Into the unknown
There was no guarantees that the technology would work. At the start of the project, it wasn’t known what a haemorrhage would look like in the images. ‘We imagined that the blood would accumulate and form a lump in one place, whereas it can actually be a thin film between internal organs.’
Based on research carried out in other research institutes, it was possible to conclude that some kind of images would be obtained. It took a long time, however, to obtain each image. At the end of the 1970s, taking one image took four hours. Compared to that, the 10-minute imaging time obtained by the start of the 1980s was already very short.
Building the first prototype of the device was a demanding but ultimately rewarding project. The expertise and working environment of the Helsinki University of Technology’s Low Temperature Laboratory enabled the project to succeed. When in Autumn 1981, imprecise brain images comparable to present-day brain images were obtained for the first time, the researchers went mad with delight. Bit by bit, they accumulated more expertise and information about how to further develop the device and obtain more precise images. In the end, the device was already in hospital use just a year after the first image was successfully obtained. The device was among the first magnetic resonance imaging devices to be used in a hospital anywhere in the world, and it was used to scan over 3500 patients.
In hindsight, Sepponen is amazed at the strong support given by the company and the management’s farsightedness. In Sepponen’s opinion, the same kind of boldness and commitment to technological development cannot be seen nowadays, even though this is just what is needed if the goal is to make health technology a significant export sector for Finland.
‘Health technology exports are currently at €2 billion. By 2030, this should be between €10–20 billion, if the goal is to make health technology exports a significant economic driver’, Sepponen says.
‘With the current investment level and funding model, it’s doubtful we can get things moving. In addition to funding, we need both ideas and companies ready for change.’
The train has left already
The future has a lot in common with the past. Sepponen shares the story of the magnetic resonance imaging device because it can be used to learn for the future. The company made a conscious decision to set out to develop something totally new. With the help of an international jury, a problem affecting a sufficiently large number of people was chosen and then the search for a solution began. Knowing that they had secure long-term funding, the researchers were able to focus on the research.
Sepponen emphasises that expertise must be developed to the highest level so that we are ready at the right moment to offer customers the solution they need. He believes that Finland has significant business opportunities, particularly in the areas of rehabilitation and disease prevention. Expertise and products must be developed now so that we are ready when the opportunity for success is upon us.
‘We need to be keeping watch, as an ice fisher does by the edge of the ice hole, waiting for the right moment and offering as tempting a bait as possible. It’s too late to start up the engine once the markets are livening up, because the competitors are then already much further ahead.’