His very first project as an entrepreneur ran aground - a learning experience - and now Rutger Flink (33) is confidently at the helm of medical technology startup PulmoTech. He calls himself "a little cocky," sees entrepreneurship as a game and learning experience at the same time, and loves all the facets involved. 'Ideally, I'd rather be working 24/7 to move this company forward.'
'My girlfriend doesn't understand that I open the laptop at home as soon as I get the chance, but to me it doesn't feel like work,' Rutger says. 'I enjoy it and my hands itch to take new steps. Before we had our little daughter - she is now eight months old - I was afraid that I would not have enough space left for PulmoTech, which is also a kind of child after all. Fortunately, the opposite turned out to be true. Family life gives more energy than it takes. Moreover, I am now even more motivated to use our special catheter to improve the ventilation of patients in intensive care. Helping people is my motivation.
Actually, Rutger wanted to study medicine. That he was eliminated from the draw turned out to be a good twist of fate in retrospect. 'By studying biomedical engineering, I act as a kind of interpreter between engineers and doctors. Medical equipment is of great importance in medicine and there is still much to innovate. Already during my studies I saw opportunities and entrepreneurship began to bubble up. During my master's project at a pediatric intensive care unit in Los Angeles, I worked on a software tool for which I saw commercial opportunities. I found technical partners and investors and so my first project as an independent entrepreneur took off.'
Rutger stepped in full of enthusiasm, ready to go. Only to discover that it takes a long breath in the medical technology business. He was introduced to the complexity of cooperation agreements and the impact of different interests, as a result of which this project ran aground after eighteen months. He looks back on it soberly: "That was a good learning experience. My skin has grown thicker. I no longer overestimate what conditions are required and I choose my partners more carefully. Let's just say that I became wiser and realized that not everyone necessarily wants to help you.
Awareness of regulatory burden
The young entrepreneur continued as a sole trader and focused for a period on quality and regulation in the medtech market. Valuable years, during which he built a strong network and, within a medical standards committee, also made the noise of startups heard. 'I explained how risky complex rules and requirements are, because startups don't have a back office or large teams that can do extensive clinical studies. If you want to stimulate innovation, you shouldn't cripple it in advance by excessive regulatory pressure. At the same time, I learned for myself the importance of taking all those rules into account early on when you want to develop a new product.
That knowledge and experience now comes in handy for him at PulmoTech, the Groningen startup that saw the light of day in 2018. Rutger presented the idea for an innovative product during an inspiring Health Weekend at VentureLab North. "From my experience in intensive care, I knew that artificial ventilation can be life-saving, but it can also damage the lungs and breathing muscles. To better monitor and adjust that ventilation - so patients can breathe independently again as soon as possible - I devised a special catheter with sensors that very accurately measure the function of lungs and breathing muscles.'
Rutger knew he had something good on his hands. 'Worldwide, an average of seven million patients are on life support every year, and with this catheter we can indirectly make a difference in their quality of life. This was something I had to work on.' He benefited greatly from the hands-on experience of a business coach at the VentureLab, who put him in touch with Flinc, among others: 'Before parties like Carduso Capital - our investor since October - are willing to put serious money into your company, you first have to be one step further in product development. But how do you get there, without money? Through Flinc's mediation, I was able to close that gap with early-stage funding and make PulmoTech investor-ready.'
Rutger found a technical partner in Wellinq Medical and hired two biomedical engineering graduates, plus an intern who will soon be on the payroll as well. 'We keep offices in Leek, at Wellinq, where we also have our R&D space. On the one hand, the focus last year was very much on developing a prototype; on the other hand, I knew how important it is to put energy into contracts that are right for all parties. A tip for start-ups - especially in the medical technology market - is to set aside money for the help of good lawyers, so you don't get passed over in negotiations with partners and investors.'
Trust is important, the inspired entrepreneur believes, but he also understands that things have to be well organized on paper. 'Because especially with innovation you can think up all kinds of scenarios, but you never know exactly which way it will go. An exciting factor is the new European law for medical devices, the Medical Device Regulation (MDR), which comes into effect from May 2020. This could limit innovation considerably. We already take this into account strategically as much as possible, but I really want to pass this awareness on to other startups. Moreover, it is essential to document your product development as well as possible from the very beginning. And stay current. Read up, follow webinars and, where necessary, call in consultants for the translation to your company.'
Rutger enjoys all facets of entrepreneurship - "then I'm back to nerding out with an excel sheet for cash flow" - and sees quickly getting to grips with all those facets as his greatest strength. 'It's about interplay and connection. Between technology and medical practice, between our company and partners and investors, but also between innovative ideas, market opportunities and regulations. Keeping all those balls high is such a beautiful thing about entrepreneurship. I understand the critical question from funding agencies whether I need a senior partner, but at this stage I want to be on top of everything myself. It is a learning curve and a game that I want to experience and fathom. As long as you switch with others in time and know where to turn.'
PulmoTech is in the final phase of the clinical research program and is also preparing for the production phase with scale-up of the prototype. The catheter is expected to be available to the market by mid-2021.