So, You Have an Idea, But Do You Have a Clue?

By Eric Kirsch, Leader of SoPE Charlotte, North Carolina Chapter

So the surgeon turns to me and says “I would love to tell you my idea, but first I need you to sign this NDA”. I chuckle for a few seconds. But my answer is “no”. 

These days I get approached by a lot of colleagues who want to share with me their brilliant ideas for a world-changing healthcare innovation. These closet entrepreneurs have gone through intense medical training and society has convinced them that they are very smart people. Most of them are. However, that same training often ignores, nay suppresses, an entrepreneurial mindset. Our discussions are like an episode of Stranger Things where I’m trying to convince them that an alternative universe exists where the laws of physics work differently.

Here is the truth.   

Your idea is not unique.  It’s been thought of hundreds perhaps thousands of times. It popped into somebody’s head during hot yoga, was discussed at cocktail party, and even became a college student’s unfinished senior thesis. Perhaps somebody even tried to pursue the idea but eventually gave up. That happens all of the time. There were likely a thousand ideas to start Uber, before Uber became Uber.

What really makes an idea unique is the person attached to the idea. Perhaps you have both the drive and the ability to make an idea a reality. You will probably need some luck. And humility. That’s what’s in the secret sauce.

Focus on making the idea a good one.

If you are not a human being then you may disregard this next statement. You are a human being and you are filled with bias. Your ideas have bias. What you need is impartial data. Lots of it. You need to talk to potential customers. Don’t say to me “but I’m the customer” because you are not (bias much?) Watch Law and Order and learn what it means to “lead the witness”. Don’t do that. Don’t tell potential customers “hey I have this great idea”, they will always tell you what you want to hear. This is especially true if they are your patient and especially true if you are about to do surgery on them.

Even if you don’t need investors you should pitch to investors for money. It is the best dose of reality that you can get before you invest your own time and money.  It’s ok to be passionate when you pitch but you need to listen to their feedback with sincerity and gratitude.

I totally understand that you don’t want to become the Sir Humphry Davy to somebody else’s Thomas Edison. It is a legitimate concern. But you’re more likely to loose to a competitor by not having the right messaging or the right strategy. Both of those you learn through interaction. It’s up to you to determine “did they reject the idea or just the way I said it”.

Build a pitch deck, share your idea, and take in data. You can pitch to your neighbors, your bartender, the guy sitting next to you on the bus, your family… don’t pitch to your spouse. But you can pitch to other entrepreneurs, your dog, and the mailman. You get the point.

The anti-thesis

There are always exceptions to every rule. Here are a few and how to handle them:

Branding/messaging: You can own a mark before you actually trademark, as long as you are using it. Its much cheaper to just purchase your top URLs and create home-made logos and messaging on each site. You can then test messaging and, as long as you demonstrate proof of use, you will be awarded the trademark. Even if somebody else tries to trademark it first.  

Business processes/partnerships: You don’t need to give details about this “really big partnership” that’s still in the works or a “special 3 point verification system” but you do need to be able to give a high-level description. The people who need and deserve those kind details are the kind of people that are ready and willing to sign a NDA. 

Pre-patent pending technology: there’s a fine line where your description goes from informative to proprietary.  I won’t pretend to know where this line is. Find a patent attorney. Buy them a beer. Most likely they will tell you what you can say and what you can’t, and then they will tell you to call them when you are ready to file a patent.

Bottom line

Get advice. Lots of it. Talk to potential customers, potential investors and potential users. You can decide which advice to take and which you don’t want to. A strong idea is better than the best kept secret. Best of luck!