Shark Tank's Herjavec shares his tips for innovation competitions

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At the start of a conversation about his involvement with Astellas Oncology's C3 Prize, a competition designed to identify non-medical innovations for cancer patients, serial entrepreneur and regular on ABC's Shark Tank, Robert Herjavec says, with some small trace of emotion in his voice, “Well, we get asked to do a lot of these kind of things.” The suggestion: This one mattered to him in a way that most others didn't.

Only later in the chat does he elaborate. When his mother suffered from ovarian cancer a decade ago, Herjavec found himself frustrated by the quality of care she received, especially as it pertained to nontreatment-related elements.

See also: Japanese drugmakers led the way in digital innovation

“That's what you find yourself focusing on — making sure one doctor knows what the next one is doing, practical things like that,” he explains.

That, in a nutshell, is why numerous organizations besides Astellas — the FDA and Pfizer, to name two of the most prominent — have launched similar competitions to encourage treatment innovation, in oncology and elsewhere. Here, Herjavec shares a handful of tips on how to make these competitions smarter and more useful, to patients and the organizations soliciting input.

Focus.

A call for “solutions that help cancer patients” will inevitably prompt loads of responses. The problem is those ideas will have little to do with one another — some will be medical-minded, others technological in nature, etc. That's why Herjavec recommends narrowing the focus of a competition to a specific condition or a specific type of solution.

“You think there are a million things you and everyone else could be doing. C3 shined a light on technology's relationship to patient care. That was a way to apply some discipline to it,” he notes.

Cast a wide net. 

Just about everybody in the oncology community is thrilled IBM and other datamongers have focused their attention on the space. However, Herjavec believes big, established players can only do so much.

“IBM does great work in medical care, but to truly get innovation you need to reach that person working on an idea in the basement of the house,” he says. To that end, he notes the C3 grand prize winner, Diane Jooris, laid the foundation for Oncomfort, which uses VR to help cancer patients manage anxiety, while caring for her ailing sister.

Aim to inspire.

Clearly there's a place for clinical-minded ideas, but innovation competitions of this nature should dare its entrants to dream.

“You can tap into emotion in a way that you can't when you're trying to solve a problem that isn't related to health,” Herjavec explains. “The people who pitched ideas were doing it for a higher cause. There was a purpose greater than themselves and their experiences.”

Get somebody like Robert Herjavec involved.

OK, that's one of MM&M's tips, not one of Herjavec's.

But it doesn't hurt when somebody with unquestionable personal and professional bona fides throws himself behind your cause as enthusiastically as Herjavec did for C3.

“We're dealing with serious stuff,” he notes. “[A competition like this] shows you how much innovation is out there waiting to be seen. I couldn't fix the cancer my mom had, but I could've made that experience with her so much better.”

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