Katerina Spranger was one of Falling Walls Lab’s Young Innovators of the Year 2013, winning her place on the grand stage with her presentation “Breaking the Wall of Cardiovascular Diseases”, pitching a medical device software to support common cardiovascular surgeries involving stents. She is the founder and CEO of medtech start-up Oxford Heartbeat which has been covered by publications such as Forbes and Wired, and is part of an NHS Accelerator programme for promising digital healthcare companies.
Katerina, let’s start off on a personal note, it’s been seven years since you competed in Falling Walls Lab. Is there a memory that still really stands out to you?
One of my fondest recollections as a winner of the Falling Walls Lab is presenting at the actual conference the following day and enjoying the honour of sharing the stage with Nobel Prize winners and other notable individuals. Stepping into the spotlight of that huge stage full of humility and a sense of wonder is a glowing memory that I will always keep with me. As a PhD student at the time, I felt extremely fortunate to be able to speak about my work in the presence of such an eminent audience. To have my vision of innovation selected out of 100 great ideas by such a distinguished jury was also a deeply gratifying validation. Having also lived and studied in Berlin, it is a city that is very close to my heart, so winning there was ever more significant. On the whole, I have only the warmest recollection of my time with the Falling Walls.
If you were back on the Falling Walls Lab stage today, how would you describe the breakthrough potential of your current work?
At Oxford Heartbeat we develop technology that makes minimally invasive cardiovascular surgeries more efficient and effective. It allows surgeons to rehearse different surgical scenarios within the safe environment of a software simulation, obtain information that is vital in preparation for surgery, and choose what works best for every patient. The core of what we do is the introduction of certainty into minimally invasive surgeries. This goes beyond technology – it’s a change of mindset. Our approach, which is very new in healthcare, is based on utilising all available clinical information with the help of sophisticated technological tools to be able to make the best care decisions for every individual patient case. There is an abundance of data that is currently not being brought into decision making because it is either not collated or not properly analysed. Oxford Heartbeat is changing that with the power of technology, and our work is relevant to many other areas of medicine. What we do is the future of medicine: it embodies personalised care with the patient at the centre of everything.
You started out studying computer science and worked as an AI researcher for a couple of years after your MSc. What led you to choose the field of Biomedical Engineering for your PhD?
After facing an existential crisis and a search for purpose at some point after my first degree, I realised that it was most important to me that I could make a real difference through my work, with the impact being immediately tangible or visible. I considered pursuing medicine, but since I lacked any prior medical training and only possessed technical skills, I decided that for me Biomedical Engineering would be the best route towards changing lives in the field of healthcare. It also helps that I enjoy the mathematical element of Biomedical Engineering, because it anchors the work I do with the beauty of precision.
When you pitched your concept at the Falling Walls Lab, your software was focussed on cardiovascular devices. Your software is now also used to assist doctors in choosing medical devices for other vascular diseases. How complex was the development expansion?
The development expansion was a deeply edifying process. The work that I pursued as part of my PhD was largely science-focused, and I quickly came to realise that there was quite a big gap between my preliminary research and my vision for a commercial product I hoped to develop. Designing a medical device makes the process even more complex, since everything has to be developed to the highest standards of quality and safety when human lives and health are at stake. Through it all, I have been supported by a great team that has now grown to cover all the different aspects of development and commercialisation, a lot of which are profoundly beyond technology.
You pitched your concept at the Falling Walls Lab Finale in 2013, founded your company Oxford Heartbeat in 2016, and are now working together with the British National Health Service. Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs just starting out?
Always try to co-innovate with your end-users from day one if possible, because this means that their needs will be captured in the best way within the resulting product or service you are creating. Also, do more than you know – you’ll pick up any missing knowledge along the way, so be daring and delve yourself into the unknown. Lastly, be sure to hire prudently. It’s the people who make or break the company, and because no (wo)man is an island, you’ll need the wisdom and support of your team on this long and possibly arduous but deeply fulfilling journey.
Finally, if we were to check in with you seven years from now, what impact would you like to see your work having?
I would like Oxford Heartbeat to have made a significant impact on healthcare, with multiple products in the pipeline across different clinical areas. More broadly, I would be heartened to see surgeries becoming less risky, and both surgeons and patients having peace of mind in the face of complex procedures. I also hope that we will have set a new standard for surgical care and contributed to improved patient outcomes, gaining plenty of new important insights on what works and what doesn’t long-term for different patient groups. I would like for us to have paved a novel path for the use, sharing and analysis of data in clinical practice, widening the horizon for hospitals to collaborate and work together.