Health Innovators
Health Innovators

Episode 92 · 1 year ago

Patient co-creation: How to play the long game with novel tech in healthcare w/ Robert Niichel


Bringing about game-changing solutions in the healthcare and pharmaceutical space can be a daunting and difficult endeavor.

It takes patience, drive, determination, and the canny ability to play chess with marketing - you really need to look at the long game.

Robert Niichel is a master at playing three steps ahead and, on this week’s show, he sits down to discuss what it’s like to play that game with a product you know is going to change the market.

From development to commercialization to marketing, Robert has the scoop on timing and focus that could be the game-changing combination other entrepreneurs are looking for.

So, stay awhile and listen as he touches on many key steps in the commercialization process that could help your company successfully bring a solution to market.

Here are the show highlights:

  • Why it’s the patient that drives the market (2:22)
  • This is how patient co-creation can keep you on track (4:47)
  • Ways COVID acted as a catalyst for changes in how we co-create (7:33)
  • Invest early and often - an education in marketing (10:43)
  • Need to get the word out? Podcasting is where it’s at (14:22)
  • When raising capital, be sure to fund for the long haul (19:22)

Guest Bio

Robert Niichel is CEO and Founder of SmartTab, a digital medicine company developing wireless ingestible drug delivery technologies to dramatically improve patient outcomes.

Both a healthcare entrepreneur and visionary, Robert is the host of the digital health innovation podcast “Who Would Have Thought”.

In addition, he has leveraged over 20 years of experience in leadership and management of Pharmaceutical R&D to acquire numerous pharma/delivery system patents.

Robert earned his MS in Biochemistry from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his BS in Finance Economics from Iowa State University.

If you’d like to reach out to Robert, you can find him on LinkedIn at Robert Niichel, on his webpage at, or email him at

You're listening to health innovators, a podcast and video show about the leaders, influencers and early adopters who are shaping the future of healthcare. I'm your host, Dr Roxy Movie. Welcome back to the show health innovators. On today's episode I'm sitting down with Robert Nicol who is the CEO and founder for Smart Tab. Welcome back to the show, Robert. Thank you very much, great to be here. So, for our audience, if you could just tell them a little bit about your background and what you've been innovating these days, that will kind of set the tone for today's conversation. Yeah, very nice. So my background is in the pharmaceutical space, historically directing projects that have been designed around drug delivery, time release, drug delivery etc. About ten years ago moved out of that space started a company nanopharmaceutical laboratories, with the idea to bring these high tech types of pharmaceutical applications to the consumer healthcare, digital healthcare and consumer healthcare space. From there, as that company grew, we started a new division called Smart Tab, and that was brought online about three years ago with the idea of now adding in wireless drug technologies to cutting edge platform. So today that brings us to smart tab and oral justable capsule with it, which is a drug delivery platform. Very very exciting, very some very novel technology and solutions that you're bringing to the market. Yeah, exactly, and you know, really what started as an idea a few years ago with one particular application for targeted drug delivery has expanded into a platform. Now we have different types of capsules that deliver different types of applications. They're all centered around a platform. So each capsule has a very similar type...

...of electronic architecture inside and then from their delivery applications do change. On the first one we have completed preclinical animal studies already. That was last year, getting ready for our filings with the FDA, and then we have two more platforms that are coming online, heading into preclinical animal studies next month with our inject tab, which will have the studies completed with insulin. That was going to be my next question of where are you in the innovation process? So as we as we kind of think about what you're bringing to market, you know it is something that's very revolutionary, very very much novel. What would you say are some of the differences in your strategies or the commercializations decisions that you're making versus maybe when in the past when you've made be brought got something to market that was more incremental. Yeah, exactly good question, and really on this one in this draws from on experience on other companies building companies in the past is really have it patient focus. So because of that, we hold focus groups, we bring in patients or last one we had about twenty five crones disease patients, and really try to build these products that are very patient centered. You know, sometimes companies will come up with good ideas and then hope that the market or the consumers will be there. This one where on the opposite end of that. We're looking at the consumers first, or the patients first, see what is important to them and then talking about our digital hub here in Denver, Colorado, working with you still health to see what they're looking at. They've been progressive with Tele Medicine. How do we perform the drug delivery through our smart capsule? How do we collect data, ie vital signs, after the drug has been deployed, and then how do...

...we analyze those data to make real time decisions? So I think the biggest key, to answer your question specifically, is we're really completing a lot of market research or very patient driven and, as you can imagine, this is much more complex in the healthcare industry. You have insurance involved, you have pairs involved, you have very high end individuals who deploy this technology through the hospitals. You know, they're very highly trained, very specialized. So we're looking at that strategy, that platform first, versus a lot of consumer products. I mean, this isn't a consumer product, but nonetheless, you come up with this one's kind of cool, you sprinkle some money on it for marketing and you're on your way. This one we're being very strategic in obtaining what the market is after, what the patients are after. Now the young goal with all this is better patient outcome, so the patients have better drug delivery platforms and have better patient outcomes. So when I think is so important, and I've talked about this a couple of times on the show, is you know, a lot of brilliant innovators like yourself. You know you've got an idea that you want to bring to market in a lot of times people will kind of fall in love with that idea and stay really closed and make sure that all that R and d comes from within the company. So I really really advocate for what you're saying. I call it cocreation, where you're co creating with your target customers and you know, not just doing that that customer discovery at a particular moment in time, but on an ongoing basis, that it's part of the culture, it's part of the DNA of the company. It's not that you just do, it's who you are. Yeah, that's exactly right and it's been surprising with the patient focus groups. You know some of the learnings from those. You know, it seems simple enough that, you know, one of our platforms is to do away with the syringe in the needle and bring that to a capsule platform. So now, instead of once a week, if you have to self inject a syringe in a...

...needle into your leg, now you take a capsule and that performs the injection into the stomach vascular matrix. How you know that would affect people? And then really, you know, just seeing what the desire is for that, and a lot of stories are people have to drive fifty miles, I have to go to a hospital, they have to have their injection completed because they can't do it by themselves. Maybe they have to have their roommate complete an injection or their spouse, etc. And, you know, really discovering some of the non visual cost you know, the drive time, the time in the hospital, so on and so forth. So so they have been very eye opening that. It's just fantastic and I'm I hope that all of our audience is kind of taking heed to that. A lot of times when innovators are starting out, you know, they might not think that they have the time or they have the money to invest in this type of customer discovery up front, and I'm always advocating that you can't afford to not do this up front. So it's great to know that you guys are on the right track. Yeah, yeah, thank you, and we will stay on that track as we move forward and you're more in the commercialization is really today, you know, we're working through the clinical studies. The next step will be the FDA approvals and then we go to market. And as we get closer to going to market, you continue with focus groups. Know what resonates with the individuals, the patients, beyond just the product, but how do you deploy the technology? How do you interface this with a an APP on your phone? How does this platform then become driven with different software attributes? So those are important things also as we move to market. Yeah, so when to just if you don't mind, kind of just talk about this co creation or customer discovery with the patients. As you've gone through them process, you know, have you come across any challenges with getting patients to participate and engaging them,...

...especially, you know, in this postcovid climate that we're leading into? And maybe if you have, how have you how have you work through them? Yeah, good point. So, you know, the first thing is with the covid very limited on in person meetings. You know, prior to Covid we would have visitors to our facility. We are in a newer building catalyst health. It's a a mix of startup companies midsize companies in the digital healthcare space. So we would have visitors come in, talk with them, show them what we were working on, what we're doing. COVID stopped all that. So then we had to migrate to these these sessions. So the focus groups, the last couple that we've done, they're all online right so you have thirty people on your zoom call and that is effective. It does create a different type of dynamics. You don't really get to know the people as well or have that, you know, in person interactions. So that has been it's been a challenge, I think sometimes it has allowed us to get people from different parts of the state, different parts of the country to participate, so that has been a benefit, you know. So so covid nineteen had its challenges as well as some positive things as well. We have been expanding the reach with, you know, the focus groups. You know, like I mentioned, outside of the state and more on a national level. We've been able to talk to some more international communities what this would look like as well. Now, post covid. It's been interesting tell a medicine his really increased, you know, the use of zoom calls is really increased. So I think those conversations now sometimes go better because you're actually seeing the person on video. You actually getting a little bit more interaction with them. Pre covid zoom calls were not as popular. Now they're everywhere, there every day. So you know, I'm kind of the eternal optimist, and now he's look for the good things and you kind of like I'm the you know,...

...the glass is always full. Does it even have full? It's all the way full. But so I kind of look at the Ernewer, the covid nineteen, if you looked for opportunity these with that, you know, I think we can come out of that better and it's certainly with our focus groups. It has been a ben has been a benefit. Yeah, yeah, I couldn't agree more. A lot of times those things that we thought were challenges turn into really incredible opportunities that can be changing for our business. And I like what you're saying to really being able to go on, go outside of your local market gives you kind of a different population for which is, you know, your I'm sure you're going to be selling nationally, maybe even globally. So being able to broaden that sample population for that co creation is so important because you could potentially learn something different from, you know, patients in the New England area versus, you know, more in the Colorado market. So it's great. So one of the things that I find is so amazing about you guys is your investment in marketing and PR pre launch. So I've worked with a lot of health innovators over the years and many times I'm pushing and advocating and and kind of presenting a case of how important it is to invest in those strategies early on, and you guys are doing it. So just kind of share about that journey. What was your motivation? Was it past experience? Is it's someone on your team? A combination of things? What motivated you to make those investments early on? A great question, and so I would say there are two things. Number one, it's the that the what we are working on is really, to an extent, educating patients on a better platform, a better application. The second thing is that prior experience is that you need to get the word out on what we're working on. So in as much to an extent, it's marketing. This is really a mission for us. So we have had successful companies before.

We're driven by really bringing a game change in technology to the market. So when you think about that, you know most people in the United States today, if you would say in three years, four years, you will be taking a capsule instead of using a Syringine and needle right hurt, they've never heard of it's crazy idea. However, you can look at other industries that have started out and have moved pretty quickly to a new paradigm shift and that's what we're working on. So part of that requires marketing. It requires what we're doing today, you know, being on the show, being on the PODCAST, being on with the marketing to educate people that it's out here. So that not only has benefits to drive potential through our focus groups to focus on this patient centered approach, but also, you know, with working on strategic partnerships with farmer companies or strategic partnerships with with medical instrument types of companies and raising capital, etc. So a lot of this is about educating and when you're working on something as large as this, to where you look at a pharmacy today, it looks basically the same way it did fifty, sixty years ago. So we're talking about going into a pharmacy and changing the way the medicine is deployed. So when you walk into a pharmacy save ten years from now, virtually all capsules, tablets of some type of a tracking mechanism, electronic delivery mechanism, etc. So, you know, because of that we need to get the word out and we need to provide education to patiences as well as the marketing piece of it. Yeah, well, again, big Kudos to you guys. There's another company that's in the similar space, right in the digestible medicine drug delivery market, that I'm very familiar with, and you know their perspective of their commercialization strategy was they were waiting all the...

...way until they got FDA clearance, waiting till they had all the clinical evidence before they were investing any dollars and marketing. And I think it's a huge missed opportunity and and so I mean, just like I said, Kudos to you guys for making that investment and seeing that vision, because I think it's going to be a game changer, because you're right, it is a long haul with being able to educate the market around something that is so novel and that way, when you're ready to go to market, it's already there. Right. Yeah, so let's just talk about podcasting. You know, when I think about some of the objectives from a from a marketing, a commercialization standpoint around pre launched I think of building an email list, building a social media presence, testing marketing messages, having early conversations with perspective customers, and these are all things that you can do through, how producing and hosting your own podcast show. So when did you guys start your show and how has that bit been beneficial to the company? Yeah, exactly, great points. So we started about a year and a half ago and we've done it in different segments. So the first segment was to focus on healthcare in general how that's changing. Then we have a second campaign where we talk more about the technology specifically, and then different types of podcast we've been guests on, whether it's been talking about the deployment of the technology, commercialization, etc. So, to answer your question, about a year and a half ago we got started and then it has really helped, like again back to this education to where almost if you look at these industries, to where people are like, I've never heard of such a thing. You mean you can actually take an electronic capsule, swallow it, track data, injectables, multidays, etc. And you can look at some of these industries that start to before, and...

...since I mentioned this a couple times, some examples. Take take things that are electronic like the microwave oven, and when that started in the late S, nobody ever heard about it. And it very fast. People heard about it, they started using it. Now, forty fifty years later, it's like every house, every place has a microwave of other. And you can look at the cell phone industry. In the early s nobody ever heard of cell phones. They were nowhere. Then all of a sudden, one thousand nine hundred and eighty five or so, they came up with the big motor roll of bricks, if you remember those. And then, you know, here we are thirty years later and they are everywhere and we truly believe I'll be at a long haul. Like you mentioned that getting out there with the PODCAST, educating the people and letting people know that this technology actually exist is key to what we're working on. So, like we've talked about here, is I get started early, get the word out. It's now opportunity to educate people about the technology but, more importantly, let people know that the technology actually exists. Yeah, yeah, Hey, it's Dr Roxy here with a quick break from the conversation. Are you trying to figure out what moves you need to make to survive and thrive in the new covid economy? I want every health innovator to find their most viable and profitable pivot strategy, which is why I created the covid proof your business pivot kit. The pivot kit is a step by step framework that helps you find your best pivot strategy. It walks you through six categories you need to examine for a three hundred and sixty degree view of your business. I call them the six critical pivot lenses. As you make your way through this comprehensive kit, you'll be armed with the tools, tips and strategies you need to make sure you can pivot with speed without missing out on critical details and opportunities. Learn more at legacy DNACOM backslash kit. You know, content PR promotion, you know, and as...

...we talked about co creation and customer discovery. You know, what better way to do that with with than consistently having interviews with your target audience on the show and create content while you're doing it? Yeah, yeah, exactly right. Yeah, so what is what is what is on the future? In the future for Smart Tab what are some of the key milestones that you guys are focused on, both in the short term in long term? Yeah, great question. So short term, we have an upcoming preclinical animal study using the inject tab with insulin. That will be hoppitting starting next month. That's a key bottlestone. Target Tob we have preclinical studies completed. We will be bundling those data to submit to the FDA for a clearance medical device. You get a clearance class to medical device and then from there we bundle that with a farm a prescription drug, and that would be a five. Will five be too so kind of give you an idea. The timeline is it within the next six twelve months obtain the class to medical device clearance on two of our smart tabs and then we need to bundle those with prescription drugs. About twenty four months to have to do one human clinical study. Then the next milestone be a commercialization. So as we grow, one of the things we're working on right now is building out a mid size have a pilot mid size manufacturing facility so we can measure the so we can build the capsules at a measured rate, keep that internal, keep the controls tight there, and then commercialization within thirty six months. So we're on a pretty short time frame to where in three years, if all goes well, you will see the first... tabs in the market. In the pharmacies for our patients to use. It's very exciting. I mean it's your hard press these days to not have someone that you know in your circle that's taken some type of injection medication or that is non compliant with their Medication Regiment and you know how it's impacting their lives and and so it'll be really exciting to when we have some of these innovations actually in use. So one of the things I think is really interesting is you know, you've been at this for what, three years? Yes, and then you're talking about another thirty six months before you get to commercialization, and that takes money, right. Can't build a company for five or six years without having some type of funding. So talked to us about what this funding journey has been like for you? Yeah, exactly, and this draws on experience of building companies in the past and being successful, is that you start out with individual investors. Some of those investors have been prior investors and prior companies, so individual investors, you know, to date with a very clean balance sheet, no debt, no preferred stock, no liquidation preferences, and we continue to grow. We're starting now on our series a capital raise. We were going to start in this a little bit earlier, but things were slowed with covid nineteen, etc. So now we're embarking on that journey to raise additional capital for the growth ahead. So yes, we do need to raise capital. However, with that capital it continues to you know, now we'll work through the clinical studies, build out this pilot manufacturing facility, launch activities, etc. So to date, I would say we've been very frugal with the dollars that we've raised. We know how to, you know, present the company exactly where we're at present, a very solid management..., and also there's this idea that we are on a mission. You know, we will see this through, and you know so people like myself. We've had other companies, we've been successful, but you know, this is one that's a mission and we're not going to, you know, get twelve months. Here is our you know, we were out of money. Where I go raise more capital, go do something else. This this is a mission and we will see this through to get these products to market. So with that, it gives people confidence as the investors to invest dollars and see the horizon of what we're what we will be bringing to market. So how is that journey? It maybe evolved before Covid, during covid and kind of now is we're caught, you know, kind of the postcovid economy or the postcunt covid funding round. You know, I hear a lot of mixed messages about money drying up and then money being a free for all and kind of every place in between. Yeah, I mean for us it's really about the fit. You know, this is more cutting edge technology. So we're not a real good fit for an investment firm that is looking to invest and you know, have a very clean line of side for an exit. And twelve months right. Yeah, ours a little bit longer where, you know, probably three or four, five years out. Some people get scared off by the FDA process, but that's just the way it is. We've been through that before and we'll migrate through this one successfully as well. There's plenty of money out there for the right ideas and if it's the right fit. I think a lot of times with you know, you hear the money has dried up, that's probably because people are running into a situation to where it isn't a good fit. They don't have a good strategy. They are trying to build something and take it to market, but they have no idea what the market is. We've talked to you that already. You'll be in patient centered. So the money is out there. It has to be, you...

...know, it has to be invested into good teams, good strategies, etc. So it is a process and I think covid nineteen, it's certainly slow things down, but now we're kind of moving out of covid and things seem to be speeding back up again. Yeah, yeah, I definitely agree and you know, to your point, you know, it's very different, I think, trying to raise funds for you know, they're all have their their challenges in their opportunities, but I think it's very different when you're raising money for something that's really never been done before or contributing to a new category. Yeah, you're exactly right and you know so again, and this is a mission for us. We will bring these things to market, but it is game changing. If you start looking at the numbers, fifty billion injections last year globally. I mean, imagine if you could have some of those people taking a copsule now for an injection instead of a stringe and needle. You're talking the ability to have market valuations that are extremely large, or talking about your revenue streams that are extremely large. This is a game changing technology that we're bringing to markets. So, yeah, you're right. You're exactly right. Some people may view the risk too high, the money return, etc. But it will work. We will bring these things to the market and because of that, your returns will be very high. However, some people, you know, it's too risky. The line is side isn't quite there. They have to a scares some people off, like we've talked about. But but I think, to your point, that is correct. If it's if it's too new, if it's too unknown, people get scared away and then they obviously don't enjoy the returns when it does come to market. Well, and they're the ones that miss out right. They weren't a good fit for you anyway. So it's nice that they can, you know, self select out self top out right. Yeah, so what are some of the...

...most important commercialization decisions you think entrepreneurs are need to make, especially bringing, you know, something like a med device, a solution to market? Yeah, that's a great point. So one of them that is near and due our heart is to keep the development, keep the early stage manufacturing in house. Many times in people will get sold on this very easily. Many times, as a startup is you need to contract manufacture out, bringing the experts, and many times those don't go very well because it is an house. Maybe the people that are the contract manufacturers they're not on the same mission path that you are, and you know me por experience, we've seen those play out. So very important to us, and I was suggested other entrepreneurs take a close look at this, is when you're developing something, certainly the more proprietary that it is, keep a very close eye on how it's being developed, how it's going to be manufactured and then what those controls look like, because many times you can spend a lot of money on contract manufacturers and then it doesn't work out as well. So I would say that is one key point to really take a hard look at. Beyond that, then, is kind of this moving scale of investment. Right. We talked about this little bit already. How much do you market early? How much do you market when you launch? There is a direct function between marketing and your revenues. But you know, you do have a diminishing scale there as well. So how do you optimize that? How do you optimize the mark getting dollars? However, being cognizant of the different marketing streams that exist today. Right. So, you market a new product, whether it's MED device, farm a prescription, it's quite different today than it was ten, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, when I had three channels on television and trying to deploy. Or now we have multiple channels, multiple streams. The two way communication... much better, right. So we can hold focus groups, we can have much better interaction with our potential patients then we could twenty three years ago. So that's been a big boom. Things like what we're doing today. You get the word out, you give almost real time feedback and then from there you can adjust to your marketing. How has Farma reacted to this idea and this new categoryy and brought to market by you guys? Yeah, so large farmer companies we talked to they like it. It's a game changer. I believe everyone we've talked to it like to be a part of this at some point. Large farmer companies, large companies in general, they do not innovate necessarily very much or at all or very quickly. So they some of them take a weight and see approach. Others have signed it up for strategic partnership. So we know that. You know, in the farmer space it is a little bit of a longer haul. We understand that. But I mean in general everybody likes it. Everybody knows it will be a game changer. We have seen some of these things. You know, medical devices have have improved or you know, had have had some nice advancements over the last decade. So we see that continue. Yeah, just see to find those two drug manufacturers that have complementary products that are going to be competing against each other right find the one that wants the leap frog the competition exactly. So what are is? Are there any additional lessons learned? You know, doesn't have to be through SMART Tab, it can be some of your previous companies. Are there any other lessons learned around this commercialization journey that you would want to share with our audience before we wrap up? I think for commercialization again you're really looking at what the market is after. You know, a lot of these products will co come down to what the market will bear or what...

...the market desires. So be very cognisant of what you're building fits into that, and also be aware of the pricing, because if you have really great products but their price too high or too low to we can achieve decent margins to really promote them, you know, those are issues as well. So those would be the two things that I would really point out. And then the third thing is just make sure you have control. Make sure that you're not farming out too much of your activities so you lose control. Yeah, I definitely recommend that anything that is coming close to your competitive advantage, that you've got to keep those resources and capabilities internally and only looking for strategic partners or alliances with those things that you that aren't tied to your competitive advantage. Otherwise you're in big trouble. Exactly right. Yeah, good point. Good Point. Well, thanks so much for joining me today, Robert. How do folks get a hold of you if they want to follow up with you after the show? Yeah, exactly. So we have our web page, which is smart Tab dot co, notcom but dot co, so smart tab dote and we have a link there and then we can email as well, so that would be Robert Dot Nichel, smart tabcom. Thank you so much. It's been great having you here today. Yeah, thank you. Enjoyed it my pleasure. Thank you so much for listening. I know you're busy working to bring your life changing innovation to market and I value your time and attention. To get the latest episodes on your mobile device, automatically subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast APP like apple podcast, spotify and stitcher. Thank you for listening and I appreciate everyone who shared the show with friends and colleagues. See You on the next episode of Health Innovators.

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