Six Tips from Innovation VP at Partners HealthCare

By Julie Donnelly |  May 6, 2014

Chris Coburn knows a few things about spin-offs: as the first executive in charge of innovation for the Cleveland Clinic, he oversaw the spin-off of 57 companies over thirteen years.

Last June, he took a new job as Vice President of Innovation at Partners HealthCare, a $10 billion non-profit healthcare system based in Boston whose hospitals include Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Coburn is responsible for commercializing scientific breakthroughs, which can include licensing technology to existing companies or cultivating new ventures that will eventually have their own management teams and their own funding.

Coburn says that one of his biggest challenges is the chasm between the methodical culture of academic innovation — both hospitals are affiliated with Harvard Medical School — and the culture of business innovation. Coburn manages 75 staffers and a trove of about 600 inventions. We talked to Coburn about how he’s trying to bring the two closer together, and generate new revenues from the $1.5 billion worth of sponsored research Partners conducts each year, most of it funded by government agencies like the National Institutes of Health or foundations. Since June of 2013, a dozen new spin-offs have been created, focused on everything from helping surgeons identify the edges of tumors during surgery to new treatments for infections and neurodegenerative diseases.

Do Your Daily Rounds

“You can get bunkered in your office doing deals for days at a time,” Coburn says. “That’s a huge risk. ‘Rounding’ is essential to overcome the cultural dissonance by constantly engaging with people.” The day we spoke, Coburn had a morning meeting with two entrepreneurs at the Brigham and a venture capitalist; a lunch meeting with the head of cardiology at the Brigham; an afternoon meeting with four doctor-innovators at Mass General; and a late meeting with a pathologist.

Hire the Expertise You Need

“No academic institution is organized to commercialize products,” Coburn says. So he hired a handful of people with deep industry experience, including the former head of supply chain at medical device giant Boston Scientific Corp.

Don’t Be Afraid to Reorganize

When Coburn arrived, Brigham and Women’s and Mass General each had their own separate business development operations dealing with a variety of different scientific disciplines and disease areas. Coburn divided his staff into nine Partners-wide teams devoted to nine market sectors, including cardiology, neuroscience, and imaging. (See slide below for the complete list.) This is precisely how several large pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, organize their business development teams. At Partners, each team has a captain who is an industry insider. “Internally, that means we are highly coordinated and very visible,” Coburn said. “Externally it means we can engage industry very effectively and do classic business development that doesn’t happen very often at academic institutions.”

Not Everything can Be a Company

 “When you are evaluating something you are almost always looking at it thinking, ‘Is this the basis of a company?'” Coburn says. “You test that idea out, and in the majority of cases you are able to establish pretty quickly that it’s better as a license. It’s often the preferred route because it’s lower-risk, and can be quicker and less time-intensive.” But company-formation does retain a lot of cachet for Partners. Coburn says there have been about a dozen spin-outs since he arrived.

Leverage Cultural Advantages while Working on Challenges

Coburn appreciates that many aspects of the academic research ecosystem — including highly-motivated doctors and researchers — can’t be replicated in the for-profit world. And he also lauds the speed of the feedback loop inside Partners. “Our doctors are the end users. They can tell us if, say, a new surgical tool we’re developing is likely to supplant an old one. You can’t find that at places like Medtronic.” But there are challenges to work on, like an environment that isn’t as deadline-driven as for-profit companies, with diffferent incentives and reporting structures. “Industry needs a reliable, predictable partner, and there is a need to execute according to a timeline,” Coburn says. “Sometimes that isn’t easy.”

Measuring Success

Coburn says he has five key metrics:

  1. How quickly deals are getting done
  2. The level of satisfaction among industry partners
  3. Breadth of the types of deals/technology attracting industry attention
  4. The number of transactions per year
  5. The financial terms of the deals