Originally Published MX: Issues Update January 2010
The MX Q&A: e-Zassi.com’s Peter von Dyck
First online B2B site to target the medical device community helps members find their perfect business match.
Peter von Dyck
Adapting social media to the business world obviously requires more than just tweaking the Facebook or Match.com models. The belief that a well-constructed social media platform can be an effective business tool for the device industry fired the imagination of Peter von Dyck. A successful inventor and holder of 11 U.S. patents, von Dyck set out to prove that concept in 2009 with the launch of e-Zassi.com (Fernandina Beach, FL). The first online community designed specifically for the medical device community, the site now has more than 800 individual and corporate members, says von Dyck, the chairman and CEO.
The Web site is designed to enable the device industry identify opportunities for acquisitions, licensing, and collaboration. It uses 46 specific business interests and member profiles created through a Web-based interface that taps into 5000 attributes. The business interests carry headings such as technology investing, acquiring/licensing technology, manufacturing, seeking strategic partners, and funding. A Q&A interface called Device Network Attributes, or DNA, leverages the 5000 traits to help members find compatible business matches, according to the start-up. An additional FDA Regulatory Calculator shortens product classification searches to minutes rather than months by allowing users to input nonconfidential product attributes and details about their new product or technology. The calculator then provides potential predicate codes and other regulatory information and offers an FDA classification analysis of up to three medical device technologies, according to the company.
Von Dyck says the idea for the site grew out of the “real-world frustrations” he experienced while running his Florida-based company, Zassi Medical Evolutions, which manufactures gastrointestinal products for waste management and incontinence control. He says individuals and institutions with innovative ideas and good research “have the science part down but struggle with key business-related areas like regulatory assessments, reimbursement, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and quality control. We knew we could speed connectivity and deal-making between innovators and industry if we created the ability for this data to be generated automatically and without bias.” Particularly in an economy with a weak pulse, von Dyck asserts that the device industry needs “new-economy” methods for finding partners, sharing noncompetitive research, and getting products to market faster than traditional methods allow.
Von Dyck founded Zassi Medical Evolutions at the age of 28. The inventor of the e-Zassi Innovation Diagnostic Tool (IAE), he was selected by Ernst & Young as the 2000 Florida Entrepreneur of the Year for healthcare and life sciences. In 2004 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry named von Dyck one of the 100 Most Notable People making a material difference in the global medical device industry.
In this MX interview, von Dyck touches on topics such as the challenges in launching the online venture, the benefits and drawbacks of using social media as a business tool, navigating “the paranoia element” of the device industry, and the familial origins of the company’s name.
MX: How many members are there in the e-Zassi business network now?
Peter von Dyck: We’re very pleased. We already have more than 800 individual and corporate subscribers in the short time since we launched and membership grows every day to reflect an impressive diversity of global leaders within the medical device industry. We have an equal distribution of C-suite execs, top researchers, academic institutions, and finance community and service provider leaders. Much of our development work is focusing on the influencer and early adopter segments of our target audiences. Unlike the homogeneity of many other networks, this diversity of decision makers assures the range of counterparts typically needed to move a project forward are accessible by all e-Zassi members.
What challenges did you face launching the online business Web site?
There were two primary issues.
The capabilities of the software were underestimated because it was a new technology solution. It was difficult for potential members to believe that a software platform could facilitate so much collaboration and disclosure without any intellectual property exposure. In essence, InnoVision, our predictive analytical software that digitizes key traits and attributes from medical technologies, does so without using any confidential inputs or generating any confidential outputs from a patent perspective, eliminating the need to fight over confidentiality agreements first.
The second challenge was the economy. In 2009 it was clear that, for the first time, even the medical device industry was materially impacted by the recession and most folks were a bit restrained in implementing anything new until the smoke had cleared. Now they see us increasingly as a new-economy tool and one that’s a more powerful and less expensive way to connect and collaborate versus the manual and traditional means.
Did you adapt anything you may have learned from social networking sites such as LinkedIn or even Facebook when designing your industry-specific site?
A few things. While these sites are a bit shallow in comparison to what we have built and customized for a very deep and technology-centric industry, we adopted certain best practices and features, such as the membership alerts systems and integrated e-mail features.
Specifically, what real-world frustrations caused Zassi Medical Evolution to launch e-Zassi?
The primary frustration we observed was that many individuals and institutions on the research and innovation side of the industry were ill-equipped to calculate and depict, to industry partners, the key opportunities and burdens that are involved with a newer medical technology. They have the science part down but struggle with key business-related areas like regulatory assessments, reimbursement, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and quality control.
We knew we could speed connectivity and deal-making between innovators and industry if we created the ability for this data to be generated automatically and without bias and then be available to facilitate deeper initial reviews for diligence that didn’t require premature formation of arduous confidentiality agreements. There also was the fact that searching for and building the evolving array of synergistic partners and experts that a technology or company needs took an enormous amount of time and money. Typically, industry members had accomplished this by traveling and attending and exhibiting at conventions, or by placing and reading general trade ads and such. As the world has become more digital, these “old school” means have become less effective and are quickly losing their relevancy.
What challenges do device companies face when bringing products from design to market?
There are tremendous challenges entailed in the process of maturing a concept from design to market. Many involve the detailed road-mapping and planning around the development burdens of the product. It is critical to have not just an early understanding of these challenges so that clinical plans can be designed properly to satisfy safety and efficacy but for regulatory approvals and competitive analysis and reimbursement as well. In many cases these variables, and many others, are reviewed much later in the cycle, causing repeated work or the need for additional capital, as well as other [unforeseen] events. This can be mitigated through the use of the e-Zassi.com predictive analytics software platform. We have already received testimonials from our initial members that our software and services have led to value-added connections that have saved both time and money.
Do the challenges vary depending on, say, the medical use or class rating of the device?
Yes, the challenges vary significantly depending on the FDA or regulatory classification a product falls into. This is one reason the FDA Calculator feature is embedded into our InnoVision software. The regulatory classification of a new device technology alone can significantly impact the time and capital requirements of a technology by several years and millions of dollars. Without knowing the classification very early on, companies may be developing or negotiating in the dark.
How hard was it to come up with 5000 data points for search and matching purposes?
The 5000 unique attributes and traits we call “DNA” or Device Network Attributes are pivotal to the powerful capabilities of the e-Zassi software. They have taken years to develop, and they act similar to biological DNA in humans. As the human genome project has begun to usher in personalized medicine and care based on an individual’s differentiating genetic features and traits, the e-Zassi system achieves the same by extracting and leveraging the differentiating DNA of its individual and corporate members and all medical devices technologies as well. This really changes the game and will create amazing new capabilities going forward.
Do you detect any device trends in the type of companies signing up to use either the matching site or the regulatory calculator?
All sectors and company types benefit from the search engine we have in place, but our InnoVision predictive analysis tool is presently best suited for those technologies in the minimally invasive surgery area, orthopedics, cardiovascular, and urological medical specialties.
How has the industry responded to the launch of e-Zassi.com? Do you find that skeptical company executives are worried about protecting their IP, for example?
Our system has been specifically engineered to address and navigate the paranoia element of our industry as it relates to intellectual property, so we get a good response from those that take the time to see how elegantly that has been addressed and how that is a game changing feature. On the other hand, the fact that for the first time in decades the medical device sector has been materially impacted by the global economic crisis, 2009 proved quite a challenging year to introduce e-Zassi.com. Now, as things improve a bit, industry participants are ready to look at new tools that enable them to work faster and more economically, so we are finding that we are really increasingly viewed as a welcome new-economy tool that saves time and money.
Does the site use proprietary algorithms for matching purposes?
Yes, all our coding and methodologies are proprietary and patent pending.
What are the benefits and the drawbacks of using social media for device companies?
Most existing social media forums are too shallow and broad for the very specialized life sciences industry. These social media sites can serve well as a means for direct-to-consumer conversations and certain basic B2B or P2P connectivity too, but being in a highly regulated and trade secret sensitive sector, we have special needs. Of most risk with existing sites is the potential for over-disclosure—whether intentional or inadvertent—of critical patentable data that could be catastrophic in terms of potential adverse events tied to social media sites. I think the Internet is a very viable medium to leverage, as our industry is very globalized and fast-paced. A site tailored to the fears and regulations of life sciences like e-Zassi may have a bright future, as the Internet becomes the dominant means of B2B collaboration and communication.
What steps can device executives take to maximize their company’s efficiency in product launches, especially in this economy?
Speed-to-market and the effective communication of the safety and clinical and cost benefits of a new product are paramount in gaining rapid adoption. That’s another reason why we felt it was imperative to develop a software platform that could provide predictive analytics early in the innovation and product development cycle while being able to foster faster and more synergistic connections among diverse sets of parties around the globe. Product life cycles are shortening, and we all have less time to capitalize on a window of opportunity, so even as devices become more complex and costly to develop, we need to find faster ways to execute.
What have you learned from your expertise in patents that has helped you design the matching site and regulatory calculator?
Developing and holding more than a dozen medical device patents myself, I can say that that experience was critical in [designing] the e-Zassi software [architecture]. The majority of all patents awarded end up merely being fancy plaques on the wall, while only a small percentage are viable enough to attract the backing to get through the development gauntlet and eventually provide improvements to patient care, create revenues, jobs, and returns for shareholders and investors. It was clear that a new approach was needed. Patents are expensive to prosecute, develop, maintain, and defend. And without embedding developmental and commercial aspects and thinking into a patent estate, they risk being challenged and potentially infringed or bypassed as an effective barrier to entry. Patents really need to be forward thinking and broad and increasingly include real market elements so that they are more commercially viable and actually protect the intended and finished product on the market and not just some theoretical claims on a concept.
Finally, you probably get this question a lot, but what’s the origin of the company name “Zassi?”
The name “Zassi” was first used for my medical device company back in 1997 when I was 28 and struggled to invent and develop a new medical device to help my sister, Saskia, who my family affectionately called Zassi. She was seriously wounded and in a coma due to a head accident when she was in her twenties. I wanted to form a company that was patient- and family-centric and we ended up successfully innovating two new technologies for infection and continence control.
Unfortunately, it was not in time to save her. After I licensed and sold off the two medical technologies in 2006, my dream was to build a system that would transform the industry and make sure more great innovations made their way through the development gauntlet and to the patient’s bedside. What better way to pay tribute to the ultimate “customers” we all serve by naming this important company after a patient who passed before benefiting from innovation. Her spirit lives on and serves as a powerful moral compass for us here at e-Zassi.com.
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