As an engineer, Dr. Pinchuk drew on all the tools he acquired in school – “I have used knowledge from every single class I took, and I only wish I had paid more attention in a few of them.” But, Dr. Pinchuk added, “Every person has their own palette, with which they can create something new.”