The idea is counterintuitive; everyone knows that in order to produce illuminating, actionable results, researchers should assemble large, diverse pools of research subjects – the largest they can handle – and see what insights they can skim out of this “Big Data.” In the fall of 2014, I took this conventional wisdom into a meeting with my late teacher and friend, Clay Christensen.
As we talked together in his office at the Harvard Business School, Clay unpacked a simple, surprising thesis: truly valuable insight into causation comes from limiting research to one subject that reflects all potential factors that might explain the dependent phenomenon in question, and then carefully studying the provenance of the phenomenon with sole reference to this particular subject. In other words, just as a medical researcher might study the pathology of a disease within one patient to understand the disease (the patient being the subject; the disease being the phenomenon), so an investor might study, say, global innovation transfer within one emerging market company (the company being the subject; the global innovation transfer being the phenomenon.)
This was a significant paradigm shift; I had been planning a research project to uncover and analyze as many potentially transferable healthcare innovations as possible from around the world, and then extract some real insights into which ones might be ‘winners’ for effectively improving healthcare in the U.S. through global innovation transfer.
But Clay turned my research plan on its head. He suggested that I would do better to carefully choose one of the companies that has successfully developed a healthcare innovation within their own emerging market, and has also made progress in transferring the innovation globally. By making an in-depth study of how this company has navigated the conditions and constraints confronted in its journey, real insight would emerge that could help guide more global innovation transfer in the future.
This is an approach that we have embraced at SpringTide – we’ve built a culture around carefully examining one company at a time to develop sound theory about whether and how it succeeds in sustainably improving medicine, and then keeping a careful eye on its trajectory, whether we choose to invest in it or not. We believe that this intensive, focused form of research has left us with a body of deep insight into what makes a company succeed in the fast-growing sector of AI-powered medtech innovation, a kind of insight that no 10,000-foot survey could generate. As we close out the raise of our first fund, we think it’s time to start sharing more of our thinking with you, as we work together to improve healthcare, from neighborhood to globe.
We hope you’ll read along.
SpringTide’s “n of 1” Philosophy
Published December 1, 2022
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