Surgify aims to make bone surgery safer around the world
Breaking through in the field of medicine is not the easiest thing to do for a start-up. Surgify – featuring expertise from Aalto University and the Neurosurgery Research Group of the University of Helsinki – is not daunted.
Established in Otaniemi, the company intends to bring their innovation to market shortly. Surgify has developed a safer surgical drill bit that can cut bone without damaging soft tissues, such as blood vessels and connective tissue.
Visa Sippola came up with the idea during his time as a medical student at the neurosurgical clinic of Helsinki University Hospital, where he saw the postsurgical complications that can be caused by the drills used in cranial, spinal and oral surgery. At worst, the complications resulting from damage to nerves and blood vessels can cause lifelong injuries, or may even be fatal.
The issue is not small from an economic standpoint, either: annual costs related to these complications may exceed four billion euros globally.
'Treatment injuries are a sensitive subject, one that research has only in recent years begun to highlight. Our work requires awareness to grow and attitudes to change as well,' Sippola says.
According to Sippola, the innovation has attracted a lot of interest from hospitals and at medical conferences. Investors have also taken notice: Surgify has thus far gathered over two million euros in funding.
MIT Technology Review recognised Sippola as one of its European Innovators Under 35 in 2017. In December 2018, the European Venture Contest ranked Surgify among the top 24 of the 2 400 participating companies from around the world.
Rigorous research and almost two hundred prototypes
Surgify's development work began in 2014. After identifying the central problem, Sippola contacted Petri Kuosmanen, professor of machine design at Aalto University, to get help getting started. Kuosmanen put Sippola in touch with engineering student Shahab Haeri, who was looking for a topic for his master's thesis. Industrial engineering and management student Juho Carpén and quality management expert Jukka Kreander joined the team soon after. Surgify has since rounded out its team with more specialists to help with product development, for example.
The company's efforts were helped along by funding from Business Finland under its New Business from Research Ideas (TUTLI) programme. Surgify's method was patented in 2016.
Developing this new technology has required a great deal of research, experiments and support from experts of different fields. Almost two hundred prototypes later, the drill bit will soon be ready for clinical use with patients.
'Medicine differs from many other fields in that the functionality and safety of any new technology must be backed by strong scientific evidence. This is in everyone's interest, of course,' Sippola notes.
To help guide the venture, Surgify has assembled a prestigious set of advisors, including Juha Hernesniemi, professor emeritus of neurosurgery, and Mika Niemelä, head of the neurosurgical unit at Helsinki University Hospital.
For a start-up in the field of health technology, Sippola has found Otaniemi to be an ideal springboard.
'The support from Aalto University and the Otaniemi ecosystem has been crucial. We've been helped by sparring within the TUTLI project, the network we've built here and product development collaboration with other companies. Now we're looking to pay it forward and show that you can start an international success story right here.'
In operating theatres this year
The advantage of Surgify's product is that it can be easily adopted for use in drills that are already widely used by surgeons, thus eliminating the need to learn a new instrument.
'Learning to use a new tool might affect the efficiency and safety of surgeries, at least initially. Luckily, adopting our innovation is very straightforward and doesn’t need much training,' Sippola says.
2019 looks to be an exciting year for Surgify: the company is planning on securing governmental permits, starting mass production and taking the product to market.
'Our goal is to provide every operating theatre in the world with safe instruments for cutting bone.'
Text and images: Annamari Tolonen
In this series we present research-based startups from Aalto University. Each year, 5 to 10 research-based companies are founded with the university's support.