A mother's plea and a daughter's distress got the attention of a team of Philips engineers far from headquarters.
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Where do ideas for new products come from? In the case of the home heart defibrillator, the answer is Mary Lynn Grizzell, a mother of three from Walla Walla, Wash. She went to Seattle a few years ago to screen a video of her daughter Rachel's piano recital for 150 engineers at Philips Medical Systems. The videotape showed Rachel, then 15, collapsing from a heart attack at the piano. She survived--today, at 26, she's a nurse at Children's Hospital in Seattle--but all three Grizzell daughters were born with a heart condition that brings on sudden cardiac arrhythmias (the middle child, Talitha, died of a heart attack while on a family vacation in 1997). "Please," Grizzell implored the Philips engineers, "make a cardiac defibrillator that will fit in my purse."

They did. Called HeartStart, it's the only defibrillator approved by the FDA for sale without a prescription. Even before it became available over the counter in the U.S. last fall, HeartStart had found its way into thousands of homes in Europe, where long waiting lists for heart surgery put many patients at risk of dying. According to the American Heart Association, about 80% of heart attacks happen at home, and the odds of survival increase sharply if a shock is delivered to the heart within five minutes. Philips's goal is a HeartStart in every home, as commonplace as a smoke alarm or a fire extinguisher. At a list price of $1,695, it's a little expensive for most households. But as with other consumer products, Philips expects that the cost will go down as sales volume rises.

HeartStart is just one instance of Philips's penchant for seeking ideas from just plain folks. At Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the company's home country, consumers volunteer to live for a few days at a time in Homelab, a two-bedroom house fitted with experimental products. Researchers watch the way people interact with the technology and collect their comments on how the gadgets could be improved. Philips also sinks a sizable chunk of its $3.1 billion annual R&D budget into research hospitals, where company engineers work alongside doctors to develop new products. "One thing we're doing more of now than in the past is 'embracing open innovation,' " says Diego Olego, managing director of North American research for Philips, referring to the book of that name by Harvard professor Henry William Chesbrough. "No one company has all the intelligent people in the world, so we have to be able to integrate ideas from outside. We also want to be market-driven. Often engineers get focused on what's feasible. But we don't want to develop a product unless it's also something people want." Or need--just ask Mary Lynn Grizzell. --Anne Fisher