10 tips for selecting and managing a medtech development partner

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[[Photo by Brooke Lark via Unsplash.]]

David Robson, Principal, RobsonAdvisors

There many things to consider when searching for and interacting with a product development firm – and the stakes are high! Most early-stage medical device companies are only pursuing one product solution. It’s their baby and their only opportunity for success. With limited resources and tight schedules, it’s essential to retain a development partner that best matches their needs.

Over my 17 years of meeting with prospective clients, I have been continually surprised and dismayed at the ad hoc evaluation methods used when selecting a development firm. Below are 10 things to do that will help to ensure that you and the vendor have alignment on the scope of work and that you end up with a satisfying experience and a successful product solution. A single article can’t plumb all the details and best practices that go into finding and selecting the right development partner. But these ten items can put you on the right track.

1. Find the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for product configuration.

Finding the right product configuration is easier said than done. You need enough function and features to be clinically effective, adhere to the business model, and satisfy stakeholders. But if resources are constrained (and they always are), you can’t afford too many extras. Being brutally honest about your value proposition and your critical-to-success criteria are essential. The goal is to reach “minimally viable product,” and there is value in figuring out how to get to revenue as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Do you need that cool feature or can it wait until the next generation? Do you have your patient risks mitigated and proven? Do you need to do more to ensure a smooth path through regulatory review? These are hard but essential questions to ask.

2. Make sure everyone on your team is on board.

I have seen lots of confusion, with time and money lost, because the leadership of an early-stage company is not on the same page. A consensus is critical from day one. Having differing opinions and direction from the client’s leadership team is frustrating to the development partner and can be very expensive to the company. There can be spirited debate and differences of opinion, of course. But when it is time for a big decision, the leadership must have a unified answer.

3. Ensure you have the internal know-how and experience to select a development partner. 

If your company is contemplating initiating a product development effort that will take months or possibly years to complete, you need to take a close look into the mirror. Does your team have the experience to run a multi-phase, multi-disciplinary project? Have you done it before? This isn’t a question of intelligence or aptitude. A good development partner will do its best to coach you along the way, but it is better to have someone on your team who can oversee and, when needed, correct or critique the development partner.

4. Generate a detailed SOW or RFQ. 

Many early-stage companies don’t know this, but they should generate a detailed Statement of Work or Request for Quote for every work scope that they intend to hire out. Development partners will thank you for it. This type of document ensures that you are telling all of the potential vendors the same thing, which reduces the likelihood of receiving proposals that don’t encompass what you really want. In other words, you reduce the potential for the apples-to-oranges proposal mismatch.

Even if you aren’t sure of everything your company might need, you can include essential bits of information about what you know and highlight the areas that are uncertain. An RFQ can also include the specific details that you require for a proposal to be accepted (submission due date, budget and phase deliverable specifics, biographies of core team members, and relevant experience examples).

5. Find potential solution providers and reach out.

There are hundreds of product development solution providers. However, before shipping out your RFQ to all of them, remember that proper and diligent vetting takes time – your time. So, you’ll want to canvas the field and narrow your focus to no more than a handful. Be sure to tap your network for recommendations and past experiences. Review the websites of firms that you’ve heard about or noticed in publications, etc. Consider location and whether you would prefer someone close to home or not. (Location can make a difference early on but not as much toward the end of a project.)

Once you have a reasonably-sized list, reach out and request someone get in touch with you. Then, start your stopwatch. A firm’s responsiveness and attention to detail are revealed in these early contacts. First impressions matter and can be a predictor of the future. The character, tone, and expertise of the firm’s representative can tell you a lot about that company’s culture and approach. It may help you reduce the number of organizations you are considering before you even execute an NDA.

6. Visit – in person.

There are all sorts of benefits to visiting a prospective vendor’s site, both tangible and intangible. You will see their operation first hand and have the opportunity to meet team members, including the core team that might work on your project. You will get a sense of their culture by walking through the office and you can see firsthand if they have the lab space,  prototype shop, or manufacturing capacity that you might need. A visit will show the development firm’s management team that you are serious as well. Remember that you will be engaging in a partnership with your selected vendor and both sides need to feel like they are getting connected for a successful relationship.

7. Press for details on personnel, project, and budget.

Estimating a product development program is inherently difficult and can be wildly imprecise. If you are launching a novel product, no one knows how hard it will be to complete, especially if there are unknowns. So, although it’s important to get the development team’s budget and schedule scale, what you really want to know are the details of how they came up with those budget and schedule estimates. Understand the kinds of resource types they are expecting to use, the hourly rates for those resources, and the level of loading expected. You want to see how much time they’ve estimated for crucial elements of the project and how those factors interact with one another. Ask if they’ve included contingency or ranges to their budget figures.

8. Establish a monthly check-in with senior management

It is a good practice to be in regular contact with the senior leadership of the development partner. There are a variety of reasons and benefits, and a good service provider should embrace this request. First, you should establish a relationship with all levels of the development firm. You need to get to know them, and they need to get to know you. That way, if/when things go wrong, you have a pre-existing, personal connection with the people that you may need to approach. Second, it forces the vendor’s management team to stay up to speed on your project, which should improve their commitment and support. Third, you may occasionally need to complain about something or someone via “back channels.” Having that side support allows you to be diplomatic when asking for changes or expressing concern without risking the relationship with the firm’s core team.

9. Visit again and regularly!

Before officially awarding the project, make another visit to your preferred solution provider (or perhaps to the top two). At this point, most of your questions and concerns should already be answered but go through their proposal with them one last time to make sure. Make sure their project team is in attendance. Have their project manager lead the meeting to get a sense of their ability and demeanor. Discuss next steps and start dates. Make sure your “spidey senses” are set at maximum and look for soft spots in the preparations. Ask probing/challenging questions to see how different members react.

10. When warranted, show your cranky side.

In my experience, most clients don’t like being angry and hesitate to call a vendor to account when problems or bad service occur. They hope that the vendor will notice when mistakes are made and “make it right.” But delivering a little emotional pressure may help your position and ensure better customer service. Being able to express dissatisfaction constructively is an important management skill, and it can help to ensure that you are getting the service and attention you need.

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