I read a story today that inspired me to write my first post after a long hiatus. The story has nothing to do with any aspect of retirement planning, but it offers an excellent lesson on innovation to our industry, and to any industry that offers goods and services in exchange for money.
On 2 December 1982, a Seattle dentist named Barney Clark became the first recipientient of a permanent artificial heart. The Jarvik 7 (I always wondered what happened to models 1-6) was implanted into his chest, and the external pneumatic compressor kept the device “beating”, and Dr. Clark alive, for 112 days of media frenzy.
For the next three decades, doctors, scientists, and medical device manufacturers have been in search of the cardiac holy grail; a device that replicates the beating of the human heart. It now appears they have been pursuing the wrong goal.
Today, NPR’s Morning Edition reported on two doctors – Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier – at the Texas Heart Insitute that have developed an implantable device that circulates blood throughout the body. It is working well for Abigail, an 8-month-old calf that had her heart swapped out with the device. She looks and behaves much like any other calf; the only thing she lacks is a pulse.
The device developed by doctors Cohn and Frazier is a constant, whirling rotor that spins blood through the body in a continuous flow; as such, there is no pulse. Since the only moving part in the device is the constantly whirling rotor, the doctors believe their Wankel-style heart will last longer and cause fewer problems than the conventional pulsatile approach. Though cardiologist advertisements promoting a great deal on the new heart won’t be competing for space on the back of buses with personal injury attorneys anytime soon, doctors have had some success in human patients as well, and many feel as though a new day has dawned in heart replacement.
Here is the innovation lesson, courtesy of Dr. Cohn, whom I will paraphrase:
We look at all animals and every one has pulsatile circulation. For that reason, all early research and development efforts were directed at making pulsatile pumps that mimicked the heart. However, the only reason blood must be pumped rhythmically instead of continuously is because of the heart tissue itself; the heart can only get nourishment between beats. No other organ has this requirement. When you remove the heart from the system, you remove the requirement for pulsation.
For three decades, many of the brightest minds in cardiology were focusing on the wrong objective for an artificial heart. Doctors and scientists were preoccupied with trying to replicate the workings of the human heart instead of finding a way to circulate blood.
Dr. Cohn observes that such is the history of invention. “When man first tried to come up with machines that flew, he looked around and saw bats and birds and butterflies and mosquitoes. Everything had wings that flapped. When they saw that you could create wind, and that wind over a fixed wing was a great way to provide lift, the whole field shifted.”
So the next time you feel compelled to lock yourself in a room with a bunch of actuaries for a new product brainstorming session, ask yourself two questions*: 1) What is our objective? 2) Is it, really?
*While I might have added a facetious third question along the lines of “For what past life atrocity am I trying to atone that would explain such self-destructive decisions?” I chose not too. Some of my best friends are actuaries.