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'Gothenburg is an ideal place for growing a technology company'

10 October 2019
Three of the co-founders of Intelligent Implants: Erik Zellmer, John Zellmer and Martin Larsson at the Gothenburg office.
Intelligent Implants, an Irish-American start-up with a promising breakthrough technology, has opened an office in Gothenburg that is set to become the firm’s primary base.

Intelligent Implants is a global company. It has operations and advisors in the US, Ireland and now Sweden. In April 2018, it established operations in Gothenburg, the hometown of three of its co-founders: brothers Erik and John Zellmer and their childhood friend Martin Larsson. The company has eight core members, five of which are now based in Gothenburg.   

The idea was born when Swedish medical engineer Erik Zellmer was working with an Irish neurosurgeon, Rory Murphy, in the US and spent some time in the operating theatres. He got to see first-hand spinal fusion surgeries. 

“It’s incredibly crude and you would be surprised if you saw it. I was looking at some of the hardware they were using and the implants were very ancient,” says Erik Zellmer, CTO at Intelligent Implants. 

He also understood why unsuccessful spinal fusions is a big issue. Earlier, his step mum had a spinal fusion procedure and it failed. This was followed by a second surgery to encourage bone growth and then a third surgery to remove the excess bone. She never really recovered.

Erik and Rory felt they had identified a large unmet need - the surgical failure rate in spinal fusions is up to 40 per cent – and the potential solution. They then teamed up with Erik’s brother John and Martin Larsson, who both had business backgrounds. In 2014, Intelligent Implants was born.


A novel smart solution

“Our technology has three base legs. Firstly we can use electrical signals to stimulate the bone to grow. The other part is that we can control the stimulation of the bone growth, so we can stimulate in different areas of the fusion site and we can turn it on and off,” explains John Zellmer, CEO at Intelligent Implants. He continues:

“The third leg is that we can remotely monitor the healing in real time, so the physician can change the stimulation parameters for the patient. At the same time they get an update on how the patients are doing and avoid unnecessary office visits and the need for xrays, where the progress of bone healing is very hard to determine, and CT scans which are good but involve a lot of radiation and are quite expensive and time consuming.”    

During the past two years the company has carried out trials in large animals with promising results. 

“Clinical trials [in humans] is our next big step. We got the animal trials nailed down. It involved around 20 sheep, which is quite a large trial. The results were very good and we got the optimisation down for the stimulation. We got really good bone growth. I’m staggered by the results,” says John.


Established operations in Gothenburg

In December 2017, Erik moved back to Gothenburg after 15 years abroad. A few months later the company opened an office in central Gothenburg, with views over the city. There are currently five people working there and they hope to double this number within two years.

“I think that Gothenburg is an ideal place for growing a technology company. It has two really good universities: the University of Gothenburg and Sahlgrenska for the medicine part and then Chalmers, which is a great technical university,” says Erik. “Gothenburg also has manufacturing and biomaterial competence, which is something we need right now. Here you have Volvo, SKF and Saab, and these guys have very tight tolerances for manufacturing.”   

“The operation costs also aren’t very high compared to some other hubs for life science,” adds John.


Joining the ecosystem HAS BEEN a challenge

Despite three of the company’s management being born and raised in Gothenburg, one of the main challenges Intelligent Implants has faced has been getting into the local ecosystem. And this is important for the company if it is going to be successful and remain in Gothenburg, explains Erik.

“We were almost like an island of our own until we contacted Iris [investment advisor for life science at Business Region Göteborg]. That’s when things started happening for us. Now I think we are going to become intermeshed into the ecosystem,” says Erik.

Looking ahead, the company is hoping that Gothenburg will become its primary location, particularly when it comes to R&D. Among other things, it plans to start developing a new implant and carry out a series A funding round during 2020.

“We have a lot of goals for the Gothenburg operations. We want do the clinical trials. We also want to move on to the next implant and essentially you can incorporate this technology into anything and you can grow bone,” says Erik. “Another goal is to make the implants mass-manufacturable and I assume we will develop the technology to do this here in Gothenburg.” 

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