Innovation Interviews: How does Picterus improve newborns lives? An story told by Gunnar Vartdal
Picterus is a Norwegian innovative company that realised the gravity of jaundice and developed a smartphone app that helps to estimate newborns jaundice levels.
In order to know better how Picterus make an effort to mitigate this situation through its advanced technology, we decided to interview Gunnar Vartdal, its Founder and CTO.
How did you come up with the idea for your innovation? Why did you decide to develop a technology to fight jaundice?
The idea behind Picterus came after visiting hospitals in Tanzania, and we realised that the current methods of identifying jaundice in newborns were unreliable, and the devices available were too expensive. So, it all started with a mission to improve this and to save newborns. After an initial student thesis, we realised the potential in such a tool and decided to form the company.
Recently, the European Innovation Scoreboard 2020 has appointed Norway as a Strong Innovator. What’s your opinion about the innovation ecosystem in Norway? Do you think it could enhance its performance?
A lot has happened over the last years, but I still think that there is room for improvement. For instance, regarding funding, most investors have experience from traditional areas, oil&gas, shipping and maritime sector. We need to build other areas to get us less dependent on income from oil&gas in the future.
We know two key institutions of the innovation ecosystem such as Innovation Norway and the Norwegian Research Council supported the development of your project. Do you consider this association helpful for the progress of Picterus?
We have had a very good collaboration with Innovation Norway, both financially and as an advisor. Innovation Norway has good programs in the initial phase, and these have been very important for our development. In addition, we have also received funding from the Norwegian Research Council.
In these uncertain times, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry is playing an important role. Specifically talking about this field, what are the main researching lines? What are the expected advances in this field for the near future?
We do not have a full overview of what is going on, but there seems to be a larger interest on the pharmaceutical side. Due to coronavirus, some fields of medicine seem to get a larger proportion of investments and growth, such as telemedicine, as the risks of having many patients in one central location has grown quite dramatically.
The medtech industry in Norway is however quite young and it is therefore difficult to know what to expect from it.
We would like to see a bigger focus on areas that could have a large impact worldwide, especially in lower income settings, despite the financial aspect being more challenging in these areas.
After your experience in Tanzania, how do you think Picterus is going to improve newborns’ lives in low- and middle-income countries?
Today, more than 100.000 newborns die due to undetected cases of neonatal jaundice. Almost none of these cases are in the western world.
We hope that our tool will be able to substantially reduce the deaths, as no child should have to die from conditions that are easily detected and treated.
Today, more than 100.000 newborns die due to undetected cases of neonatal jaundice […] We hope that our tool will be able to substantially reduce the deaths, as no child should have to die from conditions that are easily detected and treated.
How has the European Commission helped Picterus to grow and become a reality? What are your thoughts of this funding mechanism?
The European Commission has supported the development of Picterus primarily through the EIC Accelerator grant which made us tighten up our development and marketing plans for the next couple of years.
The process is quite time consuming, and there is always a risk that you won’t receive the grant. This is another reason why we believe it is useful to use experts such as Evolution in writing the application, as it reduces both the time investment for the company and the risk of not getting the grant.
For us, it has been a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in the development of Picterus. Specifically talking about our cooperation, what is your opinion about working with Evolution?
We are very happy about our collaboration with Evolution. It is absolutely clear for us that we would not have been able to receive the grant without their help. Evolution has acted professionally and thoroughly from the moment we got in contact with them to this day when they are helping us manage the project.
Your performance at the Brussels’ pitch was exceptional, as your initiative was successful after your first attempt. Could you give some advice to someone who faces that situation?
The pitch in Brussels was a challenging but rewarding experience. We put all our other tasks aside and focused 100% on the pitch after we received the invitation. We had coaching and rehearsal sessions with both Evolution as well as Innovation Norway, and that helped us a lot in focusing our message. We felt that we were well prepared for the pitch, and also for the Q&A.
We tried to focus on the main advantage of our project – the large potential societal benefits that a solution as ours could give.
You are currently going through the earlier stages of Project Management, but how have your first steps been?
We were surprised how much time it took to get the grant agreement signature after we had learned that our pitch in Brussels was successful. We had received indications that it would not take much more than a month to get the signature and the first payment from the EIC. The process did however end up taking more than four months.
A similar story can be told for the equity negotiation, as we are still in the preliminary discussions regarding this. With this said, I must say that we have also experienced the European Commission to be a professional actor that has taken the communication with us very seriously.
Just a final question, what are your expectations for the future? When and where can we expect to see Picterus’ technology fully commercialized in your first markets?
We have high ambitions for our tool, as the potential savings for the society are large, both on saving lives and reducing healthcare spendings. Following these ambitions, we would like to see our technology in use worldwide. Our current plan is to enter the German and Dutch market, with later expansion to low- and middle-income markets.
Thank you very much, Gunnar, for telling us more about Picterus’ successful path. We wish you the best of luck in your promising project and we hope we can see Picterus tackle jaundice to prevent this condition on newborns worldwide.