TVC’s Lean Canvas Program Empowers Developers to Improve Ear Imaging

Robb Merrill of UCAIR demonstrating the WICS ear coil on an MRI machine

TVC’s Lean Canvas Program Empowers Developers to Improve Ear Imaging

An ear coil invention from UCAIR finds its path to market through the Lean Canvas method

Great ideas are plentiful. Of the seemingly infinite number of novel concepts, only a small number arrive at production, and even less prove to be marketable in the real world. For many new technologies, the defining factor of success or failure is often whether or not their creators verified that they would meet an actual need in the market. This common polarity is typically amplified in academia where many well-meaning researchers work out their novel ideas without consideration of the particular needs of those who will use them. The Lean Canvas program at TVC began in an effort to connect real market needs with real answers. Instead of flooding the market with ill-matched solutions, the aim is to arm researchers with an end-user’s mindset.

The WICS’ ear coil

As part of the Lean Canvas program, teams—which apply to get into the program with their business and technology development manager at TVC—take an online course entitled “How to Build a Startup: The Lean Launchpad,” in which they learn from bestselling author and serial entrepreneur Steve Blank about his customer development process. This course is augmented with in-person classes at TVC led by local startup expert Phil Grimm. Through this course, Blank and Grimm share their experiences of building successful startups and bringing concepts to fruition by paying close attention to customers and their needs. Armed with a drawdown budget of $4,500, teams are then tasked to canvas for feedback from as many potential customers and experts in the industry as required to validate their idea (some teams with specialized products need only a dozen or so interviews while others with a more broad appeal need as many as 150). With this funding, teams can develop prototypes, attend conferences, and travel to present their concept to potential customers and industry professionals in order to glean their insights and potential modifications.

(left to right) Robb Merrill , Rock Hadley, and Emilee Minalga, each a member of the group that developed the ear coil

As a result of the Lean Canvas program, a group from the Utah Center for Advanced Imaging Research (UCAIR) called WICS (Wasatch Integrated Coil Solutions) was empowered to pivot their original technology to respond to a new and verified market need. This team, led by Rock Hadley, research assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the U and co-inventor of WICS, had originally developed an MRI coil that would generate high-performance images of the inner ear, primarily to capture photographs of the cochlea, an area he knew was difficult to image.

When the team entered the Lean Canvas program in early 2016, they began doing dozens of interviews with the end-users of their coil: radiologic technologists. The team quickly learned that these technologists would not adopt WICS’ coil for use in their practice. “The technicians repeatedly explained to us that they didn’t want to switch coils on the patient table if they didn’t have to,” explains Hadley. “They told us, ‘we’re never going to use this ear coil; it will simply take too much scanner time and we have too many people to scan.’”

Robb Merrill of UCAIR installing the WICS ear coil on an MRI machine

Further conversations with the technologists and physicians—which are required of technologies that require a change in direction due to the results of the first round of interviews—yielded two important insights. First, if simple modifications could be made to the coil that would make it quick and easy to use, the technologists would indeed use it. Second, if the team could modify the coil such that it could capture clear, high-resolution images of the inner chambers of the cochlea, physicians would order its use when trying to diagnosis Meniere’s disease, a condition that afflicts patients with symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo, and persistent ringing in the ear.

Armed with these valuable insights and data gathered from the Lean Canvas Program, the WICS team is now pursuing further grants and opportunities with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). With further funding, the WICS team hopes to further improve resolution and imaging as well as work at adapting their ear coil into a more clinical-friendly headset.

Co-inventor Rock Hadley, research assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences

Technology pivots in response to verified market needs, such as what the WICS team experienced, are becoming a common occurrence in the Lean Canvas program at TVC. These crucial shifts are reviving U technologies and moving previously neutral ones forward. None of this could happen, however, without the interactions the U’s technologies are increasingly having with the community. The requirement that each team obtain a substantial number of interviews from potential customers and experts has been fundamental to the early success of the Lean Canvas program. These interactions are providing critical and actionable feedback to researchers and developing important synergistic relationships with outside groups and individuals that are together becoming essential to commercializing U technologies.

Return to Report Home Next Article: Medvis Simulates Better Device Development