Cincinnati Children’s Shares Keys to Innovation Success

By Christopher Cheney

A culture of innovation sparks research and discovery at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Cincinnati Children’s has again been named one of the country’s Most Innovative Companies by Fortune—remaining the top-rated pediatric healthcare organization while rising in the national ranking of organizations across all industries. Of the 200 most innovative companies cited by Fortune for 2024, Cincinnati Children’s ranked No. 60, which is up from No. 76 in last year’s inaugural listing.

Over the past 10 years, Cincinnati Children’s has posted impressive innovation statistics:

  • 2,033 U.S. and international patent applications
  • 658 U.S. and international patents issued
  • 253 licenses executed
  • 13 active start-up companies based on intellectual property from Cincinnati Children’s
  • 217 licensed products or tools

Cincinnati Children’s fosters a culture of innovation, says Todd Ponsky, MD, director of clinical growth and transformation at Cincinnati Children’s as well as interim vice president of Cincinnati Children’s Innovation Ventures.

“No. 1, we have prioritized research and discovery for curing disease and improving child health,” he says. “Because research and discovery has been prioritized, our hospital has applied incredible amounts of resources toward building our research enterprise with our research foundation.”

The hospital encourages frontline workers to have the ability to come up with new ways of doing things, Ponsky says. “That is also built into the culture. So, we have a culture of innovation that is seen not only in research and discovery but also in the day-to-day practice of medicine,” he says.

The organization’s leadership support for innovation is crucial, Ponsky says, adding Cincinnati Children’s CEO, chief strategy officer, CFO, and physician leaders are all advocates for innovation.

“They are not only committed to practicing great healthcare but also improving child health by pushing the limits on how we can improve care in the future,” he says. “These leaders have broken down barriers to prioritize innovation within our organization. They are the engine that is pushing innovation.”

Cincinnati Children’s, which posted operating revenue of $3.1 billion for the fiscal year beginning in July 2022 and ending in June 2023, garners millions of dollars of external support for innovation on an annual basis. In 2023, the hospital received $304.7 million for innovation efforts from external sources, including $217 million from the National Institutes of Health. Last year, the hospital applied $24.8 million to innovation from philanthropic fundraising.

“Most of our research money comes from the National Institutes of Health,” Ponsky says. “We have a mechanism to help our scientists apply for federal grants. We are very fortunate to be one of the largest recipients of NIH funding in the country.”

Enlisting frontline healthcare workers in innovation

Cincinnati Children’s has an “open door” for frontline healthcare workers to propose innovations as well as events throughout the year to encourage busy clinicians to look at problems and come up with solutions, Ponsky says.

The staff of Cincinnati Children’s Innovation Ventures runs with ideas developed by frontline healthcare workers including physicians and nurse practitioners, who meet periodically with the innovation team after proposing ideas, Ponsky says.

“This is a great way to get busy clinicians to see problems, work with us to develop solutions, and have a team that is in place to help facilitate the creation of the solutions without taking up a huge amount of the clinicians’ time,” he says.

Innovation advice for health systems and hospitals

Health systems and hospitals must be intentional for their innovation efforts to succeed, Ponsky says.

“Innovation is a rapidly moving target,” he says. “It is incredibly challenging for a busy health system or hospital to get involved in innovation in a meaningful way. The needle is moving so quickly now—there are so many elements of innovation that were not on the forefront even five or 10 years ago.”

“If you look at innovation, it is very hard to stay up-to-date with what is new without having teams and partners across the country to keep you aware of developing technologies,” he says. “New patents are developing exponentially now, and you need to have a collaborative and forward-leaning approach to stay on the forefront of cutting-edge technology.”

For example, Cincinnati Children’s is part of the International Society for Pediatric Innovation. “We collaborate with many other children’s hospitals,” Ponsky says. “This is an example of collaboratives that help us advance innovation.”

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.