In an industry like clinical research that is ripe for innovation but slow on adaptation, it’s tempting to pigeonhole organizations into limiting categories. But it’s only when you break out of those “swim lanes” and look at new angles that you can begin to effect change — and truly innovate.

John Potthoff, Ph.D., CEO of Elligo Health Research, is that innovator. He saw challenges in clinical research and identified a novel solution; his commitment to patients, his ability to see things from a new perspective, and his innate, genuine passion to drive change led him to found Elligo in 2016.

We talked with Potthoff to hear his thoughts on what it takes to drive change in a slow-moving industry – and how to share that new solution with the world.

1. Be clear on your vision

Having a great idea might be the impetus to launching innovation, but the next step after having the inspiration is to really assess what that idea involves, be clear on what you’re proposing, and act on the next steps to implement it.

For Potthoff, his vision started with fully understanding the needs of the patients themselves in clinical research. “Part of the realization is that research tried to take patients out of a healthcare setting and put them in a research setting,” he said. “But that intersection of care and research changed dramatically as healthcare evolved and as different research-enabling technologies came into play.”

When he took a hard look from the patients’ perspectives, his vision came into sharper focus. “The integration of healthcare and research had become complicated,” he said. “Our mission was to uncomplicate it.” Physicians were heavily involved in the healthcare component. We wanted to provide easier access to the research side for them — and therefore, their patients. It was up to the research side to adapt to the conditions of healthcare in order to create something that was actually going to realistically work.”

Once he had his vision in sharp focus, John could see his next steps more clearly.

2. Plan your path 

The road to making your innovative idea come to life likely won’t come without some resistance. In Potthoff’s case, the industry was so hungry for his solution that he was surprised at the response. “I didn’t have as much resistance as I expected, and not in the areas I expected. When we started, I thought there would be resistance to new or newly minted investigators, but that wasn’t ever an issue,” he said. But part of the lack of push-back was very good planning on his part, he admits. “It could be because of the thorough process we went through to get them ready. Or because of their clinical strength and access to patients combined with their research prowess, but it really was less of an issue than I anticipated. And it’s been almost unheard of for anyone to be hesitant to put a study with a new investigator. The industry embraced naive investigators quickly.”

Still, he acknowledges there are some steps remaining along the way for the industry to fully adopt a bigger change. “When you’re planning a study, you know you need patients, for example,” he said. “But right now, the industry says, ‘We need 10 sites,’ not, ‘We need 100 patients.’ We need to get the industry to think in terms of patients, not sites, changing the paradigm from site to patient.”

3. Stay flexible

While you should keep your “North Star” path clear, your vision may need to flex and pivot to adjust to needs as they arise. “Smaller practices, or those in very small communities, or rural practices, don’t have the volume to maintain the infrastructure of larger clinics,” Potthoff said. “That’s why we’ve got a more ‘on-demand’ infrastructure. That lets those smaller practices participate in one study or just a couple studies and they can stay involved and participating.”

4. Share your vision clearly through smart marketing

Even when you are clear on what you’re doing, it’s up to you to communicate that to others — like potential clients or investors — who are still doing things the old way. And that comes down to marketing. “Part of the challenge with innovating is that everyone still wants to put you in one category, and it’s hard for them to see what you’re actually doing differently,” said Potthoff. “That’s why it’s been helpful and important for us to have a well-communicated marketing message that helps our clients understand how we can be helpful to them.”

Finding that marketing message for Elligo started with the fundamental information that launched the vision in the first place. “Research shows us patients are more inclined to be in clinical trials if their doctors recommend it,” Potthoff said. “The marketing message is very mindful of that, so it really homes in on that element we know is successful.”

The target audience, Potthoff notes, was slightly different than the audience for a traditional service provider in drug development. “We also had to market to healthcare,” he said. “We were bringing clinical trials into healthcare, so that was important for us to emphasize. We were marketing to doctors in their practices, which needed a specific approach. We relied on getting expert advice for marketing, finding out what would bring us the maximum effectiveness for our marketing spend.”

But the external audience wasn’t Potthoff’s only focus. “Organizations should not forget the importance of the message you’re communicating to your internal staff,” Potthoff said. “People are going to work hard along the way, and we try to be sure that our team feels connected and feels pride in what they’re doing so they feel engaged and a part of our team.”

Make it happen 

The most important thing is to just get started. “Especially in the pharma industry, people say they want innovation and they want change, and we all really do,” said Potthoff. “But then we really want to see someone else do it first!”

He acknowledges that it’s understandable that most organizations want to play it safe and wait for someone else to venture forth and innovate. But he also points out that innovation doesn’t have to be abrupt. “You can move in the direction of innovation,” he said. “It’s an industry that’s okay with incremental movement. Maybe that means using new technology to do something in a different way. You’re not radically changing the game, but it’s still an improvement. The key is to decide to do something, and then figure out the best way to make it more effective.”

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