Innovation past and present — a conversation with Darrel Untereker

History tells us that innovative technology can and will continue to drive better patient outcomes. Utilizing the power of technology to achieve our Mission of alleviating pain, restoring health, and extending life is what we do all day, every day as evidenced by a recent conversation with Darrel Untereker, vice president of corporate research and technology at Medtronic. His four decades working for Medtronic make him well qualified to reflect on past innovation and share insight on the future.


Darrel described the phases of innovation he has observed as his career has progressed from a technical function to an executive role. “There have been several innovation trends” he says. “The most obvious is the significant shrinking of device size up to an order of magnitude. A second is in sophistication. While [Medtronic co-founder] Earl Bakken’s first device contained a handful of transistors, today’s devices have millions.”

In addition to the technical progress, Darrel has observed a shift in how we gauge the value of a particular innovation. “Today, more and more, we talk about our benefit to society in terms of outcomes, not devices sold. Even our most basic metric is in terms of the number of patients helped per second rather than in terms of sales revenue or devices sold.”


Darrel sees exciting opportunities for Medtronic to lead healthcare reform. With recent acquisitions, Medtronic is uniquely positioned to move innovation beyond products to encompass service solutions. “When Covidien became part of Medtronic, it created an almost untold number of new ‘intersections’ where we can find ways to help patients.”

Simultaneous with the necessary shift to valuing outcomes over sales, new and different kinds of information abound. Darrel points out the importance of this shift and references another industry to emulate. “We are also moving more into the information era and that combined with outcomes means that many of our future innovations are likely to be in our business model and designed in terms of healthier patient days and lower healthcare costs.”

For example, the new opportunities to collect predictive data will allow the healthcare industry to “prevent issues instead of simply treating issues once they’ve occurred. This is analogous to how jet engine manufacturers use a broad array of sensors to detect subtle changes in engine performance and then turn that data into information to schedule routine as well as preventative maintenance.”


Over the years, Darrel’s contributions have spanned both technology and management. His outlook illustrates why Medtronic has been successful. He advises others to network. “I’m not talking about just collecting a pile of business cards. Take the time to get to know people and understand them. Find out what you can learn from them and from the way in which they see the world. There is richness in diversity.” A collaboration of those with diverse viewpoints will undoubtedly benefit the individual but more importantly will lead the transformation of healthcare. “Science is usually advanced through teamwork.”

Darrel encourages others, “Embrace new opportunities because they help you to grow and gain experiences.” His outlook makes Medtronic a fertile place to create meaningful innovation at the therapeutic, procedural, and health system levels.