This year’s annual Thomas J. Fogarty Lecture marked a milestone with the celebration of its 20thanniversary. The series, hosted by Stanford Biodesign and co-sponsored by the Fogarty Institute, started as a gathering to discuss and promote medical innovation with approximately 30 people in attendance. Since then, it has grown into a preeminent opportunity to learn from the most notable innovators in health technology. With nearly 400 attendees representing the entire medtech ecosystem, including physicians, entrepreneurs, students and professors, the event reflected the resurgence of medical technology and its prominence in Silicon Valley, a true hotbed of innovation.
Featuring an industry “who’s who,” from Dr. Fogarty to Jessica Mega, MD, chief medical and scientific officer at Verily; this year’s speaker lineup also included an inspiring presentation by John R. Adler, MD, professor emeritus, neurosurgery, Stanford, and world-renowned inventor of the CyberKnife®.
Why doctors should also be entrepreneurs
In his presentation, “Sometimes an Entrepreneur, Always a Doctor,” Dr. Adler shared the need for more innovators, particularly physicians, to enter the medical device arena to solve a multitude of unmet healthcare needs, despite the existing challenges of bringing devices to market. “Our biggest healthcare challenges, including the most intractable diseases, require physicians to become entrepreneurs, or we will never solve these problems.”
Dr. Adler has felt this commitment to make an impact on the future of surgery since he was a resident at Harvard Medical School. Radiotherapy was still evolving and at the time, it would often leave patients disabled or facing longer-term chronic health issues. In his quest to find a solution, he completed a fellowship under Swedish physician Lars Leksell, MD, the inventor of the Gamma Knife, a radiosurgical device used to non-invasively treat brain tumors.
Inspired, he moved west to Stanford to improve upon this technology by using imaging to precisely guide a therapeutic radiation beam, thus opening the possibility of treating lesions anywhere in the body. That led to the development of the CyberKnife and the eventual formation of Accuray in 1992.
While his invention ultimately has led to the treatment of more than 1 million patients globally, it didn’t come without intense challenges. “The company ran out of money repeatedly; we were always on the cusp of failure; and I suffered a lot of lows facing obstacles every step of the way. But you keep going forward, focusing on the goal of helping patients,” he says.
Always looking for improvement
Despite the ultimate success of the company, which has since gone public, Dr. Adler still saw a big gap in cancer treatment. “Even though the CyberKnife was highly effective as a very low-risk, painless outpatient procedure, many patients didn’t have access to the treatment because the device was very expensive and complex to use,” he says.
That was the impetus for developing a lower-cost, low-energy, self-shielded solution that could be used by neurosurgeons or radiation therapist to treat head, brain and neck lesions, without requiring a radiation-protected facility. This eventually led to the formation of his second startup, Zap Surgical, whose new device received regulatory approval last year.
Dr. Adler is hopeful that his new invention can eventually be adapted to treat other large unmet healthcare needs, such as brain-related diseases like chronic pain, depression and obesity.
He concluded by reminding attendees, “If you are a medical device startup, you swim in a sea of failure. I can tell you that it is the hardest thing you will ever do. But you have to believe in the mission and your commitment to doing something important. We need physicians to step up because there are so many unmet needs, and we define our lives and accomplishments by the number of patients’ lives we impact. If we don’t do it, who will?”