Lessons from a medical device company bringing oxygen to kids who need it – for product managers
Today we are dissecting how a product came into being, examining it from initial insight through product development and to launch. Joining us is Mark Adkins, co-founder and CEO of LeanMed, a medical device company for the medically underserved regions of the world. He is also an adjunct professor teaching product innovation for the University of Pittsburgh and has served in many product management roles.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:09] What problem did you uncover and what is your current product?
Pediatric pneumonia is the #1 killer of children in the world. Eight hundred thousand children will die this year from pneumonia, and 99% of those deaths are in low-income nations.
[4:49] Take us back to the beginning, before the O2 Cube was even a concept. What was the genesis of the idea?
I teach a course called Managing Medical Product Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh. A medical student in my class, James Newton, traveled to Malawi in Africa and saw firsthand that kids were dying from pneumonia. When he came back, he formed Team Oxygen with some of his classmates and me as their mentor. We won first place in an entrepreneurial competition at the University of Pittsburgh and earned $10,000, which we used to start LeanMed in 2018.
[6:58] What happened next? How did you develop the product?
We were in a race to get to market. We’re an innovation company, not a research company. There’s a long regulatory pathway for brand-new medical devices, but we look for proven technology that exists today in high-income countries, and through innovation and strategic licensing agreements, we bring that healthcare to the developing world.
Philips Healthcare donated us an oxygen concentrator and an oxygen compressor. With the donation and money from the competition, we built the first operational prototype in my garage with solar panels on my roof. We did some early design work with a local design firm and got our website going.
We got quite of bit of flak for not having IP. We integrated off-the-shelf technologies in a clever way. We modified the device for use in sub-Saharan Africa and entered a global licensing agreement with Philips Healthcare to manufacture and sell their oxygen compressor, which they had discontinued. Strategic licensing agreements can be lower risk, lower cost, and faster to market than inventing something new. Our missions align, as Philips also has a mission to save lives and bring healthcare to the developing world.
[16:29] How did you know you were on the right track to creating technology that could work for people in developing areas?
We got involved in the Every Breath Counts Coalition, a community fighting pediatric pneumonia that runs Zoom calls every week. There are over a hundred people on the calls, including NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like the Gates Foundation and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like Philips. We learned from others’ experiences and met people in Africa. Through customer discovery with these people, we learned that solar would be effective. We learned the local clinics can’t keep children overnight, so they refer them to a hospital. We developed the O2 Cube to fill small oxygen cylinders that can be used while the child is transported on a motor scooter or bicycle to the hospital.
We also visited clinics and went to conferences about pediatric pneumonia.
[20:12] What did you do next?
In 2019 we entered an incubator called the Idea Foundry and received another $10,000, which we used to fund a project to provide pulse oximeters to seven health centers in Malawi. We continued to talk to people at the clinics and validate the O2 Cube.
[23:48] Did you feel pressure to get your product out faster to save lives?
Yes, it was frustrating. I wanted things to move faster. In 2020, COVID threw gasoline on the fire. People were dying of COVID around the world because they couldn’t get supplemental oxygen. We partnered with a student team from the University of Duquesne and built a freestanding prototype.
[25:44] What’s the state of the product now?
2021 has been our breakout year. In March, the WHO recognized the O2 Cube as an innovative health technology for low-resource nations, a prestigious recognition. We’ve created a completely new product category—solar-powered micro oxygen production. In May, we signed the agreement with Philips to manufacture and sell the technology. This fall, we were finalists in a University of Pittsburgh competition and earned $50,000, which we are using to engineer the commercial product. In September, we launched a crowdfunding campaign. At the end of 2021, we will turn on the first O2 Cube at a pediatric ward in Nigeria. Seeing that video of a child getting oxygen from a cylinder filled by the O2 Cube will be the best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten.
[30:02] What constitutes an MVP in the environment your product is going to?
There’s a myth you can’t do MVPs in the medical device field. We’re living proof you can. Our current O2 Cube is an MVP. It produces oxygen and will save lives, but it’s not the final product. We will learn about the O2 Cube’s engineering and application and produce a final commercial product in 2023.
[32:17] What do you still need to learn?
People in the clinics need to get comfortable doing pulse oximetry and prescribing oxygen, since some of them have never had access to oxygen before. We also need to see if the cylinders will work in transit. Will patients be able to get to the referring hospital properly, and will the clinic get the cylinders back? Philips Healthcare and the Gates Foundation want to see oxygen as a utility in the developing world, like gas, electricity, and water. We’re working with four different companies who will supply oxygen, buy the O2 Cube, and sell it to clinics.
Action Guide: Put the information Mark shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“Mission-driven innovation.” – Mark Adkins
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.