Innovation: How Empathizing Saved The Day

November 8th, 2017

In his previous post on Innovation (Innovation – How to Do It, Part 2), guest-blogger, Dr. Michael Murray introduced “The Design Thinking/Human Centered Design model 1-3”, a methodology for innovation. The first step of this process is “Empathize”.

With this month’s post that follows, Dr. Murray relates a first-hand experience of how innovation can unfold by embracing and performing that first step. In this case, beginning with “Empathize”, the innovation process led to a breakthrough for a veterinary pharmaceutical product.

This is the fifth in a 10-part series, Dr. Murray is providing. Links to previous posts follow at the end of this one.

The starting point for the Design Thinking process is Empathize, which is defined as “the ability to be aware of and understanding of another person’s feelings and thoughts without having had the same experience.” An example from early in my career illustrates the importance of empathy.

Thirty years ago, as a young investigator/clinician in a university equine referral practice, we acquired a marvelous innovation – a video endoscope that was long enough (2 meters) to reach down to the stomach of an adult horse. This created the opportunity to investigate the extent of stomach ulcer problems in adult horses, which was mostly uncharted territory.

I took the equipment to race tracks, sport horse training facilities, and riding stables, and it turned out that stomach ulcers were a huge problem, both in terms of prevalence and health impact. When people treated the horses’ ulcers, they observed dramatic improvements in the horses’ attitudes and feed consumption, which stimulated more demand for diagnostics and treatment. At the time, though, there were no approved treatments for veterinary use. I reached out to pharmaceutical companies to inquire about their possible interest in developing a product for horses. All but one company said “No thanks”.

Over the next year or so I collaborated with that company’s R&D and business operations teams. Things seemed to be moving along, when the “line went dead” for a couple of months. Somewhat concerned, I called one of my contacts and asked what was up. My heart sank as he told me they decided to stop the project. They had conducted focus group interviews, the kind in which people from the company sit behind a one-way mirror and listen to customers, in this case equine veterinarians. The veterinarians’ indicated that that they did not see stomach ulcer problems in many adult horses. With that feedback, the project was killed.

Of course the veterinarians in the focus groups didn’t see a problem! The specialized equipment for diagnosing the ulcers only existed in a handful of specialty centers. Undaunted, I suggested, “Why don’t you invite the head of the animal health division down to the local racetrack here to see for himself.” The next day I got a call telling me that next Tuesday would work!

Everything was riding on this, but I was eerily confident. Even though we were going to be examining horses that I had never seen before, I knew what we would find. But how would the head of the company see it? As it turns out, the first horse we examined had the worst stomach ulcers I had ever seen, and every horse we looked at had some ulcers. Probably most impactful though, was that in every training barn the trainers had shelves stacked with bottles of liquid antacids. These might provide some symptomatic relief, but we knew that they did not treat the problem. The trainers were coping with the situation as best they could. The situation was ripe for a better solution. Two days later I received a call and was told that the project was back on. The “boss” had seen for himself not only the magnitude of the problem, but the extent to which the horse trainers and owners were seeking a solution. Several years later, a product specifically developed and approved for the treatment of stomach ulcers in horses was launched, and it remains one of the leading equine health products to this day.

Walk in your customers’ shoes to see what they are tolerating and how they are coping with it.

The journey from an idea to launching a licensed pharmaceutical product was long, arduous, and required the participation of many people in every phase of the innovation journey. It would have never happened, though, had not the head of the animal health division “empathized” with the horse trainers and owners. They were the ultimate user of an ulcer treatment solution, and by understanding their perspective from first-hand experience, he left convinced that there was an opportunity.

To read Dr. Murray’s previous posts, see the links below:
July 12, 2017: Innovation: What is it really?
August 8, 2017: Innovators: Who are they?
September 13, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part I)
October 11, 2017: Innovation: How to do it (Part 2)


This post was written by Mike Murray, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, CPC. Dr. Murray is an innovation expert and a guest blogger on our site. He is a veterinarian, and serves as a Technical Marketing Director for Boehringer Ingelheim’s Animal Health division. He is a life and leadership coach, as well as a certified trainer for Managing Innovation™ with his organization. Dr. Murray coaches individuals and teams to help them be even more successful innovators.