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Eric Silfen, M.D. Headshot

Discovery

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Columbus Day weekend is upon us. It has become a popular three-day fall getaway and, like Columbus himself, Americans venture out to discover new places.

Of course, Columbus meant to arrive in Asia, not what is known as the Americas, and he thought his destination was a lot closer than it actually was. Yet, he managed to stumble on something game-changing. This leads me to reflect on the nature of discovery -- and how its unpredictability can be directly related to its value.

I find that discovery -- including discovery in the world of health care -- has a lot in common with accidentally finding the New World. And I would suggest discovery has seven key elements we need to acknowledge and celebrate as we look for the next innovations that will allow us to live well and enjoy life:

• Imagination: Faith in something that isn't -- yet.
• Revelation: A willingness to be surprised.
• Mystery: Keeping our sense of awe and wonder.
• Complexity: An appreciation of the richness of our universe.
• Obliquity: Seeing out of the corners of our eyes.
• Serendipity: Taking advantage of the happy accidents.
• Connection: Understanding that all things are connected.

One great example that illustrates these key elements of discovery came 500 years after Columbus' famous voyage and was surfaced by Swiss engineer George de Mestral.

In 1941, de Mestral was hunting in the Alps when he found burr seeds stuck to his clothes. Curious about how the seeds were able to defy gravity, he went home and examined the burrs under a microscope, seeing all the little hooks that enabled them to stick. De Mestral thought about this phenomenon a long time from many different angles.

For the better part of a decade, de Mestral worked on a way to manufacture his discovery of what is now commonly known as Velcro. The breakthrough came via his marriage to Monique de Bottens, who loved nylon stockings. Presumably by destroying many stockings, de Mestral discovered that if you heat nylon with infrared light, you can mimic and manufacture those alpine "burr hooks" -- Velcro -- on an industrial scale.

No one yet realized what Velcro could be used for, and de Mestral couldn't make any money from it -- until NASA came along. The space agency liked Velcro because astronauts needed an easy, reliable way to close space suits. Velcro also enabled them to stick all kind of things -- cups, tools, etc. -- to other things in a weightless environment. NASA bought a lot of Velcro, and, to this day, so has everyone else.

I think most would agree that the world desperately needs health care innovation in order to meet the great global challenges like aging populations, chronic diseases and access to care. But I would suggest that discovery is even more important than innovation for health care companies. Companies such as Philips Healthcare have both the mindshare and resources to lead the industry in creating game-changing products and services. But before we can properly employ this mindshare, we must get in the mindset that discovery precedes meaningful innovation. Discovery sets the stage for the innovations that will create the future of healthcare.

Humans are born with a beneficent curiosity about how to improve their own and others' lives. We just need to give ourselves the time and space to discover a lot more things. These may be things for which we don't yet have a fully formed vision but might have the potential to transform our lives in an essential manner.

So let's have the imagination to set out for parts unknown, stand in awe of the complex universe and keep an eye out for the accidental find. In other words, let's set sail for Asia and end up somewhere else.

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