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Smart implant start-up finding success in Gothenburg

10 November 2021
Three of the co-founders of Intelligent Implants: Erik Zellmer, John Zellmer and Martin Larsson
Life Science is one of the Gothenburg region's fastest growing industries and is an important part of the region's trade and industry. Here you find Scandinavia's largest university hospital and one of AstraZeneca's three global research centres. We met John Zellmer, co-founder and CEO of Intelligent Implants, one of the medical technology companies based at AstraZeneca’s BioVentureHub.

When John Zellmer started the company with his brother, a childhood friend and an Irish neurosurgeon, they all lived in the United States. Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the world's largest company within orthopedic medical technology, became interested in their smart orthopedic implants at an early stage. The young company was offered to join J&J’s incubator in Houston, within the world's largest hospital complex, Texas Medical Center, where they began to build their business.

In 2018, homesickness led to them starting to run the majority of their operations from the Swedish subsidiary and moving home to Gothenburg. At the time, they were unsure whether the skills and experience needed to run the company could be found in Gothenburg.

When I meet John Zellmer, in less than three years they have grown from three to ten employees. They were recently awarded EUR 4.5 million funding from the European Union (EU) EIC Accelerator programme and also raised EUR 3 million in investment capital. In other words, things are going well.

Why has Intelligent Implants been successful?

“There are several years of hard work behind it and we have tried to do as many things as right as possible. We also have an attractive solution that is timely, and something that people believe in.”

What are you doing?

“In brief, we have developed an electrical stimulation system that is inserted into orthopedic implants. With the help of wireless power and communications, we can control the implant to stimulate natural bone growth. It is a technique to help the body heal itself. In addition, we integrate a sensor system inside the implant, so that we can monitor where the bone grows and then communicate it to the doctor. This is a completely unique system, there is no one else who works in this way.”

Is the industry you operate in ready to receive this type of technology?

“Electrical stimulation has been around for a long time, and there are some external stimulation systems with technology that you put on the outside of the body. The difference is that we stimulate locally and make the implants smart - they can sense what is happening around them and, in the future, also act on it.”

“We hope that we will be able to enter the market with a product that can help patients; at the same time, it is also very important that it works well for the surgeons. Therefore, we have integrated all of our technology into a standard implant that is currently used in standard surgery. To succeed, the product needs to add value at all levels, both for the patient and the surgeon, but also reduce costs for those who have to pay. We do this with this product and with future products.”

You have managed to raise EUR 3 million with Swedish and international investors. What does this mean for you?

“It is true that we recently closed an investment round of EUR 3 million. Now we are working on the industrialization process. It's one thing to build something as a prototype, it's another thing to build it with partners. Previously, we built everything ourselves and put them together by hand. Now we have started working with processes that can be verified and validated during QMS and other things that are necessary in our industry. This means that we can start building according to a validated process and then be able to move on to the next step, clinical studies, and finally a commercial product.”

“There are many steps, but we work with an active implant that people will have inside the body for maybe 30 or 40 years, so it is very important to make sure that it is safe throughout this period.”

How long do you think it will take before you have a commercial product?

“It varies greatly, depending on what you do. For us, we are maybe 5 years away before we have a commercial product. It will be a process of about 10 years in total. But it depends on how you do it and how much "risk" you have in your product. It can go much faster. We have had to start from the beginning and build all the technology from scratch. Since we are developing a completely new and innovative product, there are also no ready-made solutions for the production process.”

You recently received the FDA's breakthrough device designation. This can lead to a faster introduction to the market. Tell me, what does that mean for you?

“This means that the FDA says "what you are doing will in all probability mean an improvement for patients and that it is innovative". We are very happy for this! I don’t think there are so many Swedish companies that have received this yet. I’m aware of three other, slightly larger companies that are listed, but there may be more.”

“It can be said that it is like a VIP queue to the FDA, which among other things regulates medical technology in the USA. The reason we got it was probably because they, like us, believe that future implants within orthopedics will be smart and contain sensors and technology that can report data back to the doctors and other healthcare personnel.”

Where do you see the company in three to five years?

“This type of medical technology has a fairly long regulatory path to go before it can be commercial. Therefore, we hope in 5 years to be a commercial company, where we have another one or two potential products underway, where we have applied our technology for other orthopedic indications.”

Bild
The Intelligent Implants team in Gothenburg
Photo: Intelligent Implants (press image)

You are based at the AstraZeneca BioVentureHub. Has this been good for the company?

“First of all, it's great to sit in these premises, which are one of AstraZeneca’s three R&D centres. It gives us access to both the expertise from AstraZeneca and the infrastructure available here. Such ecosystems are very important for companies like ours.”

“There are many talented companies and competent people who work with different things and we can get help from each other. For example, we had questions about production technology and there is a company here that is very good at materials technology that could give us input and ideas on how to do things. We are really good on the electrical stimulation side and maybe not as strong as they are when it comes to materials technology. If we need someone who has regulatory expertise, there are also people in the building that we can work with.”

So you have access to good skills?

“Yes, I think so. We would not have been able to be in Gothenburg or western Sweden if there hadn’t been a lot of expertise within medical technology. A company is a lot of people who work together in teams and very specific skills are needed to bring advanced medical technology products to market.”

In what ways has Business Region Göteborg been able to help?

“Iris Öhrn, BRG's investment advisor for life science, is fantastic. She is a big favourite of ours! When we moved here, we somehow got in touch with Iris. We didn’t know that much about the life science scene in Gothenburg, but she helped us with that. Iris talked to the hub here at AstraZeneca and told us to talk to Magnus Björsne, CEO. She has also helped us with contacts to organisations, such as RISE [Research Institutes of Sweden].”

“Iris has good knowledge of life science in western Sweden and apart from the fact that she has helped us a lot, she is a wonderful person. Even if we are from here and speak Swedish, it is quite difficult to get into a context when you come completely from the outside and don’t really know what’s what. Then it’s valuable to have someone who can help.”

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs in your industry?

“I think more people should take on challenging projects. It doesn’t hurt to be a little naive when you start and not think too much, otherwise you may not invest because it can feel too complicated and take too long. But it is also about believing in yourself and being prepared to face adversity. It’s okay to fall down and then quickly pick yourself up again. It can be complex and difficult, but I think you should try to find things that can make a big difference and not settle for small simple advances that are about as good as those that already exist. You have to think bigger, for everyone's sake.”

Finally, what do you dream about and how far do you want to go?

“In the orthopedic niche, we make a completely new type of orthopedic implant with completely new platform technology. We want to be a leader in orthopedics in general and also make orthopedics more interesting and exciting with active implants that also talk back and can provide clinically relevant information to caregivers.”

“I hope that what we do will soon be available to patients who need it. We hope it can be on the market within 5 years. But it is always difficult to judge. It depends on how many clinical studies we need to carry out. And what tests do we ultimately have to do. But I know it can make a huge difference for many people, who can heal faster and with less complications.”

 

To learn more about business opportunities in life science and how we can help you establish and invest in the Gothenburg region, please contact:

Iris Öhrn
Investment advisor life science at Business Region Göteborg
+46313676130 or iris.ohrn@businessregion.se

 

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