The health and medical technology industry has been growing fast for some time now, and there’s no reason to expect it would slow down. Because of our strengths in both healthcare and technology, Finland is one of the best countries to be in for those who want to introduce the latest innovations in the field to the world, and there are few programs better than Biodesign for creating them. AVP has been working with Biodesign for years, and we talked with two alumni of the program to learn a bit more about people who’ve been through it, the companies they’ve founded, and the changes they want to make in the world.
The Biodesign program originates from Stanford University and has been running in Finland since 2016. It aims at improved medical care by providing a novel entrepreneurial program to selected interdisciplinary teams and by creating new businesses. Each year, roughly 3–7 fellows are selected to the program, where they form one or two teams. After the initial training, the teams are then immersed in a clinic, where they observe its processes for a month. During that time, they have one task: to come up with 100–200 needs that haven’t been optimally met in that clinic — and that’s when the difficult part only begins. After collecting the needs, the teams will then analyze them thoroughly to figure out which ones are not only the most important but also universal — meaning they’re actual needs outside that specific clinic too — and actually solvable. Once they’ve managed to boil the list down to one single need, they’ll start working on a clinical solution and commercialization.
During the program, AVP offers the fellows workshops on topics such as user research, data analysis and teamwork.
Lighting the way in oral care
Sakari Nikinmaa was one of the first Biodesign fellows; he took part in the program when it ran in Finland the first time. “I was working on my thesis at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, when one of my professors, Paavo Kinnunen, got excited about the Biodesign program at Stanford and wanted to bring it to Finland. He got other people excited too, and things just sort of happened,” Sakari says.
I think multidisciplinary is super important in education, and that’s why programs such as AVP are so valuable.
Sakari’s background is in electrical engineering with a minor in industrial engineering and management, so Biodesign was a great fit for him. With a strong technological competence but also an interest in business, he was able to understand both technical and financial restrictions of some of the possible solutions to the needs they came up with during the program. “I think multidisciplinary is super important in education, and that’s why programs such as AVP are so valuable,” he says.
Biodesign has a quite heavy emphasis on practicality. When the teams identify needs during their time in the clinic, they must pay attention to not only how important something is to solve, but also if it’s possible to solve. “Everyone would like to cure cancer, but if the team doesn’t have the tools to do it, the need is considered “blue sky” and not a good need to choose,” Sakari explains. Having to come up with 100–200 solvable needs sounds like a lot but having people around from different backgrounds made it easier. “Working with engineers, designers, doctors and marketers really helped to see things from different perspectives,” Sakari says.
Working with engineers, designers, doctors and marketers really helped to see things from different perspectives.
One of the needs Sakari’s Biodesign-team took into account was brought to them by Tommi Pätilä, a consultant in pediatric heart surgery and organ transplantation, who Sakari had gotten to know during the program. After putting it through the same rigorous process as all the others, it was Tommi’s idea that they decided had the most promise. Eventually, this idea led to Sakari and Tommi founding Koite Health in 2018.
Koite Health uses a Photodynamic Therapy based method where specific wavelengths of light activate a photosensitizer. In the presence of oxygen, this creates a reaction that kills harmful bacteria. The first target area for their treatment is oral care, and for that, they’ve developed Lumoral, a proprietary antibacterial prophylaxis, which applies light to the user’s teeth causing the reaction together with their light-sensitive mouthwash. Because the action is localized to teeth only, normal bacterial flora is preserved in other parts of the mouth and body. “The photodynamic technology has existed for a long time, but it hasn’t been used much because of the high price of LEDs and the availability of antibiotics. Now, however, LEDs are more affordable, we have more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and we know that the side effects of commonly used solutions such as Chlorhexidine prevent its long-term use. It was the right time for this,” Sakari explains.
A good idea and the right timing will get you far, but a successful startup needs more than that — it needs a business model, among other things. That’s why AVP has been helping out the Biodesign-teams since the program began; to give them tools to make their idea profitable as well. “We examined some case examples and learned how to list stakeholders, what it takes to create a business model and so on. Especially the Value Proposition Canvas has been a useful tool, and I still think back to some of the cases,” Sakari says. He already had a good understanding of business from his minor, but still feels like AVP brought a lot of value to the program. “I could be just a refresher for some, but there’s a lot of different backgrounds in Biodesign. AVP can help them understand each other better by giving everyone a basic understanding of what it is to be an entrepreneur.”
Heart and mind wide open
Kai Kronström took part in Biodesign in 2019, but it was hardly his first touchpoint with medical technology or entrepreneurship. He has been leading several startups, some of which he has also been a founder of, including Injeq (tissue identifying needles), MariCare (sensor floors for elderly care centers) and Moodmetric (ring and app for the nervous system monitoring). “I had just left Injeq, and I wanted to do something new again,” Kai says, “I knew the field well, so when I heard of Biodesign I thought it was a great opportunity for exploring different options and finding new solutions.”
Many successful companies are founded by students or recent graduates. Programs like Biodesign and AVP help make it possible.
What was especially important for Kai about Biodesign was the entrepreneurial spirit. The program expects most of its teams to commercialize their ideas either as startups or in existing companies and helps the fellows by providing them with a network of mentors, coaches, and stakeholders such as clinicians, patient group representatives, scientists, engineers, IT experts, designers, and entrepreneurs. “Many successful companies are founded by students or recent graduates. Programs like Biodesign and AVP help make it possible by fostering an entrepreneurial culture and providing the right tools,” Kai says.
One of the topics Kai and his team investigated during their time in the clinic was nothing less ambitious than interventional cardiology and heart surgery. They found out there were many issues in cardiology that could be improved upon, and that there was already an ongoing research project on improving the coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery by utilizing the patient’s own cardiac tissue to support the regeneration of damaged cardiac muscle. The research had shown positive results, and Kai thought it was worth commercializing. “A lot of the science was already done, and there was a clear opportunity to start driving it to the market. Research is still needed, of course, but research alone is not enough,” Kai says. To release the idea from the lab and into the market, he then found EpiHeart in 2019 together with senior researcher Esko Kankuri.
Now, EpiHeart is a medical device company dedicated to enabling surgical administration of novel cellular and gene therapies. Their first focus is Cardiac Micrograft Therapy, a novel autologous cellular therapy administered during CABG surgery to treat ischemic cardiac scars and heart failure — which is based on the research Kai familiarized himself with during Biodesign. During the surgery, the patient’s own cardiac tissue is processed into micrografts, cleaned and transplanted back to support cardiac tissue regeneration.
Kai agrees with Sakari in the regard that being a successful entrepreneur takes a lot more than just a good idea. “You need to be a certain kind of person, I think. You have to know so much, but you also have to understand you don’t, and can’t, know everything. You have to listen to everyone but at the same time be stubborn and trust yourself,” he says. Kai feels like AVP brought valuable entrepreneurial elements to the Biodesign program: “I was already quite experienced as an entrepreneur, but they introduced a lot of relevant theory and research. I still try to keep in touch, and would really like to go to some of their events once things are back to normal.”
You have to know so much, but you also have to understand you don’t, and can’t, know everything.
Koite Health and EpiHeart are both in their early stages and are both operating in a field where it’s crucial to be extremely good at what you do. No one wants to use health technology or perform an operation that’s only the second-best option available. There are infinite possibilities in the field, but they tend to be quite narrow niches, and competition quickly stumps out the less successful companies. During the interview, Kai gets a phone call he says he needs to take. After a quick call, he hangs up smiling. “It seems we just got 300 000 euros of funding,” he says. It’s a tough road to take, but it looks like they’re off to a good start.