How can a doctor assess the condition of a cancer patient and make the best possible treatment decisions based on it? The answer to this question was pondered by Olli Warro, a student of information technology, and Aleksi Pauna, a student of industrial engineering, and their friends. They are developing a convenient mobile application in which the patient could store information about his or her condition to support the decision-making of the doctor.
Although product design and testing are still under way, these new entrepreneurs have already experienced rewarding moments – such as doctors' inquiries about when the application could be used.
“This convinces us that at least something has been done right so far,” says Warro.
The ingenious idea was born in a coding competition
Everything started in 2019, when five friends participated in the Ultrahack coding event, of the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa and the pharmaceutical company MSD. They sought digital methods for cancer treatment.
“We discussed with the parties, and it turned out that there is a problem with ECOG classification,” says Pauna.
The classification describes the patient's functional capacity and helps to decide what kind of treatment is given to them. A doctor's ECOG assessment may be distorted by at least three factors: The subjectivity of the evaluator and the patient, as well as the patient's varying condition. In addition, there is only a limited time available for making an assessment at the appointment.
Warro, Pauna, and their friends came up with the idea that the problem could be solved with a mobile application. Before the appointment, the patient would answer questions regarding issues such as pain, sleep, and appetite. The application would also measure the number of steps with the user's permission. Finally, the doctor would receive a summary of the responses and a forecast of what kind of ECOG assessments would be given to the patient by colleagues.
HELSEED programme for entrepreneurial skills and help with legal issues
The idea was so inspiring that it led to cooperation with HUS, and the establishment of their own company, Evexia, in spring 2020. In order to start their start-up career, the team decided to participate in the HELSEED programme, of the University of Helsinki and the student entrepreneurship society Think Company, which supports start-up entrepreneurs.
Assistance is available both for clarifying the business idea, and for drawing up a shareholder agreement, or preparing for investor discussions.
“Each team is also given feedback on their business plan,“ says Marko Berg, Deputy Chief Investment Officer at University of Helsinki.
“In addition to financial skills, entrepreneurs need other skills as well – such as the ability to explain their ideas comprehensibly,” says Rosa Salmivuori, CEO of Think Company. At the outset, it is important to find out whether the product solves the type of problem that someone is willing to pay for it.
"It's a good idea to start testing the idea more than just by asking friends," says Salmivuori.
The Evexia team benefited from HELSEED, especially in legal matters, such as the drafting of contracts. Cooperation with the University of Helsinki has continued close even after the end of the programme.
"At least once in a quarter, we discuss about the progress, what are the biggest challenges, and how we can solve them," says Pauna.
Entering health technology markets requires capital
Evexia's journey in the HELSEED programme culminated in presenting the business plan to the jury, which included representatives of the university's financial management and Think Company. The team was successful and received an initial capital of EUR 30,000 from the funds of the University of Helsinki.
The investment has been beneficial, as product development in the highly regulated health technology sector is expensive. A large number of risk analyses and various documentation are required.
“We do not have to constantly worry, whether we can make a check. This speeds up the development,” says Warro.
Clinical studies will soon take place and determine whether the application is useful for patients and doctors. In the best-case scenario, the launch of the product on the market could happen in a few years.
A multidisciplinary team is more than the sum of its parts
A diverse range of different disciplines is at the heart of several successful companies, including Evexia, which consists of students from the University of Helsinki and Aalto University. Warro brings software production and Pauna project management expertise to the team. Otto Laitinen is familiar with product design, Juuso Kylmäoja with data science, and Pietari Kaskela with mathematics.
"We have different perspectives for examining matters, and we challenge each other, it helps," says Pauna.
The fact that the team members still complete courses at the university and spend time with the latest ideas in their field, can also be seen as a strength of Evexia. Warro and Pauna believe that student entrepreneurs have a lot to offer to the society.
"We are able to apply what we have learned and bring new aspects into business activities," summarises Warro.
- In the HELSEED programme, students receive help in establishing a business, from the Think Company workshops, as well as from investment professionals at the University of Helsinki.
- Finally, the teams present their business plans, and the funds of the University of Helsinki invest 10,000 to 50,000 euros in the most promising start-ups. Thus far, funding has been provided to Evexia and Evergreen Walls, a specialist in indoor planting.
- The programme was launched in 2020, when more than 20 teams participated in it. The University of Helsinki recently made a contribution of EUR 1.5 million to the HELSEED fund, for further development. The HELSEED entrepreneurship course can now also be found in the selection of the Open University.
- In addition, start-up entrepreneurs have access to Think Company services, such as campus shared workspaces, idea accelerators, and other practical support.