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Prof. Bill Walsh on Building an Environment for Innovation

Professor Bill Walsh had to invent his own career path when he moved from Rhode Island to University of New South Wales in Australia in 1993. The New Jersey-born surfer and Assistant Professor in the Medical and Engineering Faculty at Brown University began his life down under with scant resources and few contacts. It was a blank canvas upon which he would place his inventive stamp. Walsh has since built the Surgical & Orthopaedic Research Laboratories, an innovation lab dedicated to biomedical and engineering solutions for connective tissue disease and injury in an 800 Sq. Meter space housing 16 employees and $25 million AUSD worth of state of the art equipment.

Interfacing and inventing outside the box

Bill Walsh | Xinova Innovator

“I looked at the landscape of the biomedical research world and saw no one was interfacing with the surgeons.”

Upon earning his Biomedical/Medical Engineering PhD in 1990 from Rutgers in New Jersey, Prof. Walsh went to Brown and promptly encountered the time’s prevailing culture of siloed departments and researcher/clinician segregation. He saw this myopia as a barrier to innovation. But having been instructed by a PhD advisor who’d encouraged collaboration and creative problem solving, Prof. Walsh engaged surgeons at Brown and discovered a broad horizon of clinical problems begging for solutions. It was exciting, uncharted territory.

“I looked at the landscape of the biomedical research world and saw no one was interfacing with the surgeons,” said Prof. Walsh. “I didn’t see myself as an inventor at the time. I set out to do research and solve problems. I’d learned at Brown that if you didn’t know what the clinical problem was, you could never really interface with surgeons to develop a solution.”

First, needing a place to tinker, he started a small lab at Brown and continued talking to surgeons. They shared insights from operating theaters and Prof. Walsh, in turn, shared his own ideas and research expertise. Walsh saw that surgeons faced myriad clinical problems that could be better addressed with research skills and a solutions-oriented approach.

“Research by definition is like inventing: understand the problem, and come up with a solution. I set up a lab to interface with surgeons to help them use research methods to solve their problems. It was organic. We weren’t thinking of the engineering or search path method, or commercialization strategy. They wanted me to solve problems for them and that’s what we did.”

No inventor is an island

Bill Walsh | Xinova Inventor

“You can’t work in a vacuum. I had established an island and until I let people park their boats at my island, I was isolated. Everything is about people at the end of the day. Xinova gives you that innovative environment and the ability to meet others thinking along the same lines.”

Even as a professor at University New South Wales, Walsh thought of himself as mostly “a breaker,” focused on taking things apart to test and fix them. He continued focusing on breaking stuff at his lab in Australia, until a chance encounter eight years ago with Xinova CEO Edward Jung, one of history’s 15-most accomplished inventors with over 1,000 patents. It inspired Walsh to be a “maker” too. In fact, he might have been one all along.

“The moment I thought I could be an inventor was when I heard Edward Jung speak. It changed the way I thought.

“I was invited to his lecture dinner at the university and what Edward said, I’ll always remember: ‘Why don’t people invent at universities?’ His response was: ‘Because there is not an environment to invent. The university is not an environment that rewards invention or fosters invention.’ And I thought that was very insightful. Universities are supposed to be places of higher learning and intellect but they often don’t reward innovation.”

At that time, Prof. Walsh found that most of his efforts to innovate were met with scorn from university colleagues suffering from the cut-down-the-tall-poppy syndrome.

So he reached out to Edward Jung and others at Xinova’s predecessor company and began learning the ins and outs of professional innovation, like how to navigate the commercial and IP dimensions of invention and what’s the difference between a provisional and non-provisional patent. He learned to do literature searches for prior art, and to frame problems coherently so as to elicit compelling and feasible solutions. He learned from other inventors, like Michael Manion, about how to hold a successful brainstorming session.

Ultimately, he learned to think across disciplines like an inventor.

“Inventing is different from research. You need to blank out your mind and open all boundaries. (Xinova) really taught me to put everything on mute and think laterally.”

The joy of invention quickly took hold and, inspired by Edward Jung’s advice, Prof. Walsh built his own environment for innovation in the form of his research lab and his professional network. As a result, he’s patented multiple medical devices in the connective tissue space, and founded or co-founded multiple spin-outs.

“You can’t work in a vacuum. I had established an island and until I let people park their boats at my island, I was isolated. Everything is about people at the end of the day. Xinova gives you that innovative environment and the ability to meet others thinking along the same lines.”

The joy of collaboration

Inventing with others is more fun and more productive than going it alone, Prof. Walsh stresses. He and a mate recently went from idea to commercialization within four months, an unusually fast track that underscored the power of collaboration. But Prof. Walsh notes that by expanding the innovation context into prolific problem solving, not purely IP, Xinova offers unique opportunities to work with others to transform problems into solutions.

“I think the RFI process is great. It’s almost like going to the movies and seeing all the previews, and choosing which ones I want to see. The RFI system is about getting a network of people to seed your brain.”

Prof. Walsh also invokes rugby metaphor when relating how collaboration allows him to pass off an idea should an obstacle beyond his skillset emerge on the path to innovation, whereupon someone else with a different skill set can advance it further up the chain of innovation.

Bill Walsh | Xinova inventor

“Invention is like performing a dance, like interfacing with the surf, like writing a song.”

Philosophy of innovation

“Invention is like performing a dance, like interfacing with the surf, like writing a song. Sometimes it pops in your head. Sometimes it takes a little work. And then that chord progression comes out and that is something to build upon, but you need someone else with a different skill set to work on it with you. You need other people who have an opinion. You can’t be a fence sitter and be an inventor.”

Prof. Walsh is an optimist, “a New Jersey guy immune to criticism” who views everything as an opportunity to innovate, from addressing research and clinical problems, to reading, to interacting with the world around him.

“I look at things and see massive application where others see nothing. Everything is an opportunity. If you don’t see it that way then you’re closing your mind.”

He lives and breathes innovation while at work, at home, or at play on the ocean. His teenage son, a fellow surfer, recently drew up plans to patent an expandable surfboard and a dual chamber bottle. While on the waves, after a friend asked him who was the world’s best surfer, Prof. Walsh began naming legendary pros like Kelly Slater.

“He said, ‘No. It’s the one having the most fun.’ And that’s true in innovation, too. As soon as you give up that hang-up that you have to be the best at something, then you can have fun and be good at everything. I want to work with people I like and solve problems that are clinically relevant, and I want to have a good time doing it. That’s how I feel about going through life.”

Bio—Bill Walsh, PhD

My research at University New South Wales is at the interface between implanted materials and the connective tissues of the body as it relates to orthopedic, plastic and reconstructive and vascular surgery. This includes both autograft, allograft and synthetic biomaterials and understanding and improving these materials in areas of clinical need. Understanding the biology and biomechanics of connective tissues during healing, age and disease provide the foundation of my research interests. This involves research techniques from the macro to molecular level – all a part of my research at UNSW.

I am also the Director of the Surgical & Orthopedic Research Laboratories. SORL’s research interests encompass the biology and biomechanics of connective tissue healing and strategies to improve clinical outcomes using biomaterials and biotechnology in injured and diseased states. Our goal is to provide a collaborative and exciting research environment to further the understanding at the interface between surgery, engineering and medicine.

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