Radio Cade

Serial Inventor

March 18, 2020 Richard Melker Season 1 Episode 70
Radio Cade
Serial Inventor
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Radio Cade
Serial Inventor
Mar 18, 2020 Season 1 Episode 70
Richard Melker

Dr. Richard Melker holds 69 issued US Patents, with others pending, as well as hundreds of foreign patents.    A University of Florida Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology, Melker has invented everything from disappearing sunscreen to a new type of oxygen saturation sensor.  His first invention was an emergency airway, which is used primarily by the military and by EMT’s.   

Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Richard Melker holds 69 issued US Patents, with others pending, as well as hundreds of foreign patents.    A University of Florida Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology, Melker has invented everything from disappearing sunscreen to a new type of oxygen saturation sensor.  His first invention was an emergency airway, which is used primarily by the military and by EMT’s.   

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade and podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida, the museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Serial inventors, I'm not talking about people who invented Cornflakes and Wheaties , but people who have lots and lots of ideas and patents, and today I'm pleased to welcome one such person, Richard Melker, a University of Florida, professor emeritus of anesthesiology who holds 69 issued U.S. patents with many others pending as well as hundreds of foreign patents. Welcome to Radio Cade, Dr. Melker. -Thank you so much for having me. Ok if I call you Richard? -Please, two Richards in the room here, what could go wrong? So Richard, you hold patents for everything from disappearing sunscreen to a new kind of oxygen saturation sensor. So, first thing I got to ask you are patents like kids, do you even have a favorite or do you just have to love all of them equally?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Patents are like kids. I have to love all of them equally. But, the reality is is that the patents that have resulted in medical devices are the most satisfying to me. Obviously, when you find out that you've invented something that a company starts to manufacture and people use it and it affects people's lives, particularly when it's saved somebodies life, that's the most satisfying thing of all. And over the years, I've gotten letters from people in the fields where I've invented technology thanking me, and there's nothing better than having that.

Richard Miles:

That's an interesting point, and I think maybe of interest to people who aren't as familiar with this world is that there may be a popular misconception that an inventor, when they get a patent, they already know exactly what that thing is going to be used for and how it's going to be applied. But very often the case is you're patenting a new process or a new technology or a new insight. And the end use of that may not be clear for quite some time. Is that more or less accurate?

Dr. Richard Melker:

I would think that somewhat accurate, in my case, usually when I conceive of a product and when you're inventing something, it's called the conception. When I conceive of it, I've already found out that there's something lacking in the medical field that there's a need for. So in my case, I think that I tell people that I get frustrated when I can't do something or help somebody. And therefore I conceive of something. And then we eventually develop the product and it's commercialized.

Richard Miles:

You usually have a fairly good idea in mind and what the end use is going to be when you're actually filing the patent?

Dr. Richard Melker:

In my case, I think that's true, of course, with many of my products once they're on the market, somebody else does , I can use this for something else or I have a better way or a different way of using it. So, I would say that I conceive of a way of using it frequently, that's what happens. It's used as I conceived of it, but there are a lot of really bright people out there. And they're always thinking of very good ideas, particularly in the medical profession. -Right. And I'm sure in other scientific professions as well.

Richard Miles:

So let's talk about a few of those ideas that you've had. Your background is anesthesiology, you see problems that gee, I wish there was a solution, and that was kind of the starting point, right? For some of these inventions. What was your first patent? Why don't we start there?

Dr. Richard Melker:

My first issued patent on my first attempt that happened, there are quite different. So my first ideas came out when I was a intern and a resident out in California, and I would be involved in taking care of a child and there was something that I wanted to have available that wasn't available. So at that point being a resident, I was able to file my own patents. I wasn't really working for somebody who had rights to that technology. And I took our meager savings and I spent it on my patent attorney and it turned out that both of the ideas I had had already been patented, so my wife put a stop to me filing for patents. When I became a faculty member at the University of Florida, I conceived of the first product that ended up being patented. We found a company to license it from the University of Florida. They developed the product and it was extremely successful, -and what was that product? The first product I developed was an emergency airway. So normally, in an emergency situation, an anesthesiologist or a , an ER physician or an EMT , will put a tube down the throat of the patient so that they can breathe for the patient. Under certain circumstances, particularly with facial trauma or other unusual situations, you're unable to put that tube in. So, I developed a emergency airway that could be inserted in the area of the trachea to ventilate those patients, and the predominant use today is in the military. Although, it's used outside the hospital in what we call pre-hospital care, emergency care fairly frequently as well.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. So have most of your patents been in the same general realm of breathing, or how would you characterize most of the , your ideas?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Right. So early on, I specialized in one area, and so most of my patents were related to that. I became very interested in ventilation, which is a big topic right now with the Coronavirus, is how we're going to bend where all these people who have pneumonia. And there were ventilators, very sophisticated, expensive ventilators that are used in the hospitals. But what do you do outside the hospital? Well, what they were doing at the time is just squeezing a bag, and so my collaborators and I, and I think it's very important to point out that a lot of times, it's not by yourself, you work with other people. So my collaborators and I started looking at ways of making small ventilators that could be used outside the hospital.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. So one thing that just occurred to me, there are a lot of really good doctors out there that see patients every day, they know what they're doing, they're a lot of good researchers out there, but they don't all become inventors. So the question is, why? What distinguishes you in the fact that not only are you there in a clinical situation, you say, well, here's a problem, and gosh, I wish we had this, you actually then take that extra step and invent. Why don't other people do that? Right? Cause they see the same things presumably, and they had the same frustrations and problems. So why doesn't every doctor working in a clinic, also an inventor?

Dr. Richard Melker:

So, you made an extremely important observation. I believe that doctors all the time are jury rigging or working with technology that they could make better, but they're so busy and they don't understand, or they haven't been taught all the steps that are required to take the idea of how they would improve that product to the point where it becomes a commercial product. And at the university of Florida, at one point, I actually taught a course to the faculty in the college of medicine on how to protect their ideas, because it's very important that you protect the idea, how you disclose the idea to the university and then how the steps after that, that are required for commercialization.

Richard Miles:

That's a great point . If I understand you correctly, essentially these doctors are inventors, they just don't know it. They've come up with shortcuts that they're actually employing, but that extra step of thinking, okay, what would this look like as an actual product? They either don't have the time or the knowledge to do that.

Dr. Richard Melker:

Exactly. So, yes, I think the knowledge part is extremely important. I will take one quick aside and tell you that, at one point we put together a course for people in industry who actually commercialize the products, brought them into the hospitals and let them see how their products were being used. And their engineers in particular, recognize improvements in their products when they saw how the doctors were having to use their products and work around problems with the products. So, to me, the perfect world is where engineers and physicians in my field get together and jointly understand what the needs are.

Richard Miles:

That reminds me of a story I heard several years ago, I want to say, it's the University of Arizona, maybe Arizona State University, in which their school of entrepreneurship decided that instead of just sort of taking a bunch of business students or future MBAs say, okay, be an entrepreneur, think of a company idea and market it. What they found when they did that is the quality of the ideas was actually not that great. You'd have business students go , okay, we're going to do a tee shirt shop, you know, there was no revolutionary breakthrough, but what they did is they paired them with, I think nursing students and the nurses had all sorts of ideas, exactly what you're talking about, having been in the environment in which you're trying to get something done, and you've got to modify this or jury rig that, they had the actual insights into what could be commercially successful. And those people paired with the business people got great entrepreneurs or at least entrepreneurial projects for school in a way that just telling somebody think of a great idea, didn't yield those sort of results.

Dr. Richard Melker:

Absolutely. I think you hit the nail on the head. And one of the courses I taught was a course in the college of engineering, where we got engineers and students from the business school and we would have people come in and tell them what their ideas were. And we would put teams together so that we could do a business plan, we could figure out how to commercialize the product. You need, all those different people. And the course was on product development and intellectual property. So they had to learn about patent law to protect the idea and then they had to figure out how to take this idea and turn it into a commercial product. So that's a wonderful way to work and if you look at many of my products, there are a lot of inventors on them. Many of them are engineers. Some of them are physicians and occasionally we even have somebody from the business school.

Richard Miles:

Occasionally you'll let them in right? Okay, so that kind of sets up my next question. And that is sort of the overall process. I mean, you have a lot of experience in this and been doing this for awhile and in general, I would say the United States does this pretty well, certainly in the last three to four decades, getting those research ideas out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. And that involves a cast of hundreds if it's done, well. But as you said, the universities tend now to give much more help and assistance to the researchers, whether it's filing a patent or doing a licensing. Do we have a system now that is, perfect is not the right word, but works fine? Or are there other things that universities in combination with government and in combination with the market need to be doing better to keep this round of innovation going and that whole cycle of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Dr. Richard Melker:

Right. So, the interest in intellectual property and product development really got its seed with the Bidell act in 1981, where federally funded research, if new intellectual property came out of it, the universities were allowed to exploit it. They didn't have to turn it over to the federal government. And so offices of technology licensing under a variety of names have flourished at many schools. And if there's a medical school or an engineering school, that's the predominant locations in the university where that type of technology is developed. So my answer to your question is things are far better than they used to be, a lot more intellectual property is being managed and commercialize . But I still think that somewhere during medical education or engineering education, people need to know that when they have a good idea, how to get that through the system and eventually commercialized.

Richard Miles:

Right. And we went to an interesting presentation last night and the subject, it was actually some new venture fund concentrating on Florida, and he rolled out some stats there, and one of the issues of course is financing, right? Because you've got this great idea, you've tested it, technology is solid, but you've got to do some more hurdles before it gets to market. And one of those is raised a lot of money. And to this day, even though Florida is like fourth largest state in the country, lots of technologies coming out , the universities, most of the venture capital still on the West coast and Seattle and LA area and or the upper Northeast corridor and not a whole lot in Florida. Which I think still comes as a surprise to us because I knew that was the case 10 years ago. But I would have thought by now, surely there'd be a lot of firms wanting to capitalize on these ideas coming out of Florida. Have you seen any change in the time that you're doing this in terms of financing available for new ideas?

Dr. Richard Melker:

There have been several attempts to increase the amount of funding into the state of Florida, but as you pointed out, it still predominates on the West coast and in the Northeast, I, as you know, started a company in 2005 here in Florida, and that not only for us, but other companies that have started out of products that were developed at the University of Florida or technologies that were developed at the University of Florida has always been the issue is getting venture capitalists to come to Gainesville, or you have to go see them. And many of the companies, as you're probably aware, have actually moved to locations in the United States, which are much more favorable for raising venture capital and where the people who have that interest to concentrated. We just haven't in the state of Florida have been able to attract that as yet.

Richard Miles:

Let's go back and talk about your company that you started at Exhale, right in 2005, was that your first entry into sort of full fledge in the business world? Or have you started companies before that at all?

Dr. Richard Melker:

That was the first company that I founded, where I was a founder in the company and decided to make the leap from being full time at the University of Florida to part time at the company and part time at the University of Florida. And I could only do that because I moved that of academic medicine and patient care into the research realm. So being in the research realm, the University of Florida, even though I had to jump through some hoops, was willing to allow me to spend part of my time developing this new company and part of my time as a faculty member at the University of Florida.

Richard Miles:

So a number of guests on the show have done something similar. They've gone from academia to starting their own company or being involved at a senior level. Tell us what that was like for you. It doesn't always go swimmingly that transition cause they're two really different worlds, right? Academia, and then startup are , or are they, what was it like for you?

Dr. Richard Melker:

It was interesting. I think that's the way to put it. I mean, you had to go out and raise money and you always underestimate how much money and how much time it's going to take to develop a technology and find somebody to actually manufacture it. So, on the one hand I had to learn a whole new discipline, but fortunately there were people in Gainesville with business experience who we partnered with. So they were founders of the company as well, because I had taught these courses at the University of Florida. And because many of my prior inventions had already been commercialized, I had the opportunity to not only be a physician, but to work with engineers and the business school. And in many cases I knew what company would be most interested in commercializing the product, so I had a lot of interactions that probably most physicians didn't have at that point.

Richard Miles:

It wasn't exactly a cold start. You had a front row seat to see the process and how it's done. -And I did it anyway. Right. That's good point. Yeah, yeah, I have seen some examples, unfortunately, of academics and particularly doctors, who don't make the transition quite so well because they treat the business world and investors as students who don't quite get their brilliant idea and you probably learn VC types don't really like to be talked down to, right? You can't patronize them that you have to explain your technology, but not in a way that someone might, if they were say in a lecture hall with a bunch of freshmen.

Dr. Richard Melker:

Right. So one of the things I think is my strong suit is the ability to talk to people who are, non-physicians, not in the medical world, in the language that they understand what it is that we're trying to do. Right. And I think that is extremely important because I've been to many presentations where they are to venture capitalists or to people who are not from the medical world where the doctor just had a really difficult time getting them excited because they never really grasp the potential of the technology.

Richard Miles:

I'm sure. You've probably been to some of these pitch competitions. And again, I hate to pick on doctors, but I remember seeing when it was like four doctors, it was slide after slide as if they were at a medical conference with nothing but a regression analysis and all this data up there, and you can do maybe one of those slides. Right? But after that, you got to talk, like you said, how it's going to solve your problems where its position in the market, et cetera, et cetera, and not just more data. Right?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Exactly. So if I worked with a physician who is planning or was involved in a startup company, the first thing I did is took their slide deck and turn the 60 slides into five slides. And I said, you have got five minutes.

Richard Miles:

And I'm sure they argued that every one of those 60 slides was absolutely essential . Right?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Exactly. But the elevator pitch, can I sink the hook into somebody, get them interested later on, there will be people who may be interested in 30 of the 60 slides. And a lot of it has to do with when they see how excited you are, how invested you are in the technology, but you have to remember they're business people. They want to know how they're going to make money. And I think shark tank is a perfect example for most people when you look at them and it's a yes or a no, particularly, Kevin O'Leary who says, how am I going to make money? And that's what the real world of capitalism is about.

Richard Miles:

And I remember, I got a really Interesting insight from a VC. I think we were both judges in the competition and he said, look, our company's going to do due diligence, et cetera, but when I hear pitch, I assume that the technology you described to me works as you describe it. Now tell me how it's going to make me rich. Right? But instead, the doctors sort of like working through a geometry proof , if A then B being the BBC , what you would do at an academic conference, proving your idea. And they're like, no, no, got it, idea works. Now, how are we gonna make money off it?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Exactly. And I think what happens is good. VCs have their own people who will come in and analyze the potential of your technology. So you tell them what you think it's worth. And then they decide, okay, this probably could be commercially successful. And then they'll bring in their own experts. Although, in my experience, that's been a two sided coin because, one of my most successful products, I took to several companies and they had scientific advisory boards and it was turned down by two of the largest medical device manufacturers in the world. And the third company, I went to had a totally different philosophy if you'd like to talk about it. And the product has been one of the most successful products I ever developed. -So you've seen it all? Yeah,yeah.

Richard Miles:

Let me ask a little bit about you, like many of the folks on our show, you originally hail from New York city, but you grew up in Florida. I am seeing your dad started his own company, was a stockbroker. How old were you first of all, when you moved to Florida?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Well, I love living in Florida obviously, and I went to the University of Florida for two years after I graduated from high school, but then I moved to New York and I didn't initially have any idea of what I was going to do. So if I could take a quick aside, the worst question in the world for me that I get asked and medical students get asked and people get asked in every interview is what do you want to be doing in five years and ten years from now? And my answer is I don't have the slightest idea. And I think at least for me, I just kept growing and moving off into different directions as I found things that were interesting and exciting and had potential. And so when you're young, you may answer that question because you're being interviewed. But I think the reality is keep an open mind. Don't focus too early on what you want to be. Just absorb everything around you. Certainly the son of a physician may have parents who moved them in that direction or the son or daughter of a lawyer may move them in that direction. But in general, my advice is when you go to college, just absorb as much as you can. And that's what happened to me. I didn't like this, I didn't like this and then one day I enrolled in a course, and then I knew what direction I would be moving in.

Richard Miles:

Richard as a kid or early in your schooling, do you ever remember having these ideas that other people didn't have? Was it sort of evidence of that future inventor there? Were you a tinkerer? Did you like working in a garage or whatever? What age did you realize that you could come up with ideas that other people couldn't come up with?

Dr. Richard Melker:

So I can't pinpoint an age, but I can tell you why I became an inventor. And that is I would work with things, this was long before I was involved in medicine and I just said, this could be done better. And my maternal grandfather, all the time I was with him, he was always talking about the limitations of some technology limitations of some product and always saying how we could make it better. But of course he never knew how to make it better. He would tell me. And then I realized that the reason I became an inventor is that when I used existing technology, I realize that it could be improved. And I think if you hang around doctors, and that's why we brought the engineers into the medical school, that doctors would sit there and while they were doing something, they would literally tell you how to make it better. Now they didn't know all the steps that it would take, but I started very young, just being a malcontent with the way things were. And for some reason, I started to realize that it was possible to improve upon them and very early on, when I filed one of my first patents, I said, will I ever file another patent? Will there ever be another idea? And then you realize as you keep your notebook, you never get to get all your ideas out. And so what happens is you start picking the ones that are most likely to be successful and commercialized. And I think if you're an inventor, you're an inventor your whole life. You're always have some level of discontent with what's out there. And you think you have that ego that you can make it better.

Richard Miles:

We actually have an idea of the Cade Museum, I don't know if we'll ever implement it, but we thought, wouldn't it be cool to maybe have a day where we open up the museum and the park and invite people to bring basically their DIY inventions. In other words, an existing product that they have somehow modified to do something different or better or whatnot, and to see what we get, I think it'd be a lot of fun. And I think we got the idea because we were talking, I think it was a group of farmers. I think it was actually when we did something with 4H and IFAS, and they said, farmers are among the most innovative in the world because they need the sprinkler to do something differently or the hose to irrigate differently. And they do these modifications. And that is actually how a lot of agricultural technology gets developed, as the manufacturers see what the farmers have done with their products go , Oh, that's what we need to do. And it sounds very similar in a medical field, right? Where the practitioners actually start using those existing inventions or products differently, and then you get a new product

Dr. Richard Melker:

It's virtually the same thing. So once I was at the university long enough that I had some success with patenting and commercialization of ideas, people would call me up and they were totally unrelated to medicine. And the most important thing I could tell those people is if you have intellectual property, if you have an idea that could be commercialized before you go around telling everybody about it, you have to protect it. So I would say, don't tell me, or I would sign a confidentiality agreement,

Richard Miles:

March them down to the lawyers . Right ?

Dr. Richard Melker:

Well , actually I teach people to use the U.S. PTO United States Patent Trademark Office website, and do a search. And a lot of the people would come back and they say, well, somebody already patented that. And I'd say, fantastic. You are an inventor, just so happens that the first one you thought of somebody beat you to, but you're going to be an inventor because they've had, that same ability to keep coming up with new ideas. When there's 6 million patents, you go there can't possibly be anything new out there for me to invent. And it turns out no, look at all the companies in Silicon Valley and in the Northeast, and all over the world and it never stops and that's what you learn. So I think when we have our bring your own invention day, the Cade , whatever we call it, I think we're going to put you in charge. Richard is giving all this advice, but this has been a fascinating conversation. Thanks very much for coming on the show. And I tell you what, once you've issued what you've issued 69 now? So once you've issued 150, we'll have you back, right? That'll probably be a couple of years from now. Right? That sounds good, and I certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. This has been fun.

Richard Miles:

Thank you, I'm Richard Miles.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Tom coordinates, inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood, Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy columns and features violinist, Jacob Lawson. [inaudible] .