Medicsen, the startup that helps people with diabetes. Interview with its founder, Eduardo Jorgensen
by - Mari Trini Giner
The first time I saw Eduardo Jorgensen De Vizcarrondo, the founder of Medicsen, an artificial pancreas that seeks to improve the quality of life of those with diabetes, was 10 September 2014 in Madrid's Barajas Airport. We subsequently had three months to get to know one another in New York through the first and, up until now, only edition of Startups Mansion, a project to help entrepreneurs grow, create a network of contacts and open or expand a market in the United States.
I remember that Eduardo was one of the youngest and most anxious of the 30 participants. He was a very curious, intelligent and active person, with a great desire to learn about the entrepreneurial world and to enjoy the experience as fully as possible. Now, four years later, he has put his idea into practice and is having a lot of success, receiving funding and recognition from Europe as well as other continents. He was also one of the under-35 innovators of the year for the MIT Technology Review. I spoke to him to find out more about his project and its current progress.
In May 2014, Eduardo was seeing patients as a medical student when a girl with diabetes placed her insulin pump on the table saying that she was no longer going to use it because she was unable to live a normal life, her friends made fun of her and she was up to here with using needles. "When she left, I was talking to the doctor about the options for these patients and I was so shocked at the situation that a way to improve their quality of life using an intelligent artificial pancreas occurred to me. Shortly afterwards I abandoned the clinical path and my passion for neurosurgery to dedicate myself completely to the project."
At what point did you start to make this idea a reality?
Eduardo Jorgensen De Vizcarrondo. Startups Mansion. 2014. Fotografía Mari Trini Giner.
As I used to do with everything, before diving in head first for the first time, I just put the idea away for a few months without knowing how to take it forward. Then in September 2014, I was given the opportunity to spend three months in New York living in a house with 40 entrepreneurs. I realised that in order to create something, all I needed was willingness and a lot of hard work. So, when I got back, and after gaining some experience on other projects with less social impact, I put together a team in March 2015 and we began to generate the vision and mission for our project. The project became a company in August of that year, after receiving funding from Dubai.
How does it work?
The non-invasive artificial pancreas that we’re developing is one part software and one part hardware. The IT system receives information from the glucose and activity sensors that the users currently carry. With this information we predict their future glucose level and we can respond to questions like: What will happen if I have a Coca-Cola in 30 minutes? Or What will happen if I go running for an hour? Thanks to this information patients can plan with certainty. They can also ask at any time for recipes or activities that suit them, since we organise a personalised lifestyle plan. This is done through a chat-type interface (such as WhatsApp), so they don't waste time and they can use it comfortably.
And we’ve developed a syringe without needles in a patch form to administer the insulin. This device calculates the quantity required by the user and administers it automatically and painlessly through the skin.
We’ve already validated our technology with all the in vitro studies required and are seeking the funds to start testing on humans and to be able to bring the physical device to market by the end of 2019. Patients can already use the app free of charge on Android phones and it will be available on iOS shortly.
How many people with diabetes can this pancreas help in Spain? In Europe? Worldwide?
In Spain more than 4 million patients have been diagnosed with diabetes, and an estimated 2 million more are unaware they have the disease. There are 60 million diabetic patients in Europe and 425 million worldwide, a figure which will rise to more than 600 in 2025.
Our device is designed to make life easier for anyone with diabetes, since it’s a virtual assistant for leading a healthy and comfortable lifestyle. Those who can benefit from it the most, however, are those that have to control their glucose levels on a daily basis since they depend on insulin, a dangerous drug if used incorrectly. Our system can predict their needs and their future glucose levels. Those who are insulin dependent represent around 40% of all patients with diabetes.
You travel all over the world. How many prizes/accolades have you received in this time? Do you remember which was the first? And the last?
eduardo medicsen zincshower premio fundacion rafael del pino
Hahaha, this is definitely true: in 2016 I took 70 planes and in 2017 I lost count. I love to travel but when it reaches this level you get a little tired, especially because you have to juggle things around in order to take some time to enjoy the city you’re visiting.
Since 2015 we’ve won more than 25 prizes for technical innovation in healthcare. The first was undoubtedly one of the most significant for us and everything would have been different if we hadn’t won it. It was the Fundación Rafael del Pino (Rafael del Pino Foundation) prize at the May 2015 Zinc Shower event. Thanks to this prize we managed to get the Dubai funding in just two months. The last one we won was at the EU-Startups Summit, which took place in Barcelona with very high-quality companies and a very substantial prize of €68,000 in products and services. This was also the event where we managed to get on the cover of Retina magazine in the Spanish newspaper El País.
Eduardo Jorgensen, fundador de Medicsen, en la portada de la revista Retina de El País.
You won the pitch competition held during the EU-Startups Summit. What other accolades have you had in Europe?
Over the years we’ve won many competitions and resources at European level, starting with phase 1 of the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument, which awarded us a non-refundable €50,000. We’re now preparing phase 2 in which we’ll request 2 million euros.
But we’ve also won competitions funded by the European Commission; for example, we came second in the Innolabs pitch competition and recently we qualified for the EIC (European Innovation Council) where we’ll have the opportunity to present in front of companies who could become customers or potential investors.
How have these European prizes/accolades helped you?
Some of them have given us funding, others have helped with dissemination and others have given us sufficient support to boost confidence in our technology. They’ve all been important on different levels. When you’re starting from scratch, getting out there and making yourself heard in order to secure resources is vital. For us, this has been the key to growth.
Do you think that being European has opened more doors for you? How?
Truthfully, I’ve never analysed it like that. I think that being European has given me some basic resources which have enabled me to get to this point, such as a primary and university education, a stable family unit, access to quality healthcare, etc. This helps a lot l when creating a company like Medicsen. But as for having more opportunities because of being European, it's true that the EU has given us funding and unconditional support, but I don't think this has depended on my nationality. We’ve accessed funds in Australia without having anything to do with the country, which leads me to think that once various basic needs, like the ones I previously mentioned, have been satisfied, you can count on sufficient tools to access resources for yourself without it mattering where you come from.
One difference that I’ve noticed as a European is that in this basic education that I received, they taught me to fear failure and they gave me little motivation to create things rather than work for someone else, even more so being a doctor. In the Anglo-Saxon educational system, failure is used as a necessary step to success and people are encouraged to have ideas and make them happen. I think this will filter into European society in the coming years, but we need to work so that future generations have access to an education with these principles, since it leads to high-quality personal growth.
Making things happen is always difficult. How many members did you start with in the team and how many are you now? Do you have a salary? Do you dedicate yourselves exclusively to this project or do you combine it with other projects/work as is the case for many entrepreneurs?
It’s always complicated. We started out as five and soon after we were only four. We’re childhood friends, and this has brought us good things such as the enormous trust we have in one another and bad things such as very tough discussions because we know each other so well. We’ve now grown to 20 team members, 15 of them with a monthly salary for approximately the last year and a half. And to ensure their commitment, even in lean times (which we’ve experienced), we give them shares in the company, so everyone works for everyone else rather than a boss. Of the 20 members, a little more than half work exclusively on Medicsen and the rest have various levels of involvement, which always revolves around our needs, since they’re constantly changing and we need to be flexible and dynamic.
There’s a lot of talk about successful entrepreneurs but not so much about the hard work behind it and the personal sacrifices that have to be made, nor of the investment in terms of time and money. Before receiving your first accolade or before the first person/company believed in you/your idea, how much time and money did you invest in your idea before getting the first "reward"?
I had zero euros to my name when I founded the company. We always consider my father to be the first "investor" because he gave us €500 when we had nothing so we could get started, and this money bought our entry into Zinc Shower, the first competition that we won. For almost two years we were only receiving payment in the form of allowances, so that the company could survive. And the difficulty of obtaining resources hasn’t lessened, because we keep needing more, which is to be expected for a growing company. As to time, when you’re creating something as innovative as Medicsen, starting from scratch, dedicating all your time to it is vital. You have to make a lot of sacrifices, but it’s worth it if you’re highly motivated, which is the case for us.
At what point would you say you’re at now? Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur who creates and sells and then creates some more?
I see myself as a serial entrepreneur but there’s time in life for many projects and each one deserves to be treated individually. I really love Medicsen and we, the founders, we’ve always preferred to make it grow before selling it. You never know how things will progress or the offers we might get. So, the only door that we keep closed is selling to a direct competitor, so we don’t risk their continuing to exploit current techniques despite having the technology that makes improving quality of life possible.
I’m sure that I’ll create more things in the future and I'm sure that one of them will be developed and rapidly sold, but for the time being Medicsen requires me to give 100% and my only concern is growing it sufficiently (and at the appropriate pace) for it to reach the market and be successfully established. This involves going through all the clinical trials that regulations require and having managed to access the necessary resources in advance. Therefore, we’re setting up a round of funding to obtain around 3 million euros of public and private funds.
Have you thought about the development of Medicsen and what may come next? If yes, can you share it?
At Medicsen our mission is to develop technology that can improve the quality of life of those with chronic diseases and we’re focusing (for now at least) on the intelligent analysis of data, simple interfaces for user interaction and the non-invasive administration of drugs. All our technology has been developed for easy adaptation to other chronic diseases, and once we’ve had success with diabetes, we’ll standardise this treatment methodology for other pathologies such as epilepsy or hypertension. And to continue growing afterwards we have various ideas, but at this point in time we’re focused on the artificial pancreas and on facilitating a healthy and comfortable lifestyle for the users.