People, Not Just Institutions, Can Be Hubs of Innovation

socialized_medicineBy Jennifer J. Salopek

Kieran Murphy, MD, is an interventional radiologist at the University of Toronto who holds 62 patents; the devices he invented or improved are used more than 62,000 times per year. Murphy, who believes that interventional radiology attracts inventive people, is interested in the genesis of innovation and how it can be diffused. His research has led him to conclude that people, as well as places, can be innovation hubs. He has also demonstrated that social networks are not only evidence but drivers of innovation.

It all began a few years ago, when Murphy was chairing the annual meeting committee for the Society for Interventional Radiology. He wanted to convene an honor roll of inventors among the Society’s membership, and set out to find out how many there were. By painstakingly cross-referencing the membership rolls against patent filings obtained from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Murphy and his graduate students discovered that 457 members held 2,492 patents or patent filings.

“I didn’t expect to find that level of productivity,” Murphy says. His findings led him to wonder, What makes people have good ideas? Where do good ideas come from? Innovations are of two sorts, he concluded: those that are intrinsic, uncontrollable, genetic—“flashes of brilliance”—and those that derive from problem-solving innovation, much of which occurs in academic medical centers. IR, he believes, draws a disproportionate number of those genetically innovative folks, and promotes innovation through its culture as a specialty.

“Interventional radiologists are uniquely geeky,” he says. “While we are nonconformist, our direct contact with patients generates a heightened feeling of responsibility for their well-being that drives innovation.”

Murphy then directed his research efforts into measuring and mapping the social networks of the patent holders and their home institutions. He found that the number of patents a person held directly correlated with the number of connections in his or her network. Further, he discovered that all but six respondents were connected to each other, indicating a high degree of interactivity. “Hub inventors” were particularly connected to others, with up to nine fellow inventors separated by only one degree.

When Murphy queried the inventors about enablers of their success, mentorship and contacts in industry and business were significant factors. Lack of institutional support, on the other hand, was an inhibitor for more than 15 percent of respondents.

Are academic medical centers unwittingly inhibiting innovation? They may be, by rewarding the wrong things and looking for the wrong kinds of people, Murphy says. “This is not about grantsmanship. Unfortunately, many academic medical centers look for successful researchers to staff their innovation institutes,” he says, noting that inventive people are “management problems” who often make leadership nervous. Perhaps even the institutes themselves have a dampening effect on innovation; Murphy believes that periods of prolonged isolation are important to solving intractable problems. The answer, he says, tongue only slightly in cheek, is ice fishing.

Jennifer SalopekJennifer J. Salopek is editor of Wing of Zock. She can be reached at or @jsalopek.