Starman on Healthcare Innovation
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SpaceX Disrupts Space Travel — Is Disruption Possible in Healthcare?

In case you missed it, SpaceX made history again this week. Here’s a recap: SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy on February 6, which exceeds the next largest spacecraft in capacity by 2X and reduces the cost by 1/3 ($300M per flight vs $100M per flight).  They recovered 2 of the three booster rockets with a side-by-side precision landing.  (The images are fantastic)

They then completed their third burn, overshooting their initial Mars orbit. Instead, they are now headed towards the asteroid belt. While this a miss in terms of navigation, it is a success in terms of sheer power of the rocket and showcasing what is possible.

Finally, they did it in style. They placed Musk’s red Tesla roadster as cargo, with a mannequin named Starman in a SpaceX spacesuit that played the corresponding song by David Bowie, thus completing the world’s most expensive car commercial.

This caps an amazing week for SpaceX and innovation in general. Musk and the team have captured our imagination by helping us look to the stars once again and wondering if anything is beyond our reach.

The Road to Historic Innovation

Here’s a look at what it took for SpaceX to reach this milestone, however.


The first SpaceX launch failed just 33 seconds after lift-off. The cause of the failure? A rusty nut. No joke.


The second launch got a little further but still ended badly. The engines shut down prematurely and the rocket failed to reach orbit.

Two attempts, two failures.


The third attempt carried a NASA payload and the ashes of Star Trek legend James Doohan, who played Scotty on the show. What could possibly go wrong?  During a rocket stage separation, the two crafts collided and forced an uncontrollable spin.

In baseball terms, that would be 3 strikes.

It was at this point that the story almost ended.  The money was gone but the hope and optimism and passion for a vision was still there.  Here is where it pays to have friends. Peter Thiel stepped in as the first outside investor for SpaceX, just days after the third ship exploded.

The road to historic innovation is usually paved with failure.  Failure continues until one day it stops, and that is when history starts being rewritten.  I wonder if healthcare innovation programs are this committed to the vision.

This past week, Drex DeFord and I discussed this story on This Week in Health IT.  It got me to thinking: Who is going to be the SpaceX of healthcare? I know it’s cliché at this point – Who is the Amazon, Apple, Tesla, and now SpaceX of healthcare? But it’s a legitimate question.

The short answer to that question is, I do not know. But I wanted to list out a couple of the things that help us root for SpaceX. It might also be the key to someone finally establishing themselves as the disruptor of healthcare.

The Vision Captivates the Imagination

SpaceX started with a mission to establish man as a multi-planetary species.  The Earth will not be around forever, and the only way to ensure the survival of the species is to get our butts off this couch we call Earth and go on a road trip.

I spoke to a man who covered the shuttle missions out of Houston for a major newspaper. We talked for hours and at one point he told me that the biggest problem with the shuttle was that it lacks imagination. The name says it all: the space shuttle.

SpaceX is doing more than just making money by launching satellites. They are ensuring the survival of the species.  What’s your vision?

Too many innovation programs lack an inspiring vision.  An inspiring vision makes someone uncomfortable.  SpaceX vision is a challenge to the status quo.  If your innovation center isn’t challenging the status quo, it’s probably not going to innovate.

They Are Taking Us on the Journey

Whether it’s a success or failure, SpaceX always makes the front page.  That’s not the important part of this story, though.

The thing SpaceX does that is unique is that they don’t talk down to us. I’ve heard teenagers talking about the complexity of landing the Falcon 9 in great detail. They put it out there: here is what we are going to try to do and why it’s important. They are bringing us along on this journey. We celebrate their success and we hurt with each failure.

Innovation in healthcare is a team sport.  Build a broadcast center and get the word out.  Show the successes and failures.  Let people in on the plan and let them know the wins and losses.  Allow them to get invested.

Mistakes Are Not Fatal… Unless You Allow Them to Be

Three strikes and you’re out. This is ingrained in our head from an early age. Yet, it is wrong when it comes to innovation.

As Thomas Edison taught us, it’s not three strikes – or even one hundred. Innovation is a process of finding the one way it does work (no matter how many tries it takes). Only then can you do things no one ever imagined possible.

Failure is just part of the scientific method, proving one more hypothesis wrong.

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” — Elon Musk

We need to follow through.  Healthcare has a tendency to start and stop projects.  Some projects should be stopped, but some should never stop.  They change the culture, they inspire future exploration and innovation.  Commit to the mission and follow through.

Innovation Is Solving the Right Problems

Let’s be real clear: other companies know how to put rockets into orbit and even land them vertically. I don’t believe the rocket scientists at SpaceX are any smarter than those at Boeing or Lockheed, but there is a difference.

I believe one of the primary differences is the unifying power of a cohesive vision. The right vision tells you what problem you are trying to solve. Identifying the right problem is the difference between building a space shuttle and building a spacecraft that can land vertically.

One can land on Mars and return reusable parts to earth. The other cannot.

Amazon has a method I would recommend for healthcare.  Identify the problems that once solved will lead to a string of firsts.  Write a series of headlines that start with “First health system to…”  and then write the story about how that will change health in your community and beyond.  Evaluate if you are working on a problem worth solving.

They Started a Movement

Innovation is turbocharged when the culture gets behind the vision. It’s not required, but it certainly helps.

Starman was placed on that ship for us, to cultivate our imagination. It was an inside joke. Every Douglas Adams fan is cheering. It was cool, it was fun, and it was inspiring.

That is what it’s going to take to get some of us to leave this planet. It’s one thing to build the ship, but it’s quite another to get people to actually board the ship. That’s the final vision of SpaceX: to make humans an interplanetary species.

A movement requires followers.  SpaceX commitment to commercial space exploration has emboldened others like Blue Origin to follow.  Healthcare innovators with a bold vision need to get out in front and say come follow us.  It’s scary to get out in front because everyone is watching.  We need you to do it anyway.

As Dr. Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the Mars Society, wrote after the launch: “Seven years ago, the Augustine commission said that NASA’s moon program had to be cancelled because the development of the necessary heavy lift booster would take 12 years and 36 billion dollars. SpaceX has now done that, on its own dime, in half the time and a twentieth of the cost. And not only that, but the launch vehicle is three-quarters reusable.”

Which of the healthcare startups is currently operating on this level? How about health systems? My favorite quote from a physician on a survey we conducted was, “The 1980s just called, they want their software back.” Our hope isn’t to modernize a broken process or system. Our hope is to reimagine healthcare.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter @ThePatientsCIO, or connect with me on LinkedIn.