Meet the founder: Virpi Muhonen, Askel Healthcare – from researcher to startup founder

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The membership of the Finnish Startup Community consists of various companies striving for a better future. One of these companies is Askel Healthcare which develops and manufactures a biodegradable implant for the surgical treatment of damaged cartilage in the knee. We interviewed the company’s founder and CEO Virpi Muhonen, who talked to us about how Askel Healthcare came to be, what she has learned along the way, and what we can expect from her company in the future.

Hello, Virpi! How did you get started with Askel Healthcare?

I am a biologist, and I used to work as a researcher. I did my undergraduate degree in zoology, but in my doctoral dissertation, I entered the world of cytology and, in particular, orthopedic cytology. After my dissertation, I worked at the University of Helsinki in the research group of Professor Ilkka Kiviranta. At the time, the research group was working on developing new biomaterials to treat damaged cartilage on the knee joint. There I met Anne-Marie Haaparanta, who founded Askel with me and currently works as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Anne-Marie is a biomaterials scientist, and she specialized in making blanks for implants. As a cytologist, I tested those blanks in the orthopedics laboratory to see which materials would work well in the joint and with the cartilage cells. Little by little, our development work led to very good results. We found out that the thing we were studying worked and that it can actually repair cartilage tissue. Anne-Marie and I decided that this should lead to something more than “just” scientific publications and articles in a dissertation. We received further funding from Tekes, and started to consider the commercial potential of the implant. It had a great deal of potential, so we founded Askel Healthcare. In an instant, I went from being a researcher to being an entrepreneur, and I’ve been on this road for six years now.

What does Askel Healthcare do?

Askel develops and manufactures a biodegradable implant for the surgical treatment of damaged cartilage in the knee. The product is called COPLA®. Askel has its own production plant in Tampere, and we have our own equipment and in-house expertise. Our goal is to cure damaged cartilage in the knee with this implant, which would allow the patient to walk without pain. In the United States, for example, 600,000 surgeries are performed each year to fix damaged cartilage in the knee. That shows the enormous number of patients who need this type of treatment.

Who has inspired you during your career?

Professor Emeritus Ilkka Kiviranta is definitely my greatest inspiration. He is an exceptionally skilled doctor and surgeon, and a wonderful person. The number of people with cartilage damage is huge, and Ilkka has been instrumental in raising awareness about this issue in Finland. His support has been vital for us throughout the journey of our business.

Can you give an example of a mistake that you made during your startup career and how you overcame it?

We’ve made numerous mistakes, but I guess that’s how it should go. I didn’t have any background in business myself, cytology was all I knew. We encountered many surprises while we were founding our company and seeking finance. I also had no idea how demanding it is to develop, manufacture, commercialize and bring to the market a medical device that is highly regulated. Maybe it was a good thing that we didn’t know about all of this, because it might have changed our minds about starting the business. So I would say that this was a lucky mistake.

Another experience that comes to mind was when, at first, we decided to offer our product to the veterinary medicine market, to be used for horses and dogs. Animals have the same type of cartilage damage as humans, and our product is suitable for animals as well. We thought that it would be easier to commercialize our product in the veterinary medicine market, but it turned out we were completely wrong. We found out rather quickly that veterinarians were not willing to start using a new solution on their own animal patients just like that. Instead, they want to wait until the product has been approved for use in humans first. So that avenue was pretty much a dead end for us. At the moment, we are focusing solely on humans, but as soon as we get enough evidence that the implant works in humans, we might try to offer our product to the veterinary medicine market again.

What expectations do you have for the future?

The whole point with Askel has been to address a medical problem. Our goal has been to create a product that actually works and is efficient and user-friendly. This journey has strengthened our faith in the product, because it really works. In the future, we expect to get marketing authorization, and then we can bring the COPLA® implant to the market so that as many people as possible will be able to benefit from it. This is exactly what we wanted to achieve with our research. The main thing is to benefit the patients.

What are the top 3 things that you have learned about startups?

  1. Openness. Compared to the scientific community, the startup community is extremely open. It is important that we can share each other’s insights and mistakes. I have also learned to be open myself.
  2. Financing. Because I had worked as a researcher, seeking financing was something I was already familiar with. When running a startup, you’re almost constantly seeking financing, and your company’s potential and story will determine whether you get it or not.
  3. Team. I have been lucky in the sense that I have had another founder by my side ever since the beginning, so I didn’t have to do everything all by myself. We are now a team of nine people, and we have managed to hire some real talent, which makes me extremely happy!

Check out Askel Healthcare here