To the consternation of many emerging med tech executives and their investors, the big medical device companies are much less active in the early stage deal space than their bio-pharma counterparts. Drug company leadership “gets” that future success depends on robust product pipelines infused with externally sourced innovation at every stage from Discovery clear to Phase III. Case and point: of Goldman Sachs’s 2014 list of “High Potential Drugs that could Transform the Industry”, Forbes noted that 75% of them no longer sit with the originated ownerbecause of acquisitions or in-licensing deals. Contrast this with the med tech sector, where the hurdle to acquisition or meaningful strategic investment is not so much proof of concept but proof of market traction – a very high bar indeed.

The time may be now for the big medical device companies to lift their heads out of their quarterly net earnings reports and start looking seriously at early stage investments in innovation. Here are three compelling reasons behind this logic:

1. You can’t buy revenue forever

For most of the large med tech companies, the solution to the growth dilemma has been minimally dilutive acquisitions of companies with existing, faster growing sales and better margins (or the near-term promise thereof once infrastructure “synergies” are realized) than their existing product portfolios. Makes a lot of sense – many of the technical and even market risks have already been reduced, and acquisition integration is something the big companies know how to do. The problem is that there and fewer and fewer “target” companies out there to buy, and competition for them is driving up multiples. A recent example is the December 2013 purchase of Mako Surgical by Stryker at a whopping price (for med tech) of 13X annual sales. The Wall Street Journal coverage of the deal noted that the price “…reflected the lengths that medical-device companies will go to jumpstart sales growth in the face of product commoditization and broad economic pressures…” Also given the cycle time from innovation to meaningful revenue in med tech, it is safe to assume many of the companies being acquired today were originally funded 10+ years ago. My guess is we will start hitting the nadir of available targets as a result of the tougher med tech financing climate that started back in 2008 with the financial crisis.

2. Big companies can’t innovate (enough)

With the sheer size of the large medical device companies (10 over $10B in sales in the US alone), and many existing product franchises losing ground under health care budget pressures, big med tech’s appetite for new products is voracious. The best new products are those that can contribute both to the top line with growing sales, and to profit margins with premium pricing; in other words, true innovations. Big med-tech is genetically risk-averse, bureaucratic and not the least bit scrappy, so internal R&D can’t deliver the goods. Pharma has come to terms with this fact and has outsourced most of their R&D, understanding that only about one-third of their innovation will be generated internally. Big med tech needs to follow suit both organizationally and financially, acknowledging that most“disruptive” medical technologies will be found out there in the emerging med tech community.

3. The innovation ecosystem needs strategics to step up

It is still quite challenging for emerging med tech companies to raise money, with the dollars tightest not so much at the earliest stages where a number of angels and grant-funding organizations have stepped in, but more at series B through D. A venture capitalist at a recent MassMEDIC financing conference talked about the new “valley of death” being in these later stages, when the cute little toddler technology becomes a hungry adolescent, requiring significant funding for clinical or market development depending on the regulatory path. While there has been some easing of the IPO market for med tech companies in early commercialization (see TRIV & EVAR), the public markets have not warmed to development stage medical device companies the way they have to their bigger risk, bigger reward biotech brethren. With the aging of the population and the demand for healthcare only increasing, the need for innovation is there but will go unanswered without sufficient risk capital to fund it – a lost opportunity for the large device firms.

Some big med tech executives are coming around to the idea that they need to invest earlier and take more risk to maintain healthy businesses for the long haul.We have seen some movement in med tech toward structured deals between development stage companies and the industry giants – small steps toward the pharma model of deal making, risks and all. The CEO of Medtronic Omar Ishrak gets it, boldly stating in a recent earnings call “We would have done [the Ardian] acquisition over again, based on the data that we had at that time. You do clinical trials for a reason, and every so often, you are going to get negative results. And we don’t give up on strategic opportunities based on that.” Managing a pipeline requires both an acceptance that failure is possible, and the know-how to account for the risk in the deal terms (arguably MDT missed the boat there). Pharma has long had a more comprehensive understanding of the risks within their pipeline and how to manage them through licensing and co-development structures. Big med tech should take a page from the pharma playbook and aggressively fund external innovation, or be prepared to have the financial profile of utilities. Revenue is nice, but transformational growth is nicer.