Cerenion - a team with a strong research background now bringing brain measurement to hospital intensive care unit (ICU)

Company:  Cerenion

Started playing:  Q2/2017

Joined the band:  Q4/2017

We had a chat with the founders of Cerenion, Timo Koskela (CEO), Jukka Kortelainen (CMedO), Eero Väryrynen (CTO) and Ilkka Juuso (COO) who have through tons of research combined with machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence found a way of measuring the brain function of intensive care patients.

 

Icebreaker(IB):

Hi guys, nice that you had time to have a chat! How are you doing?

Timo: Hi, we are all good! Even if we are sleeves up in work, we had a few days of relaxing Christmas holidays. The last funding contracts are signed, and we are ready for the upcoming adventures this year.

IB:

Sounds good! To start with, could you tell us a little bit about who you are and how you ended up where you are now?

Jukka:

Yeah, so we all have a long history together at the University of Oulu from where Cerenion also was born as a spin-off startup last May.

I am the Chief Medical Officer at Cerenion and have been doing academic research on electroencephalogram (EEG) during anesthesia for a long time. I have a PhD in information technology and I am also a medical doctor specializing in clinical neurophysiology.

Ilkka:

Same as for Jukka, my background has been strongly related to research at the University of Oulu where I have spent the last two decades. Most recently I have been involved in building the Northern Finland Biobank. I also have business experience from the past twelve years.

Eero: 

I have also been involved in scientific research at the University of Oulu for almost 20 years. I did my Ph.D. in computer science mostly focusing on machine learning and signal analysis. At Cerenion I am the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), so I am the man behind the algorithms and now working with full force on this project. Ilkka and I have also been doing our own projects for years, so this isn't my first entrepreneurial experience.

Timo:

University of Oulu is also the place where I have spent the last 15 years, mostly on research on the field of information technology. During the years I have done several projects and a Ph.D. focusing on information and network services. Besides that, I have two master’s degrees one in economics and business administration and a second in information engineering. Both which could be of great use for my task as CEO at Cerenion.

Jukka:

As you see, we had a common background and have known each other for many years. With Ilkka, we have been friends since high school, and Timo joined the pack a few years later. Eero was introduced to the "gang" during our time at the University.  So, we have a long history together which I believe will be of great value on our shared journey.

We have been playing with the thought of founding a company for years when the right idea hits us, and now it did.

IB:

Apparently you know each other rather well at this point as you told, but how did the actual idea of Cerenion grow up?

Jukka:

Around ten years ago, I was in Baltimore doing postgraduate studies for a few months. My doctoral thesis focused on electroencephalogram (EEG) anesthesia depth measurements, which is technology that is used on daily basis nowadays.

When I got back we got together with Eero and started to wonder if brain damage and dysfunction could be reflected in the results of EEG. We began to investigate how this could be tested, and from there it all started.

We found out that cardiac arrest patients are usually unconscious for days and there’s a high probability that they will suffer from brain damage. Doctors haven't had reliable information or the ability to evaluate brain damage or brain function with the technology that is used today.

We did a ten-patient pilot case at the intensive care unit, which revealed that signals differ significantly between a brain-damaged patient and a well-recovered patient during anesthesia. It was a new finding from which the patent was sought, and we started thinking about how it could be commercialized. At that point also Ilkka joined the team and a while after Timo also.

IB:

So, what is it that Cerenion provides?

Jukka:

We have developed a software that will be deployed on already existing hospital equipment. It will be the world’s first practical method for measuring the brain function of intensive care patients. Our Cerenion C-Trend™ technology (pat. pend.) aims to reveal the status of the brain as one simple score – at the bed-side and without requiring any changes to the care of the patient.

The solution works by combining standard EEG-measurement with advanced machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence.

The technology has the potential of improving both the quality and the cost of intensive care.

IB:

That sounds very complex but useful. So, at which point are you now with Cerenion?

Timo:

We have already a well-functioning prototype which has been tested in Hospitals with significant results. From these trials, we have collected amounts of data that has been valuable for the actual product that we are now developing.

Jukka:

Hospitals and authorities have strict regulations and requirements which need to be fulfilled before the product can be taken into use and enter the market. We are aiming at reaching that point by the spring of 2019.

IB:

Where does the name Cerenion come?

Timo:

I guessed that question would emerge. Last year we put a lot of thought into it. To find a name that isn't used or related to anything else and still symbolizes what we are doing.

Ilkka:

The name is a combination of three parts, "Cere" comes from the Cerebrum which refers to a part of the brain. "N" in the number of patients and the last part "ion" stands for the ions that are a part of all the communication in the brain.

Eero:

The name had also to be easily pronounced in different languages and sound good. Our explanation how we made it up fitted correctly, so that's how we explain the story behind the name.

IB:

What are your long-term plans for Cerenion? What are the goals you what to achieve with the company?

Timo:

I think all entrepreneurs have huge plans for their enterprises, so do we. There are about 20 000 intensive care departments around the world, whom we are targeting as potential customers.

To achieve that, we have to become a part of the needed software for EEG patient monitors, but that will take a while to reach. In the beginning, we will probably be a stand-alone software that will be implemented to the EEG equipment.

Jukka:

As long as we fulfill the regulations and requirements our product will be ready for European markets, where we will be heading. The big EEG equipment manufacturers dominate 60-70% of the market size. As long as we team up with these big players, our product can scale fast globally.

IB: How has it been to become entrepreneurs instead of doing researching at the University?

Timo:

At this point, most of us have done two jobs at the same time, which has kept us pretty busy.

I like the thought of creating our own thing, and of using my creativity and knowledge to build something incredible.

At the university, you are only a small part of a more prominent organization, so now, you really can see how the input affects the result.

Ilkka:

The projects that we have done before, during our time at the university have been in some way similar to running an enterprise of your own.

Eero:

So, it hasn't changed our way of working only less bureaucracy.

IB:

You seem like the "Fantastic Four" team, but are you thinking of adding some additional talents to the crew?

Timo:

Yeah definitely, we have already recruited a medical software expert in Helsinki, who also masters quality management systems which will add a lot of new expertise to the team.  At some point, we will also need to hire sales and marketing wizards when we are ready to the hit the market. A lot of the things we will also outsource to external experts.

IB:

How has to cooperation with Icebreaker started and have you seen any benefit from it yet?

Timo:

I found our collaboration with Icebreaker very convenient, and we have had smooth and open discussions during the whole journey. Hopefully it will continue as it has to this point. We have gained a lot of advice, and they have played an essential role as a financial advisor.

Eero:

They have given us a lot of necessary hints form a business point of view and sharpen our knowledge of licenses and other relevant paperwork that we didn't manage on our own.


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