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10 Things to Do When You Have a Solution Looking for a Problem


A lot of scientists, engineers, and health professionals have good ideas, discoveries, or inventions. Unfortunately, most of them are a solution looking for a problem.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship, physician entrepreneurship

I work with a lot of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have good ideas, discoveries, or inventions. Unfortunately, most of them are a solution looking for a problem.

It is understandable, given the nature of the scientific and biomedical culture that most biomedical scientists and clinicians are problem solvers, not problem seekers. Academic medical centers are agonizingly trying to become more customer-patient centric, but turning that very large boat will take some time.

Every now and then, I talk to someone in a tech transfer office or startup who asks, “Is ____ the right market for my product?”

If you have a solution looking for a problem, consider these things:

1. Finding the right product-market mix is a constantly changing challenge and requires a full understanding or the competitive landscape and finding the “white space,” i.e. where a niche where no one else has a dominant position.

2. Markets (who uses your product) are different from industries (who makes your product). Each market can be sliced and diced many different ways.

3. Picking a target market comes down to finding:

• The intensity of the target market’s pain.

• The value of your solution as a pain killer for the target market.

• Is your solution better than the competition’s for that target market?

• Can you make the sale?

• Is the market valuable?

4. Defining the market pain is part of the customer discovery and development process and will require you to take to many suppliers, end users, payers or others involved in the buying decision.

5. Most sick-care products have to satisfy the needs of a multilayer market. For example, a simulation product for surgical trainees might not interest a CME office that is there to generate revenue by satisfying compliance requirements for a fee.

6. Many customer segments become clear by accident or as a result of personal experience.

7. Define your goal. If it is to make money, then follow the money.

8. Your initial value proposition will almost never stay the same as you learn more and more about the pain of your potential customer. Like clinical medicine, it takes a thorough history and physical exam to make a diagnosis and monitoring opioid therapy to be sure it is working. In fact, recent evidence indicates opioids can actually make pain worse.

9. Value-based selling is about identifying how your product can help your customer and, in some instances, they might not know what they don't know. Help them find their pain points e.g. did you know that your receivables are $200,000 and most will go uncollected? Did you know your internal financial controls are virtually non-existent, leaving you open to employee theft or fraud? Do you know how exposed your IT system is to hackers?

10. Pain scales vary. Some customers just need an aspirin or even a placebo. Others walk into the ER doubled over in pain begging for morphine. The latter are customers you want.

At first, be a problem seeker, not a problem solver. Giving antibiotics for every patient with a sore throat is not the standard of care. It shouldn't be for you either.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice