Excerpted from SEAK’s course, “How to Become a Successful Physician Inventor

Dr. Wilk: Been very successful. I invented the Da Vinci robot. I invented the gall bladder bag. I invented the five-millimeter stapler, a lot of other products that are on the market. So it’s been a great 25 years. And looking forward to the next 25 years.

What I would like to do today is give you a little bit of insight into the thinking behind an invention. The woman over there says that she has children and that every day there are new products for her. It’s absolutely true. We invent every single day. I remember being 7 or 8 and thinking that the dental floss that I had should have a flavorant and I wanted bubble gum. And that’s an invention. I didn’t think of it as an invention but it is an invention.

A 6 or 7-year-old boy invented a jar with two tops to get the peanut butter out. He could never get the peanut butter out of the bottom. So his father was a patent lawyer. They filed a patent on the jar with two tops. You can invent everything.

And as an example, this, which we have here. This, this has patent numbers on it. This is a patented invention. And when you put a product on the market, you have to include your patents or it becomes invalid. You lose the patent if you put out a product and don’t put the patent number on it. And this has a whole bunch of patent numbers on it. The person who invented this probably gets a millionth of a cent, but they put out billions of these and the end result is that he makes money from that.

The bottom line is that inventions are everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Orthopedics, a fabulous device field, pediatrics, anesthesia, we all use devices and every day I believe we invent. You’re using an instrument, you’re using a technique, you’re using something to treat a problem that’s not going as well as you want it to go. Your device is not doing what you want it to do or it’s not doing it well, or it fails and there’s an invention. The solution to that is an invention.

So every mistake is an invention waiting to happen. One of my favorite places to get inventions is at the M&M conferences. Every surgical mistake or every medical mistake is an invention waiting to happen. And I’ll go through a few of these.

These are phrases that you think of all the time. “There ought to be a better way to do this.” “I wish I could do that.” Every time you hear yourself thinking that, you have an invention because the way to do it better is an invention, and it’s patentable because the people in this room are the world’s experts at what you do. I cannot invent an orthopedic instrument. I’m not an orthopedist. I’m a general surgeon and colorectal surgeon. I can’t do that. I happen to know a lot about the heart because I’ve done a number of heart operations. But there are things I can invent and things I cannot invent.

I have a lot of patents with co-inventors, people that I’ve talked with in the hospital. I ask them, “What problems are you having? What’s the worst thing that can go wrong with this particular operation? And how would you [inaudible 00:04:00]?” Any one of these will be an invention. If you’re using a device and you want to make it faster, safer, cheaper, that’s an invention. They are literally everywhere.

Here’s a way to think about an invention. Here’s an invention I didn’t get a patent for. But I was sitting with my wife late at night, we’re in a restaurant and she wants coffee. She says, “But I’m afraid to order coffee because I might order decaf but I don’t know whether it will be decaf. But if it’s caffeinated, I’ll be up all night.” Can you think of a solution to this problem? Anybody in the room think of a solution for this problem? Sir?

Man 1: Make sure that the servers [inaudible 00:04:54].

Dr. Wilk: Good idea.

Man 2: Bring a gerbil that runs to the restaurant and administer a few drops of…

Dr. Wilk: I actually brought my hamster to New York. So she’s in the room sleeping right now but running all night.

Man 3: Peter, don’t they make the containers different colors on top?

Dr. Wilk: Well, they do but that is no guarantee that the person that made the coffee actually made decaf.

Man 3: [Inaudible 00:05:23]

Dr. Wilk: Thanks. That was my invention that I had. And I patented that. No, actually, I never filed a patent application on it because a little bit of research showed me that you can’t do it because there is no decaf coffee. Caffeinated coffee has about 4% caffeine and decaf has about 1% so you can come up with a dipstick that will chemically analyze whether there’s any caffeine in it but you can’t make a…at least I couldn’t come up with a way to make it differentiate 1% and 4%. If you can, there’s an invention waiting to be happen.

Excerpted from SEAK’s stream on-demand course, How to Become a Successful Physician Inventor