Surgery: the Mother of Invention

When he was learning to do hip replacements, Dr. Hank Wuh, a young orthopedic surgeon, was frustrated by the slow and potentially harmful method used to remove the cement securing an old artificial joint before replacing it.

“Taking out the old cement was tedious, the blood loss was high and there was always the risk of fracturing the femur, or thigh bone,” said Wuh.

After much experimentation, Wuh and his co-inventor, Dr. Albert Chin, developed a patented cement extraction system now marketed worldwide by Origin Medsystems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif.

“The operating room is my fountain of inspiration,” said Wuh, who is one of the hundreds of physicians and dentists who divide their time between treating patients and running small businesses.


In recent years, their numbers have increased as health-care cost-containment policies have cut into physicians’ income.

“Economic problems have forced doctors to be more astute and aware of the business opportunities in their fields,” said F. T. Jay Watkins, president of Origin Medsystems. “The words ‘licensing,’ ‘royalties’ and ‘investments’ are no longer foreign to surgeons.”

Since Origin opened about two years ago, Watkins’ staff has reviewed 500 product ideas--95% of them developed by surgeons.

Major universities and medical schools are also encouraging their faculty and staff to license their inventions and transfer technology to industry as a way to boost income.


Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing, for example, expects to bring in $24 million in fiscal 1990-91, up from $14.1 million a year ago. Seventy-one percent of the total was generated by projects at the School of Medicine, said Sally Hines, administrator of the licensing office.

At work on another invention aimed at preventing transmission of the AIDS virus, Wuh said health-care professionals are in an excellent position to develop marketable solutions to common problems.

“I’ve found that a simple solution is often the best for a difficult problem,” advises Wuh.

Once you develop, document and test your idea, Wuh suggests sharing it with potential investors who specialize in funding medically oriented ventures.

“There is a tremendous interest in medical innovations from venture capitalists and private investors--especially in Northern California,” said Wuh.

He recently raised several million dollars from a group of Far Eastern investors to create his own company, Pharmagenesis in Palo Alto.

Wuh and his associates, orthopedic surgeon Nick Pliam and research scientist Dan Henderson, are assembling a team of biomedical researchers to analyze the properties of ancient herbal medicines.

“Seventy percent of the world practices this form of traditional medicine which has been around for 4,000 years,” said Wuh, who was born in Taiwan.


Pharmagenesis’ goal is to pinpoint the active ingredients in the herbal remedies and eventually work with major drug companies to produce and market new versions of the drugs.

Surgeons aren’t the only ones busy running companies. Many dentists have set up their own entrepreneurial ventures.

Dr. Robert Ibsen, who still sees patients twice a week, serves as founder and chief executive of Den-Mat Corp. in Santa Maria, Calif., a $30-million-a-year maker of cosmetic and restorative dental materials.

“I found that just going to the office, treating patients and earning a good living was not as satisfying to me as I thought it might be,” Ibsen said. “So, I kept looking beyond common knowledge to see if there were ways to solve problems that didn’t have a solution.”

Den-Mat’s consumer products division makes the popular Rembrandt Whitening Toothpaste. The product was once sold only to dentists, but Ibsen’s firm recently launched a $2-million advertising campaign to sell it over the counter.