The Creative Stories Behind These Medical Breakthroughs… May Disappoint You

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Synopsis

Seeking a magic bullet for your next creative breakthrough? These three rock star innovators show us that you are in for some disappointment.

The blind can now see, the paralyzed can regain movement, and amputees can walk. It may sound like Star Trek fantasy, but these breakthroughs in medical science exist today because individuals had a vision to change their world, their industry, and the course of people’s lives forever. You may have read about the Argus II, Neurobridge and the Bionic Ankle but just how did these brilliant individuals do it? What creative strategies, tips and tricks can they impart on us mortals to experience a mere crumb from their smorgasbord of knowledge? While there are important lessons to learn, for those wanting a quick creative fix, you might be a bit disappointed. But let me explain. 

Like many other innovations, the Argus II is a culmination of years of hard work and research. The idea itself isn’t new. Physicians and scientists have been trying to figure out how to return sight to the blind since the beginning. For Robert Greenberg, the CEO of Second Sight, it all started during his time as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in the 90s.  

Greenberg witnessed an experimental retina surgery on a patient blind from retinitis pigmentosa where Doctors placed a small wire, touching the patients retina. Applying an electric charge, caused the patient to react informing the researchers he could see a “spot of light.” As doctors repeated the process with a second wire the patient could suddenly see two spots of light. Curious, Greenberg started to conduct his own research and later present his findings.

These presentations eventually caught the attention of Alfred Mann, who sought out Greenberg, eventually hiring him. Mann was a serial medical device entrepreneur and with his support and funding, Greenberg finally launched the bionic eye project. By scaling up earlier experiments, the thought was to create a giant grid of “light spots” packing enough electrodes into an array attached to the retina, effectively creating pixelated images the patient could "see". By connecting this array to software that translated images it received from a camera, Greenberg was able to create an kind of real time video feed for the patient. The concept was a breakthrough, but no one knew how harder their journey was about to get.

While the science was proven, their testing indicated the retina would be much too fragile, likely tearing if they were to implant this into a person. In addition, they had to develop a hermetic electronics package small enough to fit in a human eye — about the size of an aspirin. Since traditional welding techniques needed to accomplish this would yield something the size of a hockey puck, they were sunk. The concept was a breakthrough, but execution looked impossible. 

Already putting in uncountable hours and funding, it looked bleak. This is where Greenberg believes this is where most companies creative efforts dry up. With investors starting to see a money pit, it’s a tempting decision to pull funding. Instead, Mann’s response to his teams shortcoming is what made the difference. 

Despite the bad news, Mann voiced his unwavering support, encouraging them to push forward, but he didn’t stop there. He made sure they had the support and resources needed to continue, not once informing anyone of intentions to shut the project down. “Once he committed to do this, he never looked back. There was never any doubt that we would move forward. That really freed up the team to focus forward as well.” Could Mann's reaction have elicited a creative burst?

Chad Bouton can relate to the difficult process of innovation. Mr. Bouton works for Battelle, a very creative research and development company based out of Columbus, Ohio known for working on projects from laundry capsules to power grid control systems.

He was a team leader on the Neurobridge project done in collaboration with Ohio State University. The project’s goal was to restore function to paralyzed limbs by bypassing damaged areas in the body, allowing the brain to regain control of motion and reflexes. 

The challenge with Neuorbridge wasn’t so much decoding the brain, but re-introducing that information to actual movement in the body. “For at least 9 years, we have been able to decode the brain” Bouton said. Indeed, patients have been able to control objects such as electronic wheelchairs using only their thoughts. 

By way of sophisticated software, algorithms and a specially designed “sleeve” the patient would wear, Battelle and OSU sought to convert those thoughts into impulses that the muscles would react to. “We had no idea what would happen when we tried to connect thoughts with muscle moments” said Bouton. He had no idea how right he was.

The challenge proved to be far more failure ridden than they first thought. It turns out brain activity would change dynamically during the process, meaning a simple movement like grabbing a spoon would work but trying to move that spoon a foot to the left would result in dropping the spoon with no explanation. This mysterious changing brain activity was stopping the project cold. 

The big breakthrough happened when Bouton wasn’t even present, taking some much needed vacation time. He was exchanging emails with Nick Annetta, an electrical engineer on the team, but also a new member not a part of the original team. That member was Ian Burkhart, their 23 year old patient from Ohio. 

Burkhart started to make suggestions on switching up his thoughts related to movements and in doing so revealed far more detail about how the brain changed during the process. The information brought a new clarity to the challenge and a possible solution from older cancer research. It turned out, tweaking the older software was able to cast a bigger net, capturing more brain activity than before. “We didn’t even anticipate Ian participating in the process, but that contributed to some of our biggest breakthroughs” Bouton said. 

Just like Greenberg and Bouton, Jay Martin, founder of Martin Bionics had similar struggles. During his career in prosthesis at Scott Sabolich Prosthetics, Martin saw that the current solutions for amputees were not sufficiently providing the mobility and freedom of movement of an actual limb. Artificial ankles existed, but the patient had to adapt for the ankle instead of the ankle adapting to the patient, this was tiring and exhausting for patients. The best solution was to make an artificial ankle that responded in real time, just like their anatomic ankle. Unfortunately, the technology didn't exist. 

With only a napkin sketch to guide him, he learned the ropes on business, finally receiving a grant to hire the best in the business. From artificial intelligence experts, PhDs and electrical engineers, the top experts in their field said it couldn’t be done. “The technology is simply not available for us to complete this project” they told him. Following his hunch, he dismissed the team and recruited a new (and unlikely) team: Interns without any robotics or prosthesis knowledge. Soon after they started working on the project, they began to figure out exactly why the industry experts had told him why he was working on an impossible project. 

Martin’s team made surprising progress despite their impossible project, but their ability to balance the bionic ankle and anatomic ankle in real time was proving near impossible. The bionic ankle was only 99% accurate in it’s calculations and adjustments. 99% accuracy may work in some scenarios, but when someone is falling 1 step out of every 100 taken, it’s not much of a solution. The bionic ankle needed to match motion from the anatomic opposing limb perfectly. Instead of stopping the project, Martin kept pushing, and his team of interns had no option but to trust their leaders assumptions that this project, could in fact, be successful. 

The decision was made to go back to the drawing board, to establish a baseline. They began to simplify the software and the variables it was accounting for to only the most basic functions. As they began testing their baseline, they came to a stunning realization: The ultra simplified version of the ankle was suddenly working flawlessly. The processes was too bulky and simplification was the key. “We were starting with 2.0, but needed to go back to 1.0, which ended up working much better.” Said Martin. Martin and his team had found success by complete accident. 

All three innovators had amazing creative success in their projects, and we should be eager to learn from their leadership, but what about their decisions enabled such creative and innovative results? Is the secret to throw more money at problems like Mann did? Perhaps we are supposed to solicit advice from seemingly unqualified people like Bouton? Perhaps we should hire inexperienced interns like Martin did? Of course not!

For those wanting a magic bullet to create their next big idea, it seems the creative strategies to be learned from these huge medical breakthroughs is remarkably disappointing, but for those willing to change their own heart and mind, there is something genius about their approach you may have missed. 

The genius approach is trust. Mann’s unwavering trust was key in unlocking Greenberg’s creative potential when creating the Argus. Bouton & Annetta’s trust in their patient led them to restore movement in his paralyzed limb with Neurobridge and Martin’s trust in lesser experienced interns (and their trust in his vision) is what made the difference in creating the first real time adaptive artificial ankle. 

When it comes to creative teams, no magical tips can be followed, no creative super stars can save us and no specific innovative strategies will lead your team to earth shattering success.  True innovation and creativity comes down to a heart change in leadership, not a strategy change.

Justin Brady likes to write, speak and work with loving leaders on how to organically cultivate creativity in their organization. Find him on Twitter @justinbrady. This piece and others like it can be found on his blog.

Tags: innovation, innovation in science, justin brady, leadership, technology and creativity

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