The Founder Has Left The Building…Part 3

As Top Gun is winding down, it seemed appropriate to finish off this three-part posting on my customer development efforts. My last posts discussed online surveys and 3rd party market research. Now onto arguably the most important aspect of customer development, getting out there yourself and soliciting live feedback on your new idea.

    Back in Silicon Valley pitching a medical device at a conference, circa 1993.

This has been challenging for me on two levels. For one, my time is limited as I currently run a full-time podiatry practice. As any healthcare professional can attest, the practice of medicine can be all-consuming. My other hurdle is that I know most of our initial target customers (podiatrists) here in Maine. This builds in some bias that can distort feedback. To counter this, I decided to only visit those local physicians that I did not know personally. This meant going outside my specialty and making appointments with internists, family practitioners, neurologists and even an oncologist. I still wanted feedback from podiatrists so I set up meetings with DPMs in Massachusetts.

I’ve found these interviews instructive and well worth the effort in several ways. The first is that, in general, people like the concept.  As I’ve written in a previous post, it’s very easy to be taken with your own idea.  External validation of the basic premise of what you’re doing is a necessary step before committing significant resources and assuming risk. I’ll admit that as a member of the profession that will be our initial target market, I was confident that most of my colleagues would be receptive. I wasn’t so sure I needed to do in-depth customer development with this group. It turns out I’ve gotten very useful information from DPMs. For example, I now have guidance on ergonomics and about how to power the device (batteries versus rechargeable). Even more valuable, I’ve gotten offers to test out the next generation of NeuroCheck. These offers are from solo practitioners as well as the podiatry departments at academic medical centers.

The responses from my MD colleagues have been equally informative.  One internist thought NeuroCheck could be the “A1c” of the diabetic foot. This comparison to the hemoglobin A1c test (used for tracking long-term glucose control in diabetics) was high praise indeed.  Although I loved the marketing appeal of such a designation, I tempered our mutual enthusiasm noting that we’d have to do longitudinal prospective studies on a significant number of diabetics to make that sort of claim. Coincidentally, these types of studies may actually come to pass through my association with one of the medical centers I had visited.

I also relearned the lesson that outside perspectives are always valuable when evaluating potential applications for a new product. Aside from that amusing encounter with the man from ABBA, one of my medical contacts noted that NeuroCheck could be used prior to and after clinical drug trials to document the drug’s effect on peripheral nerves. An oncologist I visited made the same observation in the context of treating cancer patients.  The chemotherapeutic drugs regimens employed by oncologists to fight cancer frequently result in neuropathy in the feet. This complication may be transient or permanent. NeuroCheck could be used as a way to track this side effect and prompt patients to remain vigilant about their feet in the same way our diabetics need to be. That insight alone justified getting out of the building.

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About Todd O’Brien

Dr. O’Brien graduated from Bates College with a BS in biology in 1986. He then attended the Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine and graduated summa cum laude with a DPM degree in 1990. After completing a podiatric surgical residency at VAMC Palo Alto and Stanford, Dr. O’Brien was employed at Sgarlato Labs, a biomedical start-up then based in San Jose, CA. He served in a variety roles there including product developer, project manager, technical writer and sales presenter. After three years at Sgarlato Labs, he returned to the full-time practice of podiatry until founding O’Brien Medical, LLC in 1999. He has since divided his time between running a podiatry practice and developing medical products. He has successfully licensed six surgical products and holds four issued patents. Writing credits include several articles in peer-reviewed medical journals, a chapter in a surgical text and a book on entrepreneurship for inventors. He is a past-president of the medical staff at Penobscot Valley Hospital as well as the Maine Podiatric Medical Association. He is a graduate of the 2012 class of the Top Gun entrepreneurship acceleration program administered by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.