Grow your competitive advantage through Khan Academy


“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow”

As medtech specialists we spend our time working in a tough, competitive environment. Rewards are not distributed equally – the lions share goes to the winners, and the rest to everyone else. Are there things we can do as individuals that enhance our competitive advantage?

Yes, build your core knowledge base.

Why build your core knowledge base?

Over the weekend, I spent a couple of days with my brother and our families. He’s a neurosurgeon and we both have children. So, education is a topic which comes up from time to time. After all, we all compete in a global environment and for our kids it will become even more so.

I studied hard at school and later medical school and got thr0ugh fairly well. But that was nearly twenty years ago and much of the detail I learned has now gone. Of course, that’s natural; you focus on the information you need. Wikipedia is one of my best friends as a quick way to brush up on any given area when presented with new information (e.g. a new client, project or investment opportunity).

I see myself as a medtech generalist, focused on investment and commercialization, with a background in clinical medicine. For medtech this is handy since I look at things from a patient perspective – can it benefit them? And from a clinician perspective – is it simple to use and will it be readily adopted?

But when it comes to a deep dive into most technologies, I’m quickly out of my depth. Useful strategies to cope with this include identifying domain experts in particular areas as required.

Wouldn’t it be better, if much of the advanced level math, physics, chemistry and biology I learned years ago were more readily available at my fingertips? Indeed, from a medtech perspective, I never studied ANY engineering, so building up a core knowledge in this area would likely be really beneficial.

On the investing side, I’m fascinated by the whole world of economics and finance (this was a serious alternative career choice at age 16). It seems to impact every area of human existence, and often comes down to incentives. So, off my own back, I’ve acquired a whole bunch of financial knowledge and continue to do so.

But even within my financial education, I’ve cherry picked what was needed as I needed it. I never built a core understanding and knowledge base of finance and economics. Imagine trying to build a house starting with the windows, or roof – instead of making sure the foundations were strong? Sometimes, you don’t know what you need to know.

Building your foundation

OK, so I need more knowledge. How do I go about it?

We all live in a time constrained, pressured environment, between work, family, career, etc. Going back to full-time education would be out of the question.

May be a self-taught, personalized route suits me more? Several years back a friend and colleague said I was an autodidact. (I didn’t know what one was, so I looked it up – he told me that’s what autodidacts do!). Maybe what really appeals is you’re learning because you WANT to. Some of my favourite autodidacts in history include Henry Ford, Soichiro Honda, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. If its good enough for them…

Is there an internet enabled route, that teaches you at your own pace, with an exhaustive subject list, enabling testing and practice to ensure you get the concepts and understanding down pat?

Yes, there is. It’s called Khan Academy (and thanks to my brother for introducing me to it this weekend). It’s a not-for-profit and dedicated to helping people learn. The front page of the website describes it perfectly:

“Watch. Practice. Learn almost anything for free. With over 3,200 videos on everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and hundreds of skills to practice, we’re on a mission to help you learn what you want, when you want, at your own pace.”

Khan Academy has been around since 2006 and has already delivered over 159 million (!) lessons. I started using it 3 days ago, and must admit, I’m hooked. Each video is on YouTube, about 10-12 minutes long, and enables you to take small bites and stop-start as you need. Generally, the standard goes from utterly basic to first year college or degree (e.g. the math stream starts at 1+1, and goes through to advanced calculus).

The founder, Salman (Sal) Khan, knows a thing or two about learning. He’s an ex-hedge fund analyst, with 3 degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. He relays an interesting story about starting up Khan Academy on TED, interviewed by Bill Gates.

Khan states that originally he recorded a few lessons for his cousins on the other side of the US, to help with high school math. They reported back that having him teach via video was far better than in person! Why? Because they could listen, rewind, go through things at their own pace, and not feel stupid if they didn’t get something straight away.

The analytics are really useful and impressive (not surprising from an ex-hedge fund type). Students and coaches can track progress and performance on the site. Even more interestingly, the tracking shows often that students who initially struggle with a concept, once they get it, go on to develop a deeper understanding than those who get it straight off.

Imagine the implications in your school days (or for your kids!) – being slow to get a key concept meant (i) you got branded as slow or dumb (ii) as the class raced ahead, you not only missed that concept, but without the building-block it meant you couldn’t add on later stage, more sophisticated concepts. Double whammy. Then you miss future concepts, lose interest, and get branded even more negatively. A vicious circle.

Applications in medtech and the real world

Its fun to learn new things, and may be to even reacquaint with things long since forgotten. But back to real world applications, particularly within medtech (though of course applicable in any discipline). By using Khan Academy to build up your knowledge in chosen areas, image the impact on the following:

1. The CEO, salesperson – he or she could build up strong technical foundation (through the math, physics, chemistry, medicine videos) to be able to converse more fluently with the R&D team, including biomedical engineers, physicists, chemists, doctors.

Some of the strongest companies are headed by people who were strong commercially AND technically. Think Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs from tech. From biomedical, think John Abele of Boston Scientific, Joe Kiani of Masimo, Kevin Sharer of Amgen, Joshua Boger of Vertex.

2. The CEO, inventor – he or she could build up a commercial foundation through the finance and economics videos. These are extensive and include micro and macro-economics, valuation, private and public markets, stocks, bonds, monetary policy to name a few. How many times have you met a technically brilliant but commercially blind founder? I’ve met many.

3. The investor – especially relevant to VCs who consider technology driven opportunities. The good investors often come with experience in 2 out of 3 of technical, healthcare or finance background. You rarely get investors with all three. Imagine how much more effective they could be if they were able get down to fundamentals driving all 3 aspects of a prospective investment opportunity?

The best investors have earned all 3 stripes the hard way – through school, work experience and entrepreneurship. Read this fascinating interview with medtech innovator extraordinaire and businessman, Mir Imran of InCube Labs.

4. The advisor, industry or financial – many advisors come from either an operations industry background (think consultants), and are often weak on finances. Or, a finance background (think bankers) and are weak technically. Rather than just working the “next deal”, imagine how effective an advisor could be for his or her clients, if they had a strong foundation BOTH technically and in finance?

5. The educator – finding new and innovative ways to teach students so the pace and content can be tailored. This ensures more students do well, and attain higher marks personally and as a group. This interests me as a parent. And for someone who is involved in teaching future neurosurgeons, this has particular appeal to my brother. Good to know – after all, how qualified do you want YOUR neurosurgeon to be?

Overall, the idea is NOT that you become an expert in everything and be all things to all people. I’ve written previously about Niche Focus and believe it applies as strongly to individuals as it does to companies.

In conclusion, the idea is to build a broad and strong knowledge foundation to support your niche focus. Khan Academy uses the power of the internet to make available an exhaustive (and growing!) library of well taught, high quality lessons to anyone with an internet connection and desire. It opens up subjects often deemed inaccessible and enables individuals to build their own core knowledge base.

What are you waiting for?

This post is by Raman Minhas

Image: Magnificent oak tree at Pont-y-Llan, John Haynes

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One thought on “Grow your competitive advantage through Khan Academy

  1. Pingback: What makes a billion dollar medical devices man? | Medtech Value Investor

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