A bunch of learning curves – Braincare after two years
About two years ago in 2016, a Y-kampus article telling a bit about university spin-off company Braincare was published. Just before summer I got in contact with Katrina Wendel-Mitoraj and asked if she could afford the time to update us a little bit. Since then their path has apparently been full of learning.
Learning how to be a medical device company
Braincare has spent a lot of time developing their app and the software. The app was first and still is a kind of a side project relating to TUTLI projects innovation – the electrode implants. Katrina describes the building of the app like the School of Hard Knocks, really learning the hard way how to be a start-up:
“Basically I’ve been going from hospital to hospital showing our app to epilepsy nurses and doctors and asking what they want. I think it has been a good learning exercise, after all we were all engineers with no business expertise.”
Learning to build up reputation
The next thing was to start connecting the hospitals, the customers. Selling to public sector certainly is not a fast process.
“Our most difficult obstacle has probably been the procurement process. We started marketing quite a while ago and from the first phone call it takes around one year to get a contract with the public sector.”
Then Katrina shows me the actual electrode, the innovation from TUTLI project times. A non-surface, under-the-skin electrode for monitoring electrical activity from the brain, known as electroencephalogram (EEG). The app is just a first step in to get the electrode to the hospitals. The implant has not yet been tested subdermally, only on the skin surface as external measurements.
“We are getting ready to test this later this year. I’d still call this R&D, this will pull us forward as a medical device company.
This has been like running two companies at the same time, building the distributors network and sales channels for both.”
Learning to work with people
Katrina states that only by talking with people you can get paying customers and connections to build your company with.
“Our huge milestone has been to get the first paying customers. Also launching the app was basically our first step to international markets, that was like taking a leap of faith.
Last week we had our first trade show in London. We got more international opinions, good seizure recording results and we even found a company that is able to deliver a missing piece for our product.”
Doctors want to know, and nurses are waiting for their time to be saved. Katrina also states that learning to iterate not just products but also processes has been one thing, making the idea of a lean startup true: testing, getting feedback and getting better.
Learning to ask questions
As a biggest learning and shift of mindset Katrina points out the importance of asking things from potential customers.
“A biggest mindshift was this New Factory accelerator program that the university got us to participate this spring. Exiting stealth mode and getting feedback on the electrode was a big step, we are of course always afraid that someone’s going to copy our idea.”
These things you cannot learn from books, you have to go out there on your own. When asking about tips for possible future entrepreneurs or researchers who wonder about starting a company, the same customer point of view is in focus:
“The hardest part is that you need to start selling even before the product is ready. Ask your potential customers: ‘If I do this would you use it?’.”
Learning about long-term entrepreneurship
Braincare seems to be still going forward even after two years of hard work. The entrepreneur herself feels of course firstly very busy, but still sees the light at the end of the tunnel:
“It’s been very slow, but going international and seeing that there is clearly an interest in both products keeps us excited and going forward. On the other hand it’s also exhausting to always come up with plan A, plan B, plan C.”
Things don’t always go as you plan in entrepreunial world. So what makes Katrina stay in this path rather than be a university researcher? How to find courage to leave the university and start a company, hop on a rollercoaster?
“There’s so much a talk that makes the entrepreunial world sound really exciting. Also knowing that there clearly is a need for our products and it’s possible to help patients makes this inspiring.
We could be creating a whole new field of research. Possibility to change things in a big way keeps me going forward.”
Two years have gone by and it’s still only just the beginning with these two products. Braincare made it to the top 100 most promising start-ups in Finland -list and next up will be the Kasvu Open Carnival in October. We hope to hear from Braincare when the testings of the electrodes have begun and they are still a little closer to changing the world.
Text & photos: Aino Siiroinen