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Interview: The winners of the NLSInvest Rising Star Award

Fransisco Rojas, Michael Rutzler and Trude Tingvoll

The three Rising Stars, ApoGlyx (Sweden), Respinor (Norway) and RetinaRisk (Iceland), share their journeys so far and their advice to aspiring life science entrepreneurs.

Following a long review of the applications by a pan-Nordic committee of industry leaders, 80 Rising Stars were selected to pitch to investors across three dedicated tracks: biotech/pharma, medtech/diagnostics and digital/e-health. One company from each track was selected as the category winner during the NLSInvest event, April 19th.

The three winners will be awarded a package prize of 15,000 DKK, two registrations to NLSDays 2022, and one company presentation at the 2022 conference.

The “best of the best” of our entrepreneurs

This year’s NLSInvest Rising Star Awards are sponsored by SwedenBIO and BioInnovation Institute (BII), an international life science entrepreneurship initiative and part of the NLSInvest Committee.

“We believe the Nordic ecosystem has all the ingredients required for success and are happy to see international investor interest in the NLSInvest Rising Star companies. Our view is that high-growth Nordic start-up companies must play on a global playing field, and the Rising Star Award is a step in that direction. We wish the participants and the winners of the competition continued success,” says Bobby Soni, Chief Business Officer at BioInnovation Institute.

“I would advise the winners to continually strive to reach an international level caliber on all fronts.”

“I would advise the winners to continually strive to reach an international level caliber on all fronts. Hire a team and board chair with documented experience with Tier 1 companies. Honestly benchmark their pitch against others in their space seeking the same customers and funders. Finally, have a clear value proposition that investors desire,” says Soni.

“We look upon this as the Olympics of life science innovation, where each Nordic country’s strength in this field is proudly demonstrated by the “best of the best” of our entrepreneurs,” says Helena Strigård, CEO of SwedenBIO, the Swedish Life science Industry organization and host of NLSInvest / NLSDays.

Respinor – Medtech/Diagnostics winner

Norwegian Respinor was founded in 2015 based on technology developed by the research unit of NeoRad, including prototypes and clinical documentation from the Radiology department at the University of Oslo (UiO). They established that respiratory movement interfered with their application of laser navigation during medical procedures and that there were no technologies available to continuously measure respiratory movement.

“The company identified a huge unmet medical need in respiratory medicine: to liberate patients from mechanical ventilation (MV) at the right time.”

In response, they invented an ultrasound-based continuous-monitoring technology and saw the opportunity to apply this invention in respiratory medicine, describes Trude Tingvoll, CEO, Respinor. “NeoRad’s shareholders then established Respinor as a spin-off. The company identified a huge unmet medical need in respiratory medicine: to liberate patients from mechanical ventilation (MV) at the right time.”

The company is now developing a novel, non-invasive medical device, RESPINOR Diaphragm Excursion Technology (DXT), for continuous diaphragm monitoring, with potential applications towards many aspects of critical care and respiratory medicine.

“Therefore, we believe DXT will become the next vital sign for assessing work of breathing.”

“DXT is the first ultrasound-based sensor that can stick to the skin to provide continuous monitoring of our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, providing information to improve clinical decision-making for critically ill patients,” says Tingvoll. “We are targeting MV and specifically the diaphragm function to guide physicians in the decision to wean patients from MV at the right time. However, DXT also measures respiratory rate, one of the most predictive and earliest vital signs that signal change in patients’ clinical status. An efficient and accurate method of monitoring respiratory rate is still missing in hospital general wards and triage, so DXT has the potential to be used for respiratory monitoring in all hospital wards. Therefore, we believe DXT will become the next vital sign for assessing work of breathing.”

Buy in from stakeholders, engage with your KOLs early on & secure a strong team

We asked Trude Tingvoll about what lessons she has learnt from the start-up process and about her to advice other entrepreneurs. As a first advice she says that beyond having a great product or idea that solves a medical problem, it is essential to have buy-in from key stakeholders.

“As a developer, you might not identify all the elements that could be a barrier to the implementation of your technology at the hospital.”

Her second advice is that it is important to engage with your key opinion leaders (KOLs) or the end-users at an early stage.

“We have recently finalized feasibility studies in France, Italy, and Norway, confirming proof of principle and proof of concept, where we received valuable insights during the process. Based on our initial learnings, we redefined the protocol together with the clinical investigators to ensure we meet their needs. In addition, as end-users the KOLs have provided vital insights to our technology development to ensure that DXT is practical in a busy ICU environment. As a developer, you might not identify all the elements that could be a barrier to the implementation of your technology at the hospital,” she says.

“As a leader, I believe the best way to succeed is to empower those around you to succeed.”

Last but not least, Tingvoll advices to secure a strong team with complementary capabilities with the right team-oriented “problem solving” mindsets who like to challenge the status quo and thrive with change management. “It is crucial to succeeding in a startup environment. As a leader, I believe the best way to succeed is to empower those around you to succeed,” she says.

RetinaRisk – Digital/E-health winner

Icelandic RetinaRisk is a health tech company founded by a world-renowned team of visionary doctors to transform the future of healthcare by providing personalized care based on individualized risk assessment.

“The clinically validated RetinaRisk algorithm empowers patients and doctors alike by accurately calculating the risk of sight-threatening eye disease, while at the same time leading to efficiency and substantial savings in healthcare cost.”

“Our initial focus is to revolutionize the way we detect and manage diabetic eye disease, one of the leading causes of blindness which can be prevented in over 90% of cases with early detection. The clinically validated RetinaRisk algorithm empowers patients and doctors alike by accurately calculating the risk of sight-threatening eye disease, while at the same time leading to efficiency and substantial savings in healthcare cost,” says Francisco Rojas, Business Development Manager at RetinaRisk.

RetinaRisk allows doctors to provide personalized care by identifying high-risk patients who may need more intense care and can reduce the frequency of unnecessary visits resulting in significant savings in healthcare cost. “RetinaRisk offers enhanced clinical safety for patients while providing a more sustainable approach to the delivery of personalized healthcare,” says Rojas.

User experience is key

We also asked Francisco Rojas about what lessons he has learnt from the start-up process and about his to advice to other entrepreneurs.

“Listening to your client when establishing the value proposition and doing hand-holding with your clients, will greatly ease the process of integrating new solutions in traditional and established industries like healthcare.”

“For us, the user experience is the key. As a company, we are in a blue ocean position with our API and therefore well ahead of any competitor. This gives us a ‘first-movers’ advantage but at the same time being a pioneer in a field comes with some additional challenges as we cannot refer to other company or services’ experiences. We work closely with doctors and other customers of our system to establish the value proposition and how our revolutionary solution can optimize patient care to prevent unnecessary blindness. Listening to your client when establishing the value proposition and doing hand-holding with your clients, will greatly ease the process of integrating new solutions in traditional and established industries like healthcare,” says Rojas.

ApoGlyx – Biotech/Pharma winner

Swedish ApoGlyx is developing small molecule inhibitors for Aquaporin-9 and its most advanced approach targets sepsis, for which there is currently no cure.

“We were later the first to discover potent small molecule Aquaporin-9 inhibitors that we later continued to develop in ApoGlyx. One of these molecules, RG100204, showed a remarkable protection from sepsis induced organ damage in mice.”

“ApoGlyx is building on excellent academic research that started in the laboratories of Professors Søren Nielsen at Aarhus University in Denmark and Professor Per Kjellbom, at Lund University, both in collaboration with Professor Peter Agre at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, who received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of aquaporins. We were later the first to discover potent small molecule Aquaporin-9 inhibitors that we later continued to develop in ApoGlyx. One of these molecules, RG100204, showed a remarkable protection from sepsis induced organ damage in mice,” says Michael Rützler, CEO and co-founder, ApoGlyx. “According to the Global Sepsis Alliance 11 million deaths worldwide are associated with sepsis, which is approximately one in five deaths! This number is also referring to statistics taken before COVID-19, which is causing death by sepsis. ApoGlyx is aiming to save at least some of these lives, and to improve the lives of sepsis survivors that suffer from the long-term effects of the organ damage caused by sepsis.”

“According to the Global Sepsis Alliance 11 million deaths worldwide are associated with sepsis, which is approximately one in five deaths!”

We also asked Michael Rützler about what lessons he has learnt from the start-up process and about his to advice to other entrepreneurs.

“Personally, I can say that I am happy and fortunate to be able to work with the team that I have been working with in ApoGlyx. I have learned a lot from each of them and rely on their expertise,” he says.

Photo of Francisco Rojas, Business Development Manager, RetinaRisk, Michael Rützler, CEO, ApoGlyx and Trude Tingvoll, CEO, Respinor