SPARK Finland brings together experienced mentors and researchers – The programme boosts the development of health tech solutions

SPARK Finland, a programme listed among major European business incubators, is expanding its international reach and focusing increasingly on education. A total of 20 students from the University of Helsinki took this spring’s course in health technology.

SPARK Finland was launched in 2017 through cooperation between the University of Helsinki and Tampere University to support the development of researcher-based health-related solutions. The goal of the project funded by Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment was to get experienced mentors to help get research-based ideas off the ground and, consequently, shorten the time needed for development at the initial commercialisation stage.

In a few years, the programme has grown from an operator active in two cities into a national and financially independent organisation. A total of 65 projects have participated in SPARK Finland, of which 15 have so far been transformed into businesses. Currently, more than 30 projects continue to operate under the programme.

This spring SPARK Finland was listed among the 25 most significant European business incubators in the biotechnology sector. The programme does not provide any funding, so what is the secret of SPARK?

Juho Väisänen, SPARK Finland’s development manager, from Tampere University which is coordinating the project, says that, at the beginning of product development, mentoring trumps funding.

“For people working with innovation to know which road to take, they need advice and networks. SPARK’s strength is having experienced mentors and direct links to world-class networks of professionals,” he says.

Market understanding to guide development

Director Pasi Sorvisto of SPARK Finland initially brought the programme to Finland. He says that ideas and hypotheses should be trialled on the main market already at the early stages of the process. Sorvisto also highlights the importance of market understanding: it has to be a key driver in both development and related decision-making.

“If the owner of an idea has no inkling of customers’ actual needs, the potential of the main market in the field, rival solutions and what to do on the market, what kind of knowledge are they able to rely on to make relevant and appropriate decisions?” Sorvisto asks.

“This is why we want to integrate teams and their ideas into key global networks early in the game. For the same reason, the evaluation panel that selects our new projects is heavily international,” Sorvisto adds.

An inclusive and international programme

SPARK Finland focuses on supporting clinical solutions. Its projects are primarily in the area of drug development, pharmaceutical technology or development efforts geared toward diagnostics and examination equipment. In the case of projects that have evolved into businesses, the list abounds with a broad range of solutions: Researchers from the University of Helsinki have contributed to the development of a drug for the GIST type of cancer (Sartar), a micrograft therapy for heart damage (EpiHeart), the diagnostics and treatment of Parkinson’s disease (Filip Scheperjans), a solution for single-cell omics (SCellex) and a smart jumpsuit for studying infants (BABA Center).

Usually, SPARK projects last two years. In the programme, everyday activities are marked by inclusivity. The most active listeners learn the most: teams provide peer support to each other, and mentors too become welded together.

SPARK Finland is looking to strongly increase the programme’s international aspect. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated SPARK activities in a network that has grown considerably in the exceptional circumstances. The aim is to further expand the international network, especially in Europe. Already now, teams under SPARK Finland can attend a European webinar series or gain a mentor from, for example, the United States, Japan, Germany or Australia, which are just some of the countries from where Finnish groups have succeeded in finding mentors.

SPARK invests in training – Health tech course in the spring filled up quickly

Currently, SPARK Finland is also strongly developing its training efforts. In 2019 the programme initiated the development of an international education platform which helps bring experts together. Among other things, the platform makes it possible to organise courses on a broader scale, agilely distribute training materials and promote encounters between participants. Outi Väisänen, project manager in charge of education at SPARK Finland, says that the goal is to introduce the platform in autumn 2021.

In Finland, SPARK has for many years held a health tech course for students and junior researchers, which has subsequently been divided into two separate courses – the one in the spring focuses on product development, while the autumn course concentrates on business development and market intelligence.

In spring 2021 the course was, for the first time, made more widely available to higher education students. The available places filled up in a couple of hours after registration opened.

“General interest in health tech, the commercialisation of research results and their practical application has grown. What’s more, not all universities have the capacity to offer courses in product development and business activity, making students look elsewhere for such information,” says Juho Väisänen, explaining the reasons underlying the great interest.

Embarking on a new career path

SPARK provides researchers with the opportunity to embark on a new kind of career. In fact, the career path of academic scholars can consist of developing a research topic into a solution that can change the world and make a difference in society.

This is why SPARK Finland wishes to raise its profile among master's degree students as well. If the spark is ignited at an earlier stage, students can learn to see several potential career options.

While many SPARK projects evolve into businesses, Juho Väisänen points out that a business is not the only possible end product.

“SPARK has generated, among other things, licensing deals and larger international research consortia, in addition to which international top-level universities have recruited researchers from the teams,” he says.

Medical solutions for the patient

The University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Medicine has been involved in the development of SPARK Finland from the start, and several projects and businesses coordinated by the University of Helsinki researchers operate under the programme.

In addition, this spring’s health tech course quickly attracted 20 students of the Faculty.

Dean Risto Renkonen of the Faculty of Medicine says that while research in medicine and the life sciences conducted at the University of Helsinki is of a high standard, and while expertise in both medical technology and IT solutions is strong, there is a gap to close in terms of commercialising research findings compared to other European operators.

“It's justified to ask how we might improve the commercial return on investment for our primarily publicly funded research. SPARK is a wonderful tool for helping us to succeed, alongside our core duties of research and education, in this latest duty of ours, also enabling us to better describe to our funders why we are worth their investment,” Renkonen says.

“In medicine, it's still quite easy to justify our activities, as what we do always aims to benefit the patient,” he adds.