Innovation Competition: At TCT.17, Cardiology’s Disruptors Swim with the Sharks

Cardiology’s Shark Tank will be back for its fourth year when TCT convenes Oct. 29-Nov. 2, in Denver. Program Director Juan F. Granada, MD, shares insights from the conference’s innovation competition.

Attendees looking for some Halloween-style fun during TCT.17 will get thrills and chills when several of cardiology’s up-and-coming disruptors enter the Shark Tank, facing off against one another and the meeting’s panel of judges—also known as the sharks.

The competition continues TCT’s tradition of fostering innovation in cardiology while identifying “the best technology of the year,” says Granada, who along with colleague Martin Leon, MD, envisioned a forum that would “bring together a group of real thought-leaders in innovation to essentially look at the technologies and highlight the best concepts.”

Granada, executive director and chief innovation officer of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation’s Skirball Center for Innovation at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, explains how TCT’s Shark Tank works and shares his thoughts about bolstering innovation in the U.S.

Why an innovation competition?

The innovation process is getting more complex, and the TCT program committee saw a need for a platform that could allow technologies to be evaluated and enhanced by a form of peer review.

Peer review by TCT’s “sharks”?

Right. Ten faculty who are deeply involved in medical device innovation worldwide. We try to mix it up every year by inviting new people. They bring different areas of expertise and a different perspective on the evaluation process. We leave time for the panel to talk to each competing company, to ask questions, say what they like or don’t like.

Which companies are eligible for Shark Tank?

There are many innovative technologies presented at academic meetings, but the goal of Shark Tank is to narrow the spectrum and highlight the technologies that aren’t being presented elsewhere and are relevant at that particular time.

It takes five to seven years for a company to achieve its potential. You really don’t know if a technology is going to work until a randomized, controlled study is done, but the companies that compete at TCT have been vetted for intellectual property and commercialization potential, a good management team, quality of biological data, an appropriate regulatory landscape and so on. They’re not just cool technologies; they have the full package.

How tight is the competition? Clear winners vs. close calls?

To give you an idea, in 2016, we got more than 50 applications just through the innovation portal. The acceptance rate that year was approximately 14 percent. As each company presents, the judges vote in six categories to generate a cumulative score. But the company with the top score does not always win. The final phase is a closed-door discussion among the judges, who choose the winner among the four companies with the top scores. There are always differences, so we deliberate on the reasons one company seems strong where another might be weak. We try to get to a winner by consensus. That’s important to all of us.

What advice do you give to potential applicants about standing out among fierce competition?

Look at the evaluation categories and realize that we’re looking for true disruptors, not vanilla ideas in established areas. Stents have been around for more than 20 years, so it’s hard to imagine a stent company meeting the “unmet clinical needs” criterion. Similarly, it’s difficult to get brand-new intellectual property rights in structural heart disease.

Also, make sure you’re playing in the right field. Your idea doesn’t have to be in the interventional cardiology field. Right now, for example, there’s a need for super-innovative ideas in outpatient medicine, monitoring, diagnosis … keeping patients out of the hospital. That’s an area that could have tremendous value for patient care. We’re looking for innovations that will truly change the way we do things.

What have past competitors said about the Shark Tank experience?

Shark Tank is a way to promote innovation in the U.S., a way to help companies move forward. Endorsement at a meeting like TCT, by our group of experts, means a lot to companies. Most of the Shark Tank participants have gotten a lot of traction, investment, funding and business opportunities after they win the competition.

What feedback do you get from attendees?

People who are truly interested in innovation love it. We’ve had a full house the last few years. They have a lot of fun. The program is refreshing. It’s about innovation, new inventions, new trends.

What’s new this year, for Shark Tank 2017?

We’re continuing something from last year that was very successful. Nobody’s an expert in every field. So, now, after each company presents, an expert in the field—who, importantly, has nothing to do with the company—will deliver a five-minute perspective on the proposal. It gives the reviewers objective information before they score the company.

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How do you react to the innovation competitions at other conferences?

We know our competition is different; it has different objectives. And I’m happy to see other conferences doing it, because it promotes innovation worldwide. I look at Shark Tank as more than a nice element of the TCT program. The U.S. has led innovation in almost every area, but it has been slowing down in the last decade, for multiple reasons. I believe the best way to preserve that leadership position in the U.S. is helping innovators to be successful, incentivizing companies to, essentially, do the right thing. Competitions like Shark Tank help technologies to get funded and get to the next level. It’s a way for us to contribute, to generate value and create good things for the innovation space.

What do you mean by companies doing the right thing?

When you’re developing new technologies and new product ideas, you drink your own Kool-Aid. You’ll never see a parent watching a soccer game say his kid sucks. It’s the same with innovation. I truly think it’s important to guide innovators through the right process because you see value. Innovators also need to hear what they’re doing wrong. Maybe it’s a great idea, but it’s the wrong field or the wrong application. Often, it’s not about the idea. Good ideas frequently fail and bad ideas frequently succeed, which shows it’s about execution and guidance. With Shark Tank, we’re trying to provide that.