Don’t be afraid. Go for it!
Anders Hyltander is Associate Professor and Strategist Life Science & AI at Sahlgrenska University Hospital. In October last year, he won the Arvid Carlsson Award for his work to develop a concept that led to widespread improvements for patients and physicians, as well as create a successful global business. We caught up with Anders recently to ask him about winning the award, his entrepreneurial journey and his thoughts on life science and health innovation in West Sweden.
Anders, congratulations! What are your reflections on winning the Arvid Carlsson Award?
Thank you very much. To start with, I was very surprised when Lotta called me. I knew I had been nominated but I really wasn’t expecting to win. There were a lot of emotions all at the same time. I was surprised, happy, proud, flattered… I didn’t realise I had so many friends! So many people called me, texted me and reached out to me on LinkedIn, etc. to congratulate me. That was all very uplifting and very much appreciated. I feel deeply honoured to have won this prestigious award and it means a lot that our work to improve quality of care and patient safety has been recognised and confirmed in this way.
In your opinion, how does the Arvid Carlson Award contribute to promoting health innovation and life science?
This type of award symbolises all the fantastic work that's being done in life science and health innovation in this region. This is the 5th year now, so it’s becoming somewhat of a tradition. And it’s getting more and more attention. So yes, I think it's important in many regards. And I would have said the same, even if I hadn't won it J
How and why did you embark on your own startup journey?
Well, we started Surgical Science in 1999 when we realised there was an opportunity to use comprehensive and dynamic virtual reality simulators to allow surgeons to develop their skills in a safe, rigorous and progressive environment before operating on patients. The whole idea was to move training away from the operating room into a safe environment in the lab.
I have always had quite a deep technical interest. My original plan was to become an engineer, but my teacher at high school was so inspiring when he was teaching us about DNA, RNA and protein synthesis, etc. I changed my mind and went down the medical path instead of engineering.
Thanks to my technical interest, I knew early on about new virtual reality technologies, and I thought, “Wow!” these could be used for training purposes for new types of surgical techniques. I applied for funding to develop the idea as an academic project but got rejected as this was just after the .com crash. So, I had to go outside academia and start a company instead, together with three very skilled, young software engineers. We knew what had to be done, so we decided we would get on and do it.
It wasn’t easy to get started. We struggled to get funding and pay our salaries every month, but it was a start and giving up was not an option. This was important for patient safety.
Who was your first customer?
It took us some 18 months to get our first product on the market. And our first customer was, believe it or not, the US Army; their training center in Maryland. We followed up with them after we attended our first virtual reality congress on the US west coast. They liked what they had seen and we got some business from them. I can tell you, sending that first invoice to the US Army in Maryland, it was a very nice feeling! They were a customer for a while and they helped us to nail down some of the basics around our product and business model.
Moving on to your current role at Sahlgrenska, can you share some insights into the work you're doing to promote collaboration between the hospital and industry and academia?
Sure. In the wake of the pandemic and digitalisation, the whole healthcare system is facing unprecedented changes and challenges. The increased consumption of healthcare and the available resources to serve that consumption are not following the same curve. There's a gap between consumption and resources. We have to do something about it. Increasing collaboration with industry is one important part of this, especially when it comes to innovating more efficient and effective solutions to improve patient treatment and patient safety.
So, a strategic decision was taken a year ago that Sahlgrenska University Hospital should strengthen collaboration with academia and industry to develop new solutions to further improve patient care. A taskforce was formed consisting of Cecilia Hahn Berg, who also works as a strategist at Sahlgrenska, Lina Strand Backman from Innovationsplattformen, Alessio Degl’innocenti from Gothia Forum and myself. We developed a plan that we presented to Ann-Marie Wennberg and the hospital’s Management Group. They approved it and at the end of last year, we engaged with all six of the hospital’s area management teams to present our plans, which were met with much interest and enthusiasm.
What progress has been made so far?
One part of the plan was to assign a contact person for each hospital area to act as an entry point into the area for ideas originating from outside the hospital, e.g. from academia or industry. We are currently training the six contact persons and we expect them to be operative in the coming months. It’s also important to note that this is a bilateral communication flow. The hospital also wants to share its needs with the outside world and to invite relevant parties to help us solve them. So far, our plans have been very well received by all involved and we’re excited and energised to drive them forward.
Is collaboration with industry a core future success factor?
Well, it's certainly an important part. Another important part for us is collaboration with academia. We have for decades enjoyed close collaboration with the Sahlgrenska Academy and now we are now gearing up collaborations with other academic institutions. One very good example is the Center for Bionics and Pain Research, a multidisciplinary engineering and medical collaboration between Chalmers University of Technology, Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Sahlgrenska Academy.
Anders, you are on the Steering Group for Health Innovation West. Similar cross-region initiatives have previously crashed and burned. What’s different this time?
As we move from sick care to healthcare and towards preventative and precision medicine, I think everybody now understands the need for collaboration and they want to collaborate. No one can solve future healthcare challenges on their own. So, the only thing remaining is to make it happen. Health innovation West has significant potential to become a very important part of the expansion of life science, not only in this region, but as a contribution to the wider Swedish and Nordic life science offering. I know that some people are still asking themselves what makes Health Innovation West relevant to them. I also know that initiatives are ongoing to engage more widely to explain how we are stronger together and how organisations, teams and individuals can benefit from actively participating in the Health Innovation West community.
What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
The message I try to convey to younger colleagues is don’t be afraid. If you have an idea, go for it. These days the innovation system in Sweden and the Nordics is well equipped, and today we have structures that can help you on the entrepreneurial journey. At the very least, you will learn lots and gain experience that you can benefit from in the future.
Finally, what's the one thing that we can all do to try and make things better in life science and health innovation?
Now, that’s a tough question… Mmm… I would say “let your creative criticism fly.” What I mean by that is that all of us should consider the tools, methods, routines, standards, etc. we are currently using and take some time to think about how they could be improved. There's always room for improvement. Ask yourself, what can we do better to improve things for patients? Then, go for it. Make it happen!
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