A spirit of invention and a fresh approach to collaboration have underpinned the fight against Covid, as Medtronic’s story shows.

Of all the changes sparked by Covid-19 throughout 2020, no sector has been impacted more than health care and health technology. For many organizations, the crisis has brought to the fore qualities of resilience and compassion; in others, it has been the attributes of innovation, creativity and adaptability that have made the difference to fighting back against the virus. One such company is Medtronic, and our story showcases the value of a longstanding commitment to a culture of innovation.

Founded in 1949 in Minneapolis, in the northern US state of Minnesota, Medtronic began as a medical equipment repair shop. Co-founder Earl Bakken went on to collaborate with Dr Walton Lillehei, a heart surgeon at the University of Minnesota, creating the first battery-operated cardiac pacemaker in 1957. This important innovation marked the start of Medtronic as we know it today – and since that time, the company’s culture has evolved to continuously bring innovations to the world through collaboration.

Today, with more than 90,000 employees and operations in 150 countries, Medtronic’s mission is still to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life, which we do through what we call “meaningful innovation”, transforming healthcare for the better. When Covid-19 hit, this deep-rooted, patient-centric mission was the bedrock for our response. The crisis has activated the best of our culture, through a fresh wave of innovation and new, quickly-built collaborative partnerships.

Innovative and inventive

Medtronic’s technical community responded to the pandemic in unprecedented fashion, engaging internally and externally to leverage our expertise and technology. As a company, we wanted to deliver a meaningful impact, but we recognized the need to focus: no one company or organization had the resources to solve the entire coronavirus challenge. For example, our core competencies were not optimized to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE); firms like 3M had far greater capabilities there. However, we had other strengths: we identified the need to focus on increasing production of ventilators.

Medtronic thus partnered with UnitedHealth Group, Boston Scientific and the University of Minnesota to create the Coventor – a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-build ventilator. It went from idea to regulatory approval with the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in just 30 days. This novel ventilator addressed a clinical gap for patients where traditional ventilators were in short supply, and provided healthcare workers with an additional tool to care for the high volumes of patients requiring emergency breathing support.

We also realized that we had excess capacity in additive printing, or 3D printing. One team developed a design for a 3D-printed face shield with a visor. After creating an initial prototype, the team introduced it to management and joined an informal consortium organized by Stratasys. The idea was soon approved and our 3D printers were being used 24/7. In less than a week, hospitals ordered more than 300,000 of the face shields. And by teaming up with Boston Scientific, Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and other companies, we have helped to deliver full-face scuba face masks for use in clinical settings, helping protect healthcare providers and patients from the virus.

Crucial collaborations

As these examples show, technical innovation went hand-in-hand with the establishment of multi-partner collaborations, formed at incredible speed. It was a change for so many collaborations to come together so quickly. Mike Hess, Medtronic’s vice-president corporate technology and innovation, recalls the change: “Our chief executive and engineers were on the same call with Elon Musk, trying to determine how Tesla and SpaceX could help us increase global ventilator production. That normally doesn’t happen… Usually, you start at procurement, purchasing and [send] specs back and forth between engineering teams. We short-circuited a lot of that because every company focused on the big, fundamental question: ‘How can we help?’ In crisis mode, everyone wanted to contribute, so that changed the balance a lot in terms of willing and successful partners.”

That mindset gelled with the long-established Medtronic approach to innovating. As Hess adds: “Our stage gating pushes a lot of ‘yes-and’ behaviour.” For leaders, the challenge is to ensure that people’s enthusiasm and inspiration are channelled, not blocked, so that people with diverse, relevant skills can help turn raw ideas into implementable plans of action. In the response to Covid-19, this led to a bold move to help ramp up ventilator production: we publicly released specifications for one of our ventilators, enabling open-source production. As discussions on this challenge continued, says Hess, “eventually, one person says something like, ‘we should release the ventilator specs’; which becomes a different matter of, ‘what are we going to release? How are we going to release it? Who are we going to partner with?’” Bringing to life the Medtronic mission, the idea was supported by colleagues across the business: “people with other perspectives such as legal and marketing continue to support and bulletproof the idea, so it’s way more successful than it would have been by itself.”

In it for the long haul

The pandemic has shown that Medtronic can partner with other companies and organizations, even competitors, to create lasting change, fast. We are in this for the long haul. It demands balance, of course: we continue to have a long-term innovation approach, funding programmes that will have a long-lasting impact on the company and the products it produces in the future. Leaders apply the lessons learned to strategy and scenario-planning, which will help the company both succeed in the present and prepare for the future. But our current priority is beating the coronavirus: by focusing our expertise and resources in innovation, and pooling them in creative collaborations, we have achieved unprecedented impact. Together, we will beat it.