What does it take to turn a great idea into a successful product?
For VisionQuest’s vice president and principal investigator Vinayak Joshi (PhD), the journey from idea to commercial product has led him halfway around the world. Dr. Joshi recently traveled to Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana as part of his efforts to commercialize ASPIRE, his device for the detection and diagnosis of malarial retinopathy. While in Africa, he met with leaders in government, philanthropy, and health care to better understand the stakeholder landscape and map out needs and priorities—in short, the path forward.
Turning a Great Idea into a Successful Product
Since 2016, Dr. Joshi has been working with leading researchers in tropical medicine to develop a fully automated, inexpensive, and easy-to-use tool that employs artificial intelligence–based software integrated with a portable retinal camera capable of detecting the retinal abnormalities (i.e., malarial retinopathy) that indicate cerebral malaria. This system, known as ASPIRE, provides immediate feedback and allows a minimally skilled health-care provider to make an accurate diagnosis and ensure the correct treatment.
One important aspect of this work has been finding ways to overcome barriers to access. Dr. Joshi and his colleagues in Africa are testing the cameras and AI techniques that make up the ASPIRE system and that can be used by anyone, anywhere, in real time: doctors, nurses, and community health-care workers in the hospital and in the field. In other words, a health-care worker who travels to a rural clinic with the camera and software in their backpack can take retinal photographs, process the images, and receive the results of the analysis all in a few moments.
Beyond Product Development
With ASPIRE now being tested at twenty-six clinics in Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria, Dr. Joshi has expanded his work beyond product development and clinical deployment to include software verification and validation, regulatory clearance, and commercialization. These tasks require not only technical expertise, but also business acumen and an exploration of the regulatory and commercial ecosystem. That exploration involves meeting people where they are, literally, to present the product and gather feedback.
Talking to doctors, government officials, and philanthropic organizations directly is helping Dr. Joshi to understand who regulates medical devices country by country, who pays for access, who makes the final decisions, and how to decide whom to prioritize. Meanwhile, he’s also integrating these groups’ needs and wants into his commercialization plan, deciding on a sales model, and working to make the device more cost effective—possibly by integrating more diagnostic capabilities such as automated diabetic retinopathy screening—so that hospitals will want and be able to buy it.
Dr. Joshi’s colleagues in Africa use the analogy of taking a single medical device to the moon: if you could only take one, what would it be? Their answer? The ophthalmoscope, because it’s a window into the human body and capable of diagnosing not only eye diseases but also systemic dysfunctions. If he can add to those uses, he’ll not only make this device more valuable to the African health-care community, he’ll also make it more attractive to the organizations that will purchase on behalf of that community.
The Importance of Personal Connections
Dr. Joshi emphasizes the importance of making personal connections with doctors and community leaders. Developing and visiting this network of key opinion leaders in Africa has been a significant part of Dr. Joshi’s work:
I’ve enjoyed talking to key opinion leaders in person because I can get a better sense of patient needs, and in turn, I can explain exactly how ASPIRE meets those needs. Whether I’m visiting a clinic or a ministry of health, I appreciate the chance to connect on a personal level and work together to solve a problem that affects many people, especially children, in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the end, Dr. Joshi’s journey has been as much about developing relationships as turning a great idea into a successful product. Nurturing these relationships by keeping his feet on the ground will help him map—and complete—the journey ahead.