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  • Writer's pictureJeff Smith

Finding Motivation And Passion As A Physician Entrepreneur

UMN 19 | Physician Entrepreneur

As a physician entrepreneur, passion is very important to have. The word passion is easy to throw around these days, but we’re talking about a passion to be motivated. The passion to solve a big med tech problem. A problem that keeps you awake at night and you can’t sleep until you find a solution. Join Jeff Smith as he talks more about finding that passion as a physician entrepreneur.


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Finding Motivation And Passion As A Physician Entrepreneur

In this episode, I talk about the importance of passion for physician entrepreneurs. Starting a company is a long journey with lots of ups and downs. As cliche as that may sound, it is the case. In order to be successful but more importantly, to enjoy the journey, the motivation required is a passion for solving the problem. I hope you enjoy the episode.


The point of this episode is passion. Sometimes passion is one of those words that gets used too often. When I think of passion or at least what I'm describing when I see and discuss the importance of passion in the physician entrepreneur's journey is this almost bottomless reservoir of motivation to keep pushing forward.

So much has been said about the entrepreneur's journey and all the ups and downs. In some ways, it's to the point where it doesn't hold as much meaning, but I'm here to say that being a startup entrepreneur or being a physician entrepreneur has nothing to do with hustle culture, burnout syndrome or even the imbalance in your life. What I mean when I talk about passion is the problem. I say the problem almost like the way you would describe solving a mathematics problem.

It’s the problem of addressing a large unmet need in the market, whether it be for patients, other healthcare providers, or the healthcare ecosystem at large. It’s the idea of this riddle of trying to figure out how to solve this problem you can't stop thinking about, that is what I'm talking about. Everybody's motivation is a little bit different. It is like solving a math problem or a Rubik's Cube or a crossword puzzle where you have to make everything add up and work. I get that. I relate to that on many levels.

The issue though is if the problem isn't something that you think about all the time. It's not something that when you're trying to relax, an idea pops into your head and you continue to think about why this is such a big issue for the healthcare system. A lot of the pain point is so great. It's possible that this isn't the right idea. I'm a firm believer that entrepreneurs can be made much the same way that leaders can be made, trained and coached.

The people that seem to have a natural entrepreneur angle are the ones that can figure out a problem.

The people that seem to have a natural entrepreneurial angle are the ones that can figure out a problem. The big difference between the thinkers and the doers are the ones who have the motivation and frankly, the risk-taking threshold where they're willing to say, "Enough thinking about this problem. I'm going to have to do something. I'm going to take an affirmative step in the direction of trying to solve this problem."

I want to talk specifically about physician entrepreneurs that I have met. I will give you an example. Profile number one. The physician says, "I noticed in the marketplace, there's this trend. A lot of other surgeons are using this type of product. I have an idea that could be a part of this movement. I noticed company A and company B are both making products in this category. It looks like a hot market, so I'm going to make a product in this category.” That's scenario one. It’s very reasonable.

There's a decent chance that this fast or slow follower approach to market expansion could be very successful. There's a problem for me, which doesn't mean it has to be a problem for anyone else. For me, what that says is there's an opportunist angle where I see what's happening in the marketplace, and now I'm going to pursue a solution. The reason that's not for me and not the right profile, when I say not the right profile, it's not the profile that I would personally back as an investor. As someone that really cares about the physician entrepreneur, I would most likely ask counsel against that.

The reason is this, new ideas when a market starts to develop because a particular product category starts to take hold were likely 5 to 10 years in the making. It's funny that it is 3rd, 4th or 5th to market. There is an opportunity to build up a business. It’s unlikely that you're going to win that market. In med-tech, it's not the same as software necessarily or consumer enterprise where it's a winner take all mentality. It may be the mentality in med-tech, but because of the commercial model and the importance of relationships and local support, it's rare that one company gets to 90% market share the way Google has greater than 90%.

UMN 19 | Physician Entrepreneur
Physician Entrepreneur: Start with a specific patient in mind. What does he or she look like? What are their unique challenges? How do they typically respond to current options? Why are they so underserved?

The reason I think that this profile is problematic is because when the physician entrepreneur is eager to pursue this fast follower model, it's usually too late. By that time, the surgeon can build a product, get regulatory clearance, and maybe raise a little bit of financing, the market has been won by 1 or 2 people. Maybe the third competitor beat you to the punch.

The profile that is compelling is profile number two. I've had so many conversations with physician entrepreneurs, but it usually goes something like this. A lot of people don't know this, but there's this problem that we encounter every day. The problem from the provider level is all patients fit this particular profile and the treatment options are limited to A, B and C, which are good options. However, for a particular patient, they're dreadful. There needs to be something better.

With this profile, I believe that there needs to be a product that's going to solve the following specific challenges this particular patient profile faces, 1, 2, 3. With that in mind, we see this as a very large market and a high degree of unmet need. What we're looking to do with this concept for a new company is we want to build a solution based on enabling technologies. Another way of saying it is a transformative underlying technology that is growing at an exponential pace.

For instance, the classic rule is Moore's Law. If you're building a technology that is going to improve over time as computer processors double in speed and have in price. That's an example of the underlying technology. You know it's going to happen. The capital investment is independent of whatever your company is doing.

Build a solution based on underlying transformative technology that's growing at an exponential pace.

Another example would be machine learning, which is a derivative on top of, can we write great code to sit on top of ever-improving computer speeds? That's an example where a specific patient profile is so important because what I see often, and it's common and I've done this multiple times, is instead you look at a market or a typical type of surgery, a knee replacement, a shoulder repair or a spinal implant fusion for a certain problem. You look at the market and say, "The market is X hundred million dollars. I want to go take a piece of that." Whereas in scenario two, you're saying that there's a big market, except there's a particular type of patient in that big market that is underserved.

You start with a specific patient in mind, which is critical because when the go-to-market motion starts, the most important thing to do for the potential users is to uncover who this patient is. What does he or she look like? What are their unique challenges? How do they typically respond to current options? Why are they so underserved? That pattern is important. Where it gets so exciting and what we're looking to do is address this with a tech-enabled solution. To me, that is the most important. What you're doing is you're riding the wave that hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, of dollars of capital have already been invested into this tech wave. You then get to apply your solution, which ends up being this application layer.

A great example of that would be robotic surgery and digital surgery in med-tech. So much work has been done going back twenty years to have interoperative CAT scans, surgical planning, and robotic machinery that connects to the digital surgery platform. If you're building a useful application on top of that, you get the benefit from all the work that came before you. The other thing that you have that has a lot of implications downstream, particularly for an exit or strategic partnerships, is the companies that are billions of dollars invested into the enabling technology, often because they're doing a market development.

They're planting all the seeds and spending a lot of capital to get these things installed. They need useful applications to sit on top of it. In a competitive space like robotics and digital surgery, the biggest companies in our space have already made these bets, and they're competing. They're leasing these units and selling them sometimes at a loss so that they can maintain a certain percentage of implant utilization. That strategy makes total sense in the early innings, but as this enabling tech wave hits a critical mass where many hospitals and many surgeons have access to it and where the rubber meets the road is, will people use the robot because there's a killer application?

UMN 19 | Physician Entrepreneur
Physician Entrepreneur: Passion is almost the insatiable need to solve a problem. Find the problems that keep you awake at night, problems that won't make you rest until you start working on a solution.

There's a lifesaving and life-changing application that is enabled by digital surgery. We certainly see this in a spine surgery space. There are not many surgeons that I talked to who say they struggle to place pedicle screws. Pedicle screws are something that surgeons have been placing for 30 years. Most surgeons that come out of a residency, even if they don't do a spine fellowship, have experience placing pedicle screws. They certainly require a tremendous amount of skill and expertise. It's just not a major problem or pain point that we hear. However, that is the primary use case for robotic surgery and spine.

That is just the beginning. Once more complex surgical planning can take place, additional surgeries will happen. My strong belief though is that the application layer of digital surgery is what will be built next. The combination that will provide the most value for patients and the whole ecosystem is a procedural solution by virtue of the procedure and the unique advantages of that surgery. A procedural solution that is supremely enabled or especially enabled by digital surgery, that's where this marriage is going to create a lot of value.

Those are two scenarios. I'll leave it at that. The third point I want to make or not so much the third point, but the final closing point is passion is a word that gets thrown around a lot. When I say passion, what I'm referring to is an almost insatiable need to solve a problem. I got to admit most of the problems that I'm aware of are intriguing. Maybe sometimes I'm not that interested. There are certain problems that I think about all the time.

That is usually a litmus test for me that I'm going to do something because my mind won't rest until I start working and solving this problem. Hopefully, this is interesting or at least helpful. I can't say this enough. Consider the startup journey as a tenure process. If it happens for you before then, that's great. If it takes fifteen years, it’s very common. In order for you to keep going, passion is important.

Consider your startup journey asa 10-year process.


I hope you enjoyed the episode. In these quick office hours episodes, I talk about specific topics. They're designed to be bite-size. Hopefully, on LinkedIn, we can get a conversation going and a little bit of dialogue. We can pull in other physician entrepreneurs. As always, you can go to my website, Thanks.

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