How Can An Innovation Ecosystem be Developed and Sustained in Healthcare?


Finding, Engaging & Collaborating with Potential Ecosystem Partners

A critical ingredient to the development of a succesful ecosystem is finding the right stakeholders. Exploring opportunities for collaboration is a good first step. Potential partners may include other healthcare organizations, academia, government, vendors, suppliers and private sector corporations. An innovation ecosystem requires extensive collaboration. It involves partnerships and conversations between various stakeholders and individuals involved in healthcare to develop new ideas. It is much more than a network of people. Rather, there is mutuality between the parties involved and the ecosystem is orchestrated in a way that enables a strategic vision to be realized.

This level of collaboration results in an open innovation system where people are less constrained and feel free to develop new ideas. New people, new perspectives and enhanced communication can result in more ideas. As in any ecosystem, those involved depend on each other for support and this can further increase the level of collaboration. Open innovation can be carried out in a number of different ways including: networking & crowdsourcing, collaboration and research & development joint ventures; independent entities, licensing and patent pools. 

Examples of successful innovation ecosystems in healthcare include the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) which has developed various innovation strategies within their organization to involve stakeholders in the innovation process. An example is the challenge the VA released as part of the Innovation Challenge Series involving designing prosthestic arms for veterans. The challenge shows the process and potential success involved in bringing others into the innovation process, thereby developing new ideas.

The challenge resulted in a new prosthetic arm device being chosen involving various components that could be changed based on the circumstances. The VA also developed an innovation ecosystem through the development of a new EHR model. This model allows different members from various organizations to work together for development in healthcare. Another example demonsrating the investments of an innovation ecosystem in fostering improved health outcomes, is Prime Health in Colorado.

Create a Culture of Innovation

Developing a culture of innovation is crucial to fostering a related ecosystem. Through an innovative culture an environment is developed where new ideas are accepted and encouraged. This creates the space for new ideas and thoughts to be accepted, and allows stakeholders who may not generally be thought of as innovators to come forward and share their ideas.

Through the development of innovative culture in both workplaces and broader areas of employment, more ideas from unlikely sources will transpire helping to move forward the area of work. Leadership that makes innovation a strategic priority is critical. Organizational culture may need to shift to one that supports both success and failure. Carving space, time and resources for trial and error along the way is part of the journey.

Further reading on establishing a culture of innovation with appropriate rewards and incentives can be found here. Senior leadership may want to conduct an organizational assessment (via an Innovation Auditto determine readiness for innovation. The following useful lessons were shared in a recent paper from PwC on their innoation journey:

  • Don’t discount anybody. Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere;
  • People want to be engaged and empowered. Let them know they can make a difference and give them the reins;
  • Collaboration rocks. Create environments where people can coalesce together and collaborate. Organize mini-organizations around centers of gravity and employee interests;
  • Keep leaders involved. Their involvement lets employees know your innovation efforts are sincere, not just lip service; and
  • Celebrate them. Recognize employees and reward them in meaningful ways for having the courage to put ideas out there. Further reading on rewards and incentives can be found here.


Another useful resource is a research paper which synthesizes a number of case studies on employee engagement efforts in Canadian firms and suggests elements including involvement of unions and employee groups, training, ability to make decisions and leadership support as key facilitators of success. Further reading on employee engagement is available here. Organizations with a culture of innovation exhibit many of the following characteristrics:

Future goals:

  • Goals are big and communicated widely
  • People can clearly picture and get behind the future vision
  • Independent thinking is encouraged
  • People have a sense of empathy for the world and the people whose problems they are solving
  • People have a sense of inquiry, curiosity, and ask probing questions


Company culture:

  • People show that they are engaged and enthusiastic
  • People show that they can take risks within a safe environment
  • Failure is embraced as an opportunity to learn; lessons are shared broadly
  • Learning is a way of life for all people
  • People are externally focused
  • People are encouraged to talk to each other for the world and the people whose problems they are solving
  • People are encouraged to talk to each other, build connections, and share information and ideas
  • People fell empowered to find solutions
  • People work together to solve problems without defensiveness, blame, or secrecy
  • People give discretionary effort because they are personally connected and feel they can make a difference
  • Execution is crisp and well-managed, with clear accountability
  • People have the courage to have honest communication—there are no sacred cows
  • There is healthy creative tension, and it's okay to challenge and debate


Leadership style:

  • Leaders don't micromanager capable people. They set clear goals and monitor/coach their colleagues
  • Leaders believe most people have untapped potential
  • Leaders know that true innovators cannot "prove it" in advance
  • Leaders actively watch for blind spots
  • Leaders provide training and tools to innovate for continuous improvement
  • Leaders provide room to experiment, including time for unstructured thinking


Developing an Innovation Framework & Mechanisms for Idea Generation

To successfully generate innovation, one of the ways is to utilize the stakeholders within the organization to develop creative ideas. To allow this, organizations require a mechanism to to support the innovative process and allow all ideas to be heard. This includes the creation of an innovation framework so there is a system for innovation in the healthcare organization, where ideas can systematically be implemented. This is crucial to allowing new voices to be heard where different people at all levels of the organization work together and have an equal share in the innovation process.

There are a variety of tools and faciliation techniques that can be used to spark creativity within an organzation. Examples include:


Documenting, evaluating and prioritizing ideas for further development is also a consideration when developing an innovation ecosystem. Platforms such as Colleaga offer organizations an effecive mechanism to collect & store ideas for development. Other useful resources for framework development include the Medical Innovation Playbook

Decreasing the Gap Between Ideation & Implementation

In healthcare, as in any complex interconnected system, there can be a significant lag time between the development of good ideas and implementation. This 'valley of death' as it is sometimes referred to in terms of the the time interval between research in acadmia and implemention in clinical practice, needs to be reduced.

Many ideas that are created in the knowledge economy fail to reach the commercial economy. Therefore, in an innovation ecosystem there should be increased partnerships between relevant areas of the health system to make ideas easier to implement in practice.

The space between the innovation and implementation has to be decreased. Mechanisms need to be developed to remove barriers that stifle the innovation process. Issues such as intellectual property should be considered at the outset in an effort to avoid constraints that might hinder process and timelines. Similarly, formalized agreements should be developed between parties to ensure mutual understanding of roles & responsibilities.

Monitor, Measure & Sustain Innovations

While implementing methods to further the ability to innovate within an organization, the ability to measure the organization's ability to innovate is important. An Innovation Audit is a useful tool to assess organizational readiness to move forward. InnPACT is an assessment framework for healthcare innovation that uses 14 pieces of information in order to see a broad view of how an innovation impacts a healthcare organization and the system in which it operates.

Similar to the notion of 'return on investment', a 'return on innovation' should be quantified in order to ensure value for dollars spent on ecosystem development and operation. Possible metrics that could be included in this regard as part of a Balanced Scorecard:

  • New treatment or tests
  • Improved patient experience
  • Improved patient safety and care quality
  • Clinican efficiency
  • Financial[3]​

Global Collaborative Innovation Community

Participation in an innovation ecosystem and related activities should be documented within an organizational strategy with clear lines of accountability and ownership regarding implementation, evaluation and sustainability. Idea management systems, such as the Global Collaborative Innovation Community, can be useful mechasims to capture, store, and share ideas for development.

Leadership support and engagement (including the Board of Director's) is critical to ensuring that innovation is a strategic priority. Despite the critical importance of innovation to most companies' ongoing success, many organizations fail to develop sustainable innovation management processes. This is why it is crucial to encourage collaborative idea management to drive continuous innovation in large organizations.

Furthermore, a relevant case study with measureable success in this area using the BrightIdea platform (which Colleaga utilizes for Enterprise clients) can be found here.

An Innovation Ecosystem is similar to and reminiscent of a biological ecosystem, where there is a set of complex energy relationships between living resources. In contrast, an innovation ecosystem deals with the economic relationships between entities where the goal is to innovate. There are two types of economies involved in an innovation ecosystem: the knowledge economy, which is driven by research, and the commercial economy, which is driven by the marketplace. In a healthcare context, the commercial economy can be viewed as the clinical practice setting (e.g., physician office, hospital) with a direct relationship between the healthcare delivery and the customers (patients). The healthcare innovation ecosystem involves bringing together the various stakeholders involved in order to bring innovation to both the healthcare organization and overall system.

The aim of a healthcare innovation ecosystem is to both increase the patients' health and well-being while improving the efficiency of the use of potentially scarce resources among members of the ecosystem. Disruptive innovations occur when new business or delivery models displace highly specialized and costly models, notable examples being HealthPartners and Sentara Healthcare. Strategies include:

  • Finding, engaging & collaborating with potential ecosystem partners;
  • Create a culture where new ideas are encouraged;
  • Develop an innovation framework and mechanisms for idea generation;
  • Decrease the length of time and resources required to transition an idea from the research stage to the clinical and/or implementation stage; and
  • Monitor, measure and sustain innovations.