shaping tomorrow’s healthcare innovators: a Q&A with Eric Richardson of Duke University

healthcare innovators

Our Faculty Spotlight series highlights educators within the VentureWell network who are doing transformative work—faculty members who are catalyzing change in higher education and inspiring students to impact the world through invention. This month’s spotlight is Eric Richardson, Associate Professor of the Practice in the Biomedical Engineering department and the Director of Duke Design Health at Duke University. Dr. Richardson is committed to helping students develop solutions to pressing needs in healthcare through interdisciplinary learning, entrepreneurial principles, and clinical observation. In 2019, Dr. Richardson received a faculty grant (now called Course and Program Grants) to scale up the Duke Design Health program, which provided student healthcare innovators with an immersive learning experience to actively identify, validate, and solve problems that have an impact on human health.

Tell us about your journey infusing entrepreneurship in your field and curriculum.

My personal journey with entrepreneurship in biomedical engineering began as an R&D Engineer working at Medtronic. I saw both intraprenuership and the acquisition of several small companies run by entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by these scrappy, fast-moving, driven women and men that built products and companies. I was also intrigued with their skill of building and managing interdisciplinary teams. This fascination eventually led me to leave Medtronic to teach and study design and entrepreneurship at Rice University. At Rice, I built the Global Medical Innovation Program, which was focused on creating products for emerging markets, working with entrepreneurs across the globe. I also worked with local entrepreneurs in Houston to build the Texas Medical Center Biodesign program, which launched several medtech ventures targeted at US markets. Working alongside entrepreneurs was a great educational experience for the students. I’m a firm believer in teaching good processes coupled with lots of hands-on practice.

Tell us about the course/program/initiative you received a VentureWell faculty grant for. 

Three years ago, I was asked to come to Duke to start a program in MedTech innovation and entrepreneurship, the Design Health Program. Along with Paul Fearis, who was recruited from Johns Hopkins, and Joe Knight, who participated in Stanford’s Biodesign program, we were challenged to take the best of what we’ve learned and create a large-scale interdisciplinary program at Duke. That’s where VentureWell came in—we needed help to jumpstart our program. I had been participating in VentureWell’s BME-IDEA conference for several years and learned a lot from my colleagues at similar programs. That forum gave us many ideas to work with. We immediately applied for a faculty grant to support our teams with prototyping supplies and summer student stipends. We piloted a program in 2018 with 12 students that would eventually scale across Duke. In the last three years, the program has grown to ~100 participants each year from engineering, medicine, nursing, business, and other schools. Students have filed over 10 provisional patents, they are launching companies, and they have had great success at design/business competitions. They rallied during the pandemic to design, test, and manufacture thousands of PPE products that are currently in use at the hospital. Most importantly, we’ve trained hundreds of students in a structured process for design and innovation.

How do you want the field of entrepreneurship to change/evolve in the next five years? 

I want entrepreneurs to have more access to validated clinical problems. With increased regulation of clinical observation and interaction with physicians and patients (which I support), and with the recent pandemic, it’s been harder than ever for non-clinicians to understand clinical problems and empathize with end-users. Our team at Duke is working on innovative ways to give that access to more people. Through online tools, I’m hoping more people can gain exposure to pressing clinical problems. 

I’m also very interested in moving “upstream” in entrepreneurship research; I think the question of “how” to innovate has been well studied, but the question of “where” to innovate is exciting new territory. Identifying innovation gaps, where there is true need but little entrepreneurial activity, is very interesting to me. It’s evident that patients have been underserved due to their age, gender, race, education, geography, and ability to pay because much of our entrepreneurial activity is driven by a traditional market strategy to maximize profit and play our “core competencies”. I hope to spend more time highlighting these gaps and encouraging MedTech entrepreneurs to think more holistically about their approach.

What are the challenges you’re tackling in your work today, and how are you addressing them?

Challenges have been abundant with the pandemic. Teaching topics like design ethnography, teamwork, and prototyping in an online format was a struggle. Thankfully, we’re returning to in-person learning, but many of the workarounds we developed for online learning have shown great value. We’re in the process of digesting what we learned last year, mixing it with what we did pre-pandemic, and figuring out an even better path forward. Editor’s note: Looking for online education resources? Access our guide here

What media on entrepreneurship and innovation has had the greatest impact on you and your work, and how have they been insightful to you?

This may be a stretch, but I love following interesting entrepreneurs, educators, and companies on social media to get a real-time picture of their ups and downs. Sometimes “going along for the ride” with these people can be more insightful than the tidy retrospective success stories we hear in podcasts and read in books.

What’s your most useful classroom activity or assignment?

Clinical observation. We’ve been fortunate to keep it going during the pandemic—with a lot of careful oversight and safety protocols—and it is gold. It gives us data to make decisions, develops intuition for what will and will not work, and most importantly, motivates students by fostering empathy.

Tell us about a moment or experience that reaffirmed the importance and value of STEM entrepreneurship education for you.

During COVID, our student teams in the program put a pause on their projects to develop products that our hospital desperately needed. We worked long hours to design, test, and build face shields, aerosol testing equipment, negative pressure tents, and PAPR devices. This came at a time when many of our students were struggling with isolation from friends and family. The sense of purpose, empowerment, and community felt by our students and faculty will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of my career. Students saw that their education could have a direct impact on real, urgent problems in healthcare. It was inspirational for them and for me.

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