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Being curious creates better products

Posted on Apr 3, 2020 by Cambridge Catalyst

Serial nanotech entrepreneur Eric Mayes shares his thoughts on bringing technology to market

Life rewards the curious. Curious people were the first ones to find food and start fires. Curiosity has brought us everything from the compass to antibiotics, and to finding a way to the moon and back. It has kept us alive and innovating for thousands of years. Curiosity matters.

Yet all too often in business, we forget about it. A depressing recent survey of 3,000 employees found that less than 24% feel curious at work, and 70% said they face blockers in their career that stop them from asking questions.

Looking back on my own career, here’s how being curious helped me:

In the beginning…

Twenty-two years ago, I took the daunting leap of going from PhDstudent to full-time entrepreneur. My scientific education had fostered a respect for curiosity within me. I wanted to hypothesise and experiment, ask questions, gain understanding and be honest when I didn’t have the answer.

I took these beliefs with me when I started my first business in 1997. NanoMagnetics was a little technology start-up with a big idea to disrupt the data storage industry: use biology to help hard-disk media companies increase their storage density.

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I wanted to hypothesise and experiment, ask questions and gain understanding

In my research, I had this idea of using a naturally occurring protein (ferritin). I got really excited when I heard the media industry needed to achieve certain design criteria and I thought: ‘biology has already done that’.

As the years went by, I became more excited by our technology – focusing my curiosity inwards. But that meant when flash memory – a radically new type of storage – entered the arena, I wasn’t prepared to respond. Flash would overhaul the industry dramatically, consigning most consumer hard disk drives (and, by extension, our technology) to a dusty bottom drawer.

Ultimately, it taught me how important it is to keep asking questions and staying curious in all directions. It’s the only way to know your environment and where your product fits in.

Understand your customers

These lessons came with me when, in 2010, I joined Endomag as employee number one. I knew nothing about Endomag’s area of business – breast cancer surgery – but this was actually an advantage, because this time I could fully engage my curiosity.

I asked a lot of questions. I got to know a lot of people. I spoke with clinicians and focused on learning their language and finding out what their clinical needs were. When I opened myself to uncertainty, I gained greater clarity in the business.

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Understand your market

I began to study the breast cancer care environment within the UK. The standard of care had just been updated, reducing the number of lymph nodes that needed to be removed during surgery to determine whether cancer had spread. These lymph nodes were located using a blue dye and radioisotopes, which had to be injected 24 hours before surgery.

By talking to clinicians and asking questions, I found out that this process was incredibly limited, both geographically and financially. Radioisotopes need to be shipped daily to hospitals and have very short shelf lives. This means patients have little control over when or where they complete their surgery. When the supply chain fails, people face delays for the scans with very little notice.

Knowing this, we wanted to build a company that could do better for people with breast cancer. Replacing the radioactive and dye tracers with one single magnetic one, Endomag found a way to prevent surgery when it wasn’t needed, improve it when it was and increase access for everyone, financially and geographically.

We could have made technology that eased the transportation of radioisotopes or created smaller Geiger counters, but Endomag isn’t about fitting into a failing supply chain. It’s about disruption and improving accessibility for patients. Our products are now available in over 30 countries and have treated over 60,000 people.

Curiosity is the key

It isn’t easy to bring a new product into the healthcare market. There are countless hurdles beyond acceptance of your product by your customers, such as regulatory approvals and quality manufacturing. I always tell my team: gain customers’ time and trust by employing your expertise and a strong understanding of their needs – and build these by embracing your curiosity. Business success is never far behind.

Eric Mayes is CEO of Endomag, which uses magnetism and nanoparticle technology to help surgeons mark and remove cancerous tissue.

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