Our goal as providers of mentored capital is to find game changing ideas or innovations that can redefine healthcare. We think these game changers can come from anyone, anywhere, and we want to help as many people as possible develop a mindset that enables them to think expansively. There are lots of opportunities out there that we can address via innovation, but sometimes they are hard to see. We created this primer to help our community of potential entrepreneurs understand how to identify the most compelling opportunities, and then how to take the next step of creating great solutions.

Innovation and progress happen when someone identifies a problem and then finds a way to address it. Sometimes the reverse happens – a solution emerges in search of a problem – but that is a risky and more difficult approach. Consider the Segway, a transportation solution addressing a questionable need. Trust us, it’s much easier to start with a problem.

Identifying problems is not always easy. We become accustomed to the way that our world works, and we stop being conscious of the ways we adjust out actions to manage inefficiencies. We don’t see problems as problems. In this primer, we’ll discuss how to identify and evaluate problems and then what to do once you’ve found a worthwhile problem.

Need Finding

Needs tend to be fairly universal. Maslow even organizes basic human needs in order of importance to communicate what people require to self-actualize at different levels.

Maslow's Heirarchy of needs

Maslow's Heirarchy of needs


Needs are constant over time. Take, for example, the post-industrial need to extend the shelf life of food as people moved further from their food’s source. Cooling food is an approach to extending shelf life, and we saw three distinct waves of companies delivering a cooling service. First ice cutters, next ice factories, and finally refrigeration. Note that each industry was addressing the same, constant need, but in different ways.

Once we know the need, our next step is to identify the problems. In the food-chilling example, innovative individuals looked at ice cutters and set about solving the problem of limited supply. They landed on the innovation of factory-produced ice. Note that it was difficult for the ice cutters to identify that problem, since they were working within the context day-in-day out. The consequences for ice cutters were disastrous: ice cutters basically went out of business overnight. This pattern repeated itself when the next wave of innovators looked at ice factories and saw the problems posed by requiring an expensive and cumbersome just-in-time delivery infrastructure. They asked how might we create cold directly where we need it, and thus invented modern refrigeration. Again, not a single ice factory became a refrigeration company. They were too busy making ice to see the problems.

19th century Ice cutters on the Hudson river. 

19th century Ice cutters on the Hudson river. 

Early 20th century ice factory.

Early 20th century ice factory.

Modern day refrigeration has made ice factories obsolete.

Modern day refrigeration has made ice factories obsolete.

Techniques to See Differently

There are techniques you can use to open your eyes to the problems in your daily life. Identifying a good problem is critical to creating a successful innovation. Careful observation is the first step to seeing the problems around you. Watch for:

Moments of Pause

When someone picks up an object, walks into a space, engages with a new service, etc., you will often see small (or large) pauses as they process how to interact. These pauses signal an opportunity. Something about that moment was not as intuitive as it should be.

Unexpected Ways to Use Something

Whenever you see an object used for a purpose completely different from what was intended, there is an opportunity. People jury-rigged a solution because the right solution didn’t exist. You can craft that right solution.

Errors in How Someone Uses Something

The important part is not just identifying the error, but understanding why that error makes sense from the person’s perspective. What mental model do they have about the product or service with which they’re interacting? Their existing solutions don’t match that mental model, hence a big opportunity.

Things or Characteristics that Prompt Unintended Behaviors

Sometimes a whole group of people will start doing something unexpected. The thing that prompts that unexpected behavior can give you a clue about a need these people have that hasn’t been addressed.

Once you start looking at the world a little bit differently, you will start seeing problems everywhere. The next question is how to identify a good problem that merits your efforts.

What Makes a Good Problem?

The simple answer is that good problems are those that address real, broad needs people have. It’s problems that aren’t obvious at first, but then become completely obvious once you see them. It’s problems shared by a lot of different people. Most importantly, it’s problems that are motivating enough to make you want to dive in and solve them.

We recommend that teams develop their problem statements early in order to build a culture of working towards the goal of helping people. One template that we like is:

______________________________ needs ______________________________  
[customer description]                                                [describe need] 

because ______________________________
               [explain why]

because ______________________________
                [explain why again]

because ______________________________
                [explain why one more time]

Our healthcare system doesn’t function smoothly and is full of ripe problems ready for solutions. We are passionate about finding and enabling ventures that have identified and articulated real problems.

Your problem statement is just the beginning. The next step is to generate solutions.

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