Innovation Profile: Robert (Bobby) L. Satcher Jr., M.D., Ph.D.
Robert (Bobby) L. Satcher Jr., M.D., Ph.D., is co-director of electronic Health Research Institute and a faculty member in the Department of Orthopedic Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Q | What would you consider to be your most successful innovation?
A | I think the creation of the electronic Health Research Institute (eHRI) with my partner Jan E. Odegard, Ph.D., is what I would consider to be the most important innovation. We realized that there was a need to bring together physicians and engineers to create ways of using technology to improve the access of care for people at a distance. There wasn’t any specific entity that promoted telemedicine, so it really was a marriage that was brought about the necessity to see that move forward.
I was out at a conference in Silicon Valley and one of the things that got brought up that really made me think about this was that the iPhone is only seven years old. If you think about the acceleration and influence of the iPhone worldwide over just that short period of time, it captures that whole concept of how when the right technology comes along, it really has a profound effect. We’ve seen that several times over now. Health care has been in this vacuum, essentially. We know that technology can enhance the way that we deliver health care very broadly. We just have not realized that potential. So this institute was created to capitalize on the influence of technology and health care.
Q | What spurred your innovation?
A | It was a blind date. There’s no joke in that. A mutual friend said to us, ‘Bobby and Jan, you guys need to meet for coffee.’ And we met for coffee and started talking. What made that blind date possible was a shared vision: bringing together technology and health care around this purpose. Jan has had that vision for a long time. That’s why we hit it off so well on that initial date, because I had been thinking about it too.
My background of course, I was an astronaut for eight or nine years prior to returning to medical practice full time. One of the things that NASA did was use technology to take care of people
in extreme environments, astronauts in particular. Many people give them credit for inventing telemedicine.
So that was a seed planted in my head when I was there. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to use this in a much broader sense and specifically in cancer care?’ There’s a lot of demand for that, especially nowadays.
With people surviving longer from cancer, it’s just human nature to look for more convenience. That’s part of the thing driving the demand. The other demand is that there are huge populations that are underserved, and with the Internet, they know that they are underserved. They know that they don’t have access where they should have access to specialized care, like at MD Anderson. So this was a shared vision. We both arrived at the same point, coming from different sub-specialties. That’s what makes a marriage.
Q | What are the unique benefits of that innovation that make it a valuable solution?
A | We reduce the risk that individual faculty members see in trying to pursue telemedicine. In the past, if I’m a doctor and I had an idea for some widget development that’s going to help me, I would have to go out and find a faculty member. I might not have any clue of where to start. So I had no way of evaluating—if and when I found somebody—whether or not that’s actually an appropriate person for me to be working with. That caused this process to be very inefficient and defeating to a lot of faculty.
Say you actually do find somebody, and say there’s a reasonable chance of developing something. Then you get the notion that this might actually be good enough to make into a commercial product. And that’s even more daunting. We want to reduce the risk involved by basically setting up a process, where anyone can come from either the engineering or medical side and we can serve as a matchmaker and a resource provider to move their projects along, specifically research grants.
Q | What resources in this community were helpful to you when you were first starting out?
A | Clearly the people, the intellectual capital. Houston just has a lot of people that are truly interested in doing this. We have the world’s largest medical center. We have outstanding research institutions. We have a very large industrial ecosystem in town. Not necessarily very focused on the medicine, however, it’s an innovative ecosystem around the energy industry and space. And these are all resources we can tap into.
One thing that would have been helpful—and I think Houston and Texas, in general, is struggling with this—is access to venture capital. I think that’s an opportunity, and when people realize it, Houston is going to be top-notch. There will be exponential growth.
Q | What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs or innovators?
A | This is a tough question for me to answer. I guess I would say, be clear about what your passion is and try to define it in as focused of a way as you can. The more focused that you are, the more efficient you will be in making decisions.
I have seen in just observing communities and talking about innovation, there is a tendency to say, ‘Oh, yeah. Let’s do this and this and this.’ It becomes so big that they don’t get anything done. So for an entrepreneur just starting out, they may have this big picture, but they have to pick a problem. They have to solve and demonstrate that they can actually deliver a project. It comes down to execution. Demonstrate that you can execute, even if it’s just a tiny piece of your mission, because then you can also convince somebody that wanted to invest in you. I think that’s one of the things that is critical.