My great-grandfather was about 5 years old when his parents died. It was the late 1880s. He lived briefly in a Philadelphia orphanage before being indentured to a farmer, where he showed great aptitude for everything mechanical. According to the family stories, he spent hours tinkering in the barn in an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine. It didn’t work, and his career as an inventor was short.
No doubt my great-grandfather was inspired by the great American tradition of innovation. As schoolchildren we all learn about inventors like Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and others. In American culture, the inventor is a hero. We’re taught that anything is possible for smart, creative people who are willing to work hard to make their ideas a reality.
That kind of invention can seem out of reach today. Many areas of technology have become so complex that innovations only come out of big, well-resourced labs or companies. That’s certainly the case in the world of biotech.
Not so in medical devices. Medical devices is an area where there are still a lot of solo inventors, and that’s one reason I find the industry so fascinating. Yes, lots of new ideas come from big university or corporate labs, but many are the product of solo inventors. They are physicians, dentists, scientists, R&D professionals, and sometimes people with no scientific training at all.
My favorite inventor story involves a company that developed a new way to repair small bone fractures. The founder invented the technology in his basement, using dental cement and chicken carcasses from his local grocery store.
I asked him if it had been difficult. He said with characteristic good humor, “Look, I studied political science. Either this stuff isn’t that hard, or I’m a f@#ing genius.”
Why is the medical device world so friendly to solo inventors? I think it’s because so many areas of medical practice, especially surgery, are a craft, much like carpentry. Doctors and the people who work with them are constantly inspired to develop new tools based on their hands-on experience. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Working with solo inventors from time-to-time is one of the things that make my job fun. Hail the inventors!