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Philip Edgcumbe

How to build an innovation mindset

“Innovation can come from unexpected places,” proclaims Philip Edgcumbe.

And as an inventor, engineer, medical student, PhD graduate and recent lead developer of the Alzheimer’s XPRIZE, he speaks from experience.

As a student in the MD/Phd program at the University of British Columbia, where he is pursuing a medical degree and has completed his PhD in engineering, Edgcumbe has helped develop many new medical technologies: an augmented-reality display of ultrasound images to help surgeons better “see” patients’ organs, and the pico lantern, a device that maps and projects a patient’s tumor(s) and blood vessels – in 3D – onto their body during surgery.  He is also co-founder of Lume Biotics, a company developing a device for phototherapy treatments of antibiotic-resistant infections.

Clearly, using innovation to solve real-world medical challenges is part of Edgcumbe’s daily life.

Yet it’s Edgcumbe’s recent work as the project lead for the Alzheimer’s XPRIZE that has expanded his innovation mindset even further, a mindset he will share as a panelist at the CMA Health Summit.

“Medicine is still an empirical, observation-based science. There are still some things we don’t understand about the human body, and many breakthroughs have come through some very unlikely sources,” says Edgcumbe.

“We need physicians across Canada to stay curious, keep their thinking hats on and fully embrace that they could be staring at a transformative discovery or idea, and not be afraid to pursue it.”

Edgcumbe believes there is a lot that innovators can learn from the XPRIZE model and how it’s use of prize-based competitions, crowdsourcing and exponential technology encourages teams to look for solutions in unexpected places.

He draws on a historical reference to illustrate his point, explaining that in the 1700s, the British Navy offered a prize of 20 thousand pounds to anyone who could accurately determine the longitude of their ships and help prevent shipwrecks.

“And everyone expected it was going to be an astronomer that was going to win, because that’s how ships were navigated, by the stars,” explains Edgcumbe. “But it was a clockmaker who won, because he ascertained that if you built a clock that could accurately tell the time, at sea, and measure the time the sun came up each day, you could measure the longitude of the ship.  And that is a great historic example of how a prize competition led to a dramatic innovation, previously considered impossible, and it came from a very unexpected part of society.”

The idea of the unexpected as a gateway to innovation is one Edgcumbe returns to often. He recounts a conversation he had with Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice and one the senior advisors for the Alzheimer’s XPRIZE.

As a scientist, she told him that picking apart arguments and figuring out why something was not going to work came easily to her. However, as she began to shift towards being more creative and innovative, she adopted the habit of having “And Yes” conversations.

“And that is something I have been doing myself – with great results,” says Edgcumbe.

As the project lead for the Alzheimer’s XPRIZE, Edgcumbe’s job was to apply innovation principles to ending Alzheimer’s, a disease he characterizes as “the economic, emotional and social sinkhole of the 21st century.”

“Right now there are about 30 million people in the world with Alzheimer’s, and that number is projected to grow to over 100 million by 2050.  As of today, there is no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer’s,” says Edgcumbe.

In the end, his work identifying market failures in the Alzheimer’s’ space, building a coalition of scientists willing to challenge the status quo, and fundraising $25 million secured his team top priority for launch in 2018.

But will it lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s?

Maybe not. But Edgcumbe says that was another lesson he learned from his XPRIZE experience – that innovation needs to start with a “big vision” and a willingness to tackle large-scale issues.

He uses a story about Dean Kamen – the renowned engineer and inventor of the Segway, a man who holds more than 500 patents and sits on the XPRIZE Board of Trustees – to make his point.

Edgcumbe interviewed him shortly after Kamen had received $80 million from the US Department of Defense to create the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), an institute with a mission to manufacture engineered tissues and artificial organs on a large scale. Although a prolific inventor, Kamen has no background in regenerative medicine.

“So I asked him `How do you know it is going to work?’ And he said `Well, I don’t know, and that is what makes it an interesting challenge.’ And that really resonated for me. I think it is about taking on the problems for which we don’t know the answer, for which there is a challenge – technically, societally – that’s where the real learning and growth opportunities are.”

Hear more of Philip Edgcumbe’s ideas about how to foster innovation and invention at the CMA Health Summit in August.