Oxford Heartbeat Logo-17

Katerina SprangerBy Katerina Spranger

Katerina Spranger is the founder of Oxford Heartbeat, a startup that has been working hard to develop a new medical device software that makes brain aneurysm surgeries safer. In this blog Katerina shares the story of Oxford Heartbeat, her thoughts on the challenges she has faced as a female founder and the ways in which the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme has supported the company on its journey.

DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme is now open for applications for the next generation of digital health companies to transform health and care. Find out more and how to apply here.

It is a difficult time for all of us, but COVID-19 has ushered in an interesting period where we are being pushed to explore new and imaginative ways of working.

The challenges facing our health and care sector have been exhaustive and as patients and clinicians have sought solutions, they have shone a light on the digital health sector. It is important to know that there is always support available to businesses who can help alleviate pressure on the NHS and make things safer for patients. I hope that sharing my story will prompt other startups working in digital health to consider the merits of participating in a programme, like the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator.

How Oxford Heartbeat was set up

The road to building Oxford Heartbeat to what it is today was quite a serpentine one. I studied computer science in Germany, specialising in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics. As you might expect, the field I had chosen was very much male-dominated: I was one of just five women in an intake of 200 students. After graduating, I went on to pursue a DPhil (PhD) at Oxford University in Biomedical Engineering. This was a turning point for me as it was during my degree that I had the opportunity to observe complex surgeries for the first time. It led me to the realisation that technology has the radical potential to transform medicine.

I couldn’t help but wonder: how amazing would it be to turn the theoretical knowledge I gained during my PhD into an actual product that could resolve the biggest challenges of carrying out high risk, minimally invasive surgeries? However, I first needed to make sure that there was enough genuine clinical need in order to establish a sustainable business. I summoned all my gumption and started speaking to as many surgeons as possible – basically whoever was kind enough to give me their time.

Nine months and 34 surgeons later, I had finally acquired the advice, feedback and assurance I needed to make my first foray into the startup life. I knew technology could make brain surgeries safer. I began looking for funding opportunities and was extremely fortunate to secure a fellowship from The Royal Academy of Engineering, which supports early stage academics in setting up their own companies. Simultaneously, I obtained a grant from Innovate UK. Getting these two different types of institutional backing allowed me to get Oxford Heartbeat off the ground.

Facing challenges as a female-led startup

The road to setting up Oxford Heartbeat was rockier than anticipated because I am not a surgeon, but an engineer who is trying to innovate in a very specialised clinical field. I didn’t have enough specific knowledge about minimally invasive surgeries at the beginning of my academic career. This meant that some of the clinical feedback I initially received was negative. Looking back now, I realise that this didn’t mean that I was necessarily on the wrong track. Sometimes hearing “no” as an answer just means you either need to polish your line of inquiry, or gather more opinions to shape the way you think. The more I understood why people were telling me “no”, the clearer my business idea became. My advice to those who are considering setting up their own digital health startup would be: it’s never too early to start talking to potential end users and experts. The sooner you do, the faster you can cement a body of knowledge that makes you more confident about putting forth a structured line of inquiry about an innovation to other experts.

There are plenty of statistics to suggest that fundraising is more challenging for female entrepreneurs, including this article in the Financial Times. All the more so for solo founders like myself. I still have insecurities around equity fundraising, and genuinely believe that if not for the support of Innovate UK and our other grant funders, Oxford Heartbeat would not be where it is now. I am also constantly reminded that our business operates at a juncture between two very male-dominated industries: surgery and tech. I am used to it, but I wish it wasn’t the norm. It is only by challenging the norm and understanding the complexities of these two sectors that innovation can be realized. I believe that gender diversity can only benefit these fields, as different voices and ways of thinking are brought on board.

Working with DigitalHealth.London

The DigitalHealth.London Accelerator has offered us an excellent gateway to the NHS. For many, the NHS at a glance is both byzantine and intimidating in its structure and functions. We have been introduced to an invaluable network of experts, who gave us guidance in understanding the NHS and how it works. The Accelerator also assisted us in setting up a clinical pilot to test our product, which is something we have never done before. Their efforts have been immensely helpful because ultimately, we want our product to make complex surgeries safer, and reduce the burden on the NHS.

Lessons I learnt as the female founder of a digital health startup

I hope that some of the lessons I have learnt at Oxford Heartbeat will be useful to women wishing to build their own digital health startups.

First, it really helped me to work with our end users from day one. I envisioned that we would be co-designing our product with them, as ultimately we wanted them to get the most value out of what we were developing. There is nothing like the joy of knowing that you’re tangibly improving people’s lives and health.

Secondly, don’t be daunted by challenges. They are a normal part of the process and encountering them doesn’t mean that you are doing something terribly wrong. There is ample support around, an example being the DigitalLondon.Health Accelerator.

Lastly, being a woman in a male-dominated industry can be transformed into an asset. I try to think about the fact that not belonging to the majority has given me a unique perspective on things. Don’t second-guess yourself because there are other people who are happy to do it for you. Do what you dream of because if it doesn’t work you learn a lot – but if it does, the rewarding feeling you get is priceless.

WeAreTechWomen covers the latest female centric news stories from around the world, focusing on women in technology, careers and current affairs. You can find all the latest gender news here.

Don’t forget, you can also follow us via our social media channels for the latest up-to-date gender news. Click to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.