Startup in the spotlight: Prolira
Annemarie Willems has always been involved in the realization of innovative medical devices. Together with Rutger van Merkerk, she has been Prolira's management team since 2015. This startup provides a smart scan to detect delirium in hospital patients. The two founders met each other via Pontes Medical and the UMC Utrecht, where their product was also under investigation. "I've always said that I wanted to bring a product from A to Z to market myself once."
My passion and work experience lies in developing new medical devices, realizing them and then bringing them to the market. In 2008, I founded my own company called Mount Medical. With this company, I advised organizations that developed innovative medical devices and wanted to bring them to the market. During that time, I came into contact with Pontes Medical. This is a partnership for product innovations in the healthcare sector between the UMC Utrecht, VUmc and the AMC. I became a project leader at Pontes in the AMC and got to know the Pontes team in the UMCU better, including my Prolira co-founder Rutger van Merkerk.
Product development from A to Z
I have always said that I wanted to bring a product from A to Z to the market myself once, instead of concentrating on small parts of this process. Rutger has never forgotten this remark. He found a product in a research project that he wanted to bring to market himself and then started following the ScienceInc (now Science Venture) programme at UtrechtInc. He quickly realized that you cannot set up a company on your own and that you need someone with complementary capacities as co-founder. He decided to approach me. I went to see him and became more and more enthusiastic about the product. At that time, we agreed to both work one or two days a week on our new company. I came to participate quite unprepared in the ScienceInc-programme. Nevertheless, I thought it was great! We wrote a large subsidy application during that first period. This gave me the opportunity to see where we were and where we wanted to go. Once the application had been submitted, I was sold and we decided to continue negotiations with the UMC Utrecht about the rights to the technology and research results. As soon as that was finished, we founded the company Prolira BV.
Smart scan for delirium
With Prolira we are creating a new medical device that is based on research by the Utrecht University Medical Centre (UMC). We called this device the DeltaScan. The DeltaScan can measure in a minute whether a patient has a delirium or not. We do this by taking up brain activity at the patient's bedside via an EEG. In that recording our algorithm then recognizes a lot or little delirium characteristics. Delirium is a complication that is particularly common in the elderly during hospitalization. Delirium leads to longer hospital stays, a higher risk of death and a higher risk of dementia. The costs will also be higher. It is therefore very important to detect delirium early.
We have been at UtrechtInc for quite some time now. It is a great company in a super convenient location. It is very good that the H.R. Kruyt building on Padualaan is so close to the university. As a result, it is becoming increasingly accessible for scientists to consider doing business. I think starting one's own business can be very valuable to society. It is important that we try to valorize research results so that they really find their way to society, and that UtrechtInc is close to the UMC Utrecht. In terms of support, there are often nice workshops or consultation hours with experts. The longer you stay at UtrechtInc and the further you progress as a company, the less support you need. Still, it remains a stimulating environment where you can talk to everyone who walks around. Everyone is working on the same thing. In the end, we are all building an innovative company, but with very different products or ideas.
When a plan comes together
In a startup you have to be a specialist as well as a generalist. I think that that is the biggest challenge. It’s all about switching between what needs to be done today and keeping an eye on the future. But I am glad I made this choice. Of course, sometimes you go to bed with the necessary worries. Doing business just never stops, but the rewards are worth it. For example: we have just been told that we are going to receive a large European subsidy for our project, and that, of course, gives us a huge boost. Another great moment was when in the eight o'clock news it was announced that the DeltaScan, a Dutch invention, would be put into use in the UMC Utrecht. That was really amazing to see.