One day, a brilliant researcher discovered a drug that reduced heart scarring caused by heart attack or stroke by more than 50%. Excited by the results, she contacted pharmaceutical companies to develop the drug further. “Why wouldn’t they be interested?” she thought. But after multiple meetings with big pharmaceutical companies, she realised that they simply weren’t interested.
Frustrated, she took a year of absence from the university and started her own company to develop the drug further. However, she quickly realised that she lacked knowledge in drug development and that there was a significant gap between industry and academia. Motivated by this, Dr. Daria Mochly-Rosen, Professor at Stanford University, established the SPARK program in 2006.
SPARK Global And The Establishment Of SPARK Finland
The SPARK program at Stanford University was developed to provide access to specialised knowledge and technical expertise regarding product development to support translational efforts. Eventually, SPARK Global was established in 2015. Today, over 40 different institutions have established or are developing their own versions of the SPARK program.
SPARK Finland aims to provide guidance and support to researchers, healthcare professionals and students in the health tech and life sciences field. The program is designed to help advance their discoveries and turn them into practical and value creating solutions. The program comprises various training and mentorship to increase the maturity and success of the research teams.
“Yeah, so it’s a bit different, depending on the country where SPARK operates, globally. In Finland, we are a consortium of several universities, applied universities and university hospitals. We don’t provide direct funding to the projects that are part of the SPARK program. Projects can get some travel support from us for attending international industry events,” says Anu Meerwaldt, Development Manager of SPARK Finland.
“We primarily provide mentoring, coaching, and training. We have many mentors in our network who are also keen to help these very early-stage ideas and projects to move forward. They do it pro bono,” adds Anu.
Anu, who is currently finalising her doctoral studies in the Netherlands, moved back to Finland in 2022 after being away for 12 years. While in Finland, Anu began looking for suitable jobs in Finland that piqued her interest, fueled by years of experience in business consultancy and biomedical research. Luckily, while attending the NORDEEP event, Anu met Pasi Sorvisto. This fortuitous encounter eventually led her to join the SPARK Finland Team as a Development Manager in 2022.
SPARK Finland Is Different From Many Other SPARK Programs In The World
“So, what is unique here in Finland is that we collaborate between the different universities and University Hospitals. Often, in other places, SPARK is within one institution. For example, SPARK at Stanford is only within the Stanford ecosystem, which is, of course, already huge. In Finland, we needed to find a way to collaborate,” explains Anu.
Institutions that are currently members of SPARK Finland are Aalto University, Helsinki University Hospital, Kuopio University Hospital, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Tampere University Hospital/The Hospital District of Pirkanmaa, Tampere University, Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Turku University Hospital/The Hospital District of Southwest Finland, University of Helsinki, University of Eastern Finland, University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University.
SPARK Finland also maintains good relations with other SPARK programs in the Nordic region, along with SPARK Europe and SPARK Stanford. SPARK Finland’s mentoring focuses on further developing a research idea or innovation to become more commercially viable.
The primary goals of the SPARK Finland Program, which lasts for two years, include helping the project teams understand What are they offering to the market and who is the customer? What is the gap in the market they are trying to fill? What is the unique selling point that they have? How is the competition landscape? What kind of regulatory and IPR strategy is needed? Etc.
Image from SPARK Finland’s website
Projects And Teams That Are Part Of SPARK Finland
There are a few criteria for joining the SPARK Finland Program. First, the applicant must be affiliated with one of SPARK Finland’s member Universities or University Hospitals because they are SPARK Finland’s stakeholders. SPARK Finland doesn’t accept applications from individuals from outside these institutions.
The proposed project idea should focus on addressing clinical unmet needs related to people’s health. The idea should also offer a distinct solution to the existing clinical problem. Additionally, the project should be in a phase where it has the potential to advance to clinic, clinical trials or commercialisation within a period of two to three years.
“We try to always talk to all those project teams who are interested in applying beforehand and to see, well, is the idea already mature enough? If not, we can give some additional coaching to bring the projects to that point,” says Anu.
The SPARK Finland program is open to people in all stages of their careers. Hence, an applicant can be a student, researcher, PhD student, postdoc, Professor, or clinician from the hospital. Currently, there are around 35 active teams in SPARK Finland. Anu works more with the projects/teams from the Helsinki capital area, and other regional managers take care of projects from their own sites, like Tampere or Turku.
“Sometimes we also have projects that are already so far that they can start a company, and then we recommend them to apply somewhere else, because the SPARK Finland program cannot support operating companies”, Anu points out.
Some of the SPARK Finland program’s current projects from the University of Helsinki include KAJO Neurotechnologies, Globevac, Moncyte, etc. These are also the current ongoing commercialisation projects at Helsinki Innovation Services.
SPARK Finland alumni teams that are now successful spinout companies from the University of Helsinki include SCellex Oy, Sartar Therapeutics Oy, Maculaser Oy, Smart PD Solutions Oy, EpiHeart Oy, NADMED Oy, etc. Some of these startups can be found at Terkko Health Hub located in the Meilahti campus of the University of Helsinki.
SPARK Finland’s Focus On Events And Networking
One major responsibility of the SPARK Finland is organising many meetings, mentoring events, and providing market exposure for the project teams in various industry conferences and events, both local and international. Market exposure through SPARK Finland’s vast partner and mentor network allows the teams to test the hypothesis related to their project and to build their market understanding of the global key markets.
As an example, relevant SPARK program project members participate to the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium bringing together main pharmaceutical companies, academia, and the FDA. Apart from attending the conference, the teams also visit different places within the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Once, as part of such a tour, SPARK Finland project teams visited Stanford pathology lab. Everyone was given a chance to shortly explain their ideas. One of the projects was XFold Imaging.
XFold Imaging developed a technique to significantly enhance the readability of fluorescent microscopy slides. When the XFold team explained their idea, the director of the Stanford pathology lab immediately asked XFold Imaging to discuss business with him. In the end, Stanford Labs became XFold Imaging’s first pilot user bringing significant benefit in further investment discussion. These are the reasons why SPARK Finland tries to get the project members to such events and to set the bar high for the teams.
Finding potential customers or investors often takes a lot of time and effort. The SPARK Finland team believes it is crucial for people trying to establish and run a company to actively talk to relevant professionals in the key markets and create strong relationships and networks globally.
“Finland is at the edge of Europe, and we represent less than 1% of the health and life sciences market. So, you really need to start thinking bigger and start thinking from day 1 about, okay, what are the main requirements of being a leader in that field, where is the main market, where are we going to start operating, what does it means in terms of regulatory strategy etc. Often, it means going either to the US, Germany, UK, or maybe Japan, the markets where healthcare is a large business,” says Anu.
Trainings Organised By SPARK Finland For Those Thinking About Innovation And Entrepreneurship
Apart from the SPARK Program, SPARK Finland also offers two courses– “Health Technology and Life Science R&D” in the spring and “Health Technology and Life Science Business” during the fall. These two courses are offered by Tampere University in collaboration with SPARK Finland. The aim of these courses is to provide students the basic and practical knowledge of Health Tech and Life Science business and product development processes.
“We hope taking the course will lower the threshold for some to start their own business. As many of our students are current or future researchers, we also aim to push them to think how to turn their research into real-life products and solutions”, says Helena Lähdekorpi, Innovation Specialist at SPARK Finland.
In 2022, Helena joined Innovation Services at Tampere University as an Innovation Specialist, after having worked in various health tech startups. As part of her work, Helena participates in SPARK activities, including helping the Tampere-based SPARK teams and managing the two courses offered by Tampere University in collaboration with SPARK Finland.
“Previously, the course was based on recorded lectures of different experts and group assignments. However, we are now shifting from the theoretical to more practical executions. In future, the R&D course will be executed as a challenge, where students get to observe and tackle real-life problems in health care,” says Helena.
Students and staff from the member institutions can participate in the courses and get graduate and post-graduate level credits for their studies. However, besides Tampere University students, a limited number of seats are available for students from other SPARK Finland-associated higher education institutions.
“Overall, the popularity has been quite high. This year for the Health Technology and Life Science Business course, we received twice as many applications as there were places for students outside Tampere University”, says Helena.
Good Things On The Horizon
The SPARK Finland Team is committed to helping researchers, clinicians, and students develop the necessary skills to build new products, solutions, businesses, and fundable companies in the field of health and life sciences.
The SPARK Finland Team’s future goal is to enhance the understanding of individuals working on these projects regarding the process of bringing a product to the market. Even if their initial idea fails, they would still gain valuable knowledge and skills outside of academia.
In the end, Anu adds, “We have a lot of projects that are already now companies, and of course, we are not responsible for their success. But we do our small part in believing in them and pushing them forward”.
Text: Usha Mohanraj
Banner design: Usha Mohanraj
1) Application period for SPARK Finland Spring Batch 2024 is open between 1st – 30th Nov’23. Read more at – https://sparkfinland.fi/applying/
2) Stay tuned for announcements of SPARK Finland’s biotech & pharma -focused pre-SPARK Concept Discovery Program at – https://sparkfinland.fi/