The current tension in medical technology is between risk-taking startups and lumbering multinational corporations: the small guys have the ideas and new gadgets, but the med-tech giants have the money.

Which is more important?

"I would ask General Motors if they could have been more innovative when they were once flush with cash," said Stuart Hendry, chief executive at Sphere Medical (Cambridge, UK).

"It is not always the case that we can afford to innovate," he said, "but if we do not, then we are as dead as GM."

Jacques Souquet, chief executive at Supersonic Imagine (Aix-en-Provence, France), has seen innovation from both sides, having started up two other companies and having sold one of them to Royal Philips Electronics (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), where he served five years as chief scientific and technology officer.

Souquet told an audience for the EuroMedtech 2009 plenary session on "Will innovation still thrive in the current market?" that at his new company, SuperSonic, "In 2-1/2 years, we developed a product from scratch that today has a CE mark. When I was at Philips, it would take six years and $60 million to do the same thing."

"We are a start-up now, growing so fast that my focus actually is to save cash, but at the same time we have a road map for continual product development and planned product launches."

Souquet urged the audience of med-tech executives to look to low-cost but high-return potentials by "leveraging the core competencies and strategic assets that you already have in place."

Another recommendation for low-cost innovation in a time of low financing for ideas is to "really listen and understand the non-articulated needs of doctors and your customers."

Hendley agreed, saying the kind of innovation that is essential "is not just at the technical level, but in thinking differently about what your product really is, about non-traditional features such as feeding information into a decision support system and thinking about hospital workflow.

"This kind of thinking in turn reveals a new level of challenges as to how you approach and sell to customers and their needs to both improve patient care and improve efficiency."

— John Brosky, European Editor