As part of a continuing series on Spring 2019 semester courses that relate to innovation and business law, this post spotlights the Iowa Medical Innovation Group.

At the University of Iowa, there’s a course where students from the law, medical, business, and engineering schools meet up and learn together. The Iowa Medical Innovation Group (IMIG) brings students from all four of these schools together to envision, create, and potentially implement a solution to a healthcare need.

IMIG is a hands-on multi-disciplinary course that is taught in both the spring and fall semesters.  In the spring semester, multidisciplinary teams of students students work together to identify a healthcare need in an area of strategic focus selected by the IMIG faculty. Students must identify the characteristics of that need, including understanding potential customers and their needs, learning about existing solutions offered by potential competitors and others, and ascertaining available resources.  This is done through both traditional research and live customer discovery.  Students will develop their solution design space and begin proposing early-stage solution concepts and the potential value propositions that those concepts offer.  Accompanying this work is documentation of students' findings and the creation of a “need statement,” a formalized articulation of the need that is supported by analysis. In the fall semester, students work on developing a solution to the need, taking into account the abilities of their team members, and learn about the fundamentals of commercializing innovations.  At the end of the second semester, depending on the team’s progress, students may continue on to work on implementing their solution. While students cannot receive IMIG academic credit for a third semester, faculty members will remain available to advise the students. Students must commit to participating in both the spring and fall semesters of IMIG.  Law students receive three credit hours per semester, with the option of writing a paper for an additional credit hour and writing unit.

The course content is highly interdisciplinary, emphasizing learning how to with professionals from different disciplines and function as a multi-disciplinary team, the fundamentals of innovation and turning innovation into opportunities, and building an familiarity with the fundamentals of different subject-matter areas.  Some faculty lectures and exercises focus on learning the vocabulary for a particular profession, such as marketing or healthcare regulation, while others address fundamentals of project and people management or the use of the business model canvas.  Teams learn techniques for preempting and addressing conflict in teams, interviewing customers, and brainstorming, then must put those techniques to use in their own projects. 

For law students, IMIG is a unique, practical course. IMIG students apply the knowledge they have learned in class to develop their practice skills and legal judgment. They help assess legal issues and provide background knowledge on core legal issues, such as whether a particular device has already been patented. One of the goals for the project is to help develop some sort of intellectual property protection for the new technology, whether it’s a patent for the device or a trademark for a new business logo. Besides IP issues, law students also have the opportunity to think about appropriate business entities, should the technology be commercialized, and assess the regulatory landscape—a particularly critical and complex task in the medical device world, where issues of safety, liability and privacy abound.  Law students are also called upon to issue spot: identify areas of potential risk and develop strategies to mitigate that risk.

While the law students are working on the legal issues and the business students are working on the business issues, the medical and engineering students are working together to develop a prototype. These prototypes, and the team’s business proposal for future development and production, are often pitched at venture competitions at which teams “pitch” the product to judges and potential investors. While it’s difficult to develop a product that can be patented in such a short amount of time, some teams have gone on to have their products developed and commercialized. For example, Voxello, which began as an IMIG team, created a product that facilitates communications between patients and hospital staff.

Jason Rantanen, the Law School faculty member who teaches in the IMIG program, encourages all students interested in healthcare, technology, product development, and business law to consider the course. “Some students focus on intellectual property issues, while others bring general business law knowledge to the table. Others have experience with the healthcare side,” he commented. While registration is limited, Professor Rantanen notes that the course is an opportunity for students to take legal knowledge and begin to deal with it in a situation intended to simulate something more like real world. “This is one of those rare opportunities in school where law students get to learn what it’s like to work with team members with very different skills, motivators, and perspectives.” Students can develop their legal skills in a learning environment, yet have the opportunity to work on a team that is developing something real.

By taking IMIG, Andrea Rastelli (3L), has solidified her desire to work with start-ups. Rastelli explained that IMIG has given her a chance to see how product development truly works in the start-up environment. Rastelli also noted that chance to explore one’s skills as an attorney in a real-world setting. “You go to law school and you’re taught to think a certain way. Lawyers are needed for a lot more than just that type of thinking. Our knowledge is really valuable, and this environment really demonstrates that.” Rastelli also emphasized that one does not need to have a technical background in order to benefit from the course.

Clay Soelberg, a JD/MBA student, appreciates the interdisciplinary aspect of the course. “I like coming together in a cross-functional team. That’s something we don’t really get to do in law school,” Soelberg observed. “The team aspect gives a flavor of what the real world would be like if you were in a business, more so than a law firm,” Soelberg noted. “I have to take ownership for the legal aspects of the project, even if it’s beyond my comfort level.”