The brain-science entrepreneur who is mindreading for real
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Embracing failure is a cliché in the tech start-up world, often trotted out to soften the blow of a mistaken management decision. But for husband-and-wife founders Giulio Ruffini and Ana Maiques, the collapse of the tech company where they both worked in Spain was the catalyst for their own medical device start-up.
The couple met in 1999 when they were hired by Brussels-based blue-sky business Starlab to run its research division in Barcelona. The bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2001 put paid to Starlab, which depended heavily on third-party investment, and it filed for bankruptcy.
Ruffini and Maiques were convinced that their part of the business had a future, so together with a group of colleagues they bought the Barcelona operation, eventually spinning off the business they now run, Neuroelectrics, which provides technology to stimulate and read brain activity.
“It was at the moment Starlab was declared bankrupt that we became entrepreneurs,” Ruffini says. “We said either we go home or we buy the Barcelona company from the liquidators and make it on our own.”
The vision for Neuroelectrics is to become a “digital brain health company”, says Maiques. “We want to be game-changers in brain health and ideally have our technologies used at home.”
The company sells its devices to clinics and as a home therapy service to residential customers. The hardware, which resembles a swimming cap, passes small electrical currents into the brain. It can help with multiple conditions, the founders claim, including depression, chronic pain, sleep disorders and stroke rehabilitation. The equipment has also been used in medical research and the development of human-computer interaction.
Neuroelectrics has sold more than $3m-worth of devices in more than 40 countries, including to Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston Children’s Hospital and the University of Oxford.
One of the biggest challenges of being an innovative technology company in a medical field is meeting regulatory demands, so Maiques, who has an MBA from London Metropolitan University, started looking for training support. She found it on Iese Business School’s six-month, part-time advanced management programme in Barcelona, which she was able to fit around running Neuroelectrics.
The 30 people on the course came from a variety of disciplines at both large and small companies. “It was amazingly valuable to see how different students responded to the same challenge,” Maiques recalls. “I also liked the way it was broken into weekly modules because it meant you had time to think about what you had discussed and experiment with things in your business.”
Another benefit of the course was the variety of nationalities taking part, from places as diverse as Iceland and Qatar. Maiques aims to take Neuroelectrics into the Chinese market — the company already has customers in Japan, South Korea and Australia. She met fellow students at Iese who either worked in these countries or had done business there and could share insights. “A lot of these things you know in theory, but to understand what you have to do, you really need to hear it from people who are there,” Maiques says.
Neuroelectrics is growing but faces big challenges, such as breaking into the US market. To this end it is starting a clinical trial with the aim of gaining approval by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat children with focal refractory epilepsy.
“To scale up the company further I feel we need to understand better how to adapt our technologies to the different markets and their healthcare systems,” Maiques says. “After years of being an entrepreneur and being at the forefront of the company, going to the classroom again seemed like the best way to find the new ideas and management tools we will need.”
Jargon buster: Baby talk
Entrepreneurship is often viewed by those involved in founding companies as a responsibility akin to parenthood, which explains why so much start-up jargon revolves around child-rearing metaphors.
Enthusiastic new entrepreneurs often refer to their fledgling companies as their “babies”, which in turn explains, but does not excuse, founders’ tendency to spend more time working on them than bonding with their human offspring.
If entrepreneurs then struggle to develop the business because they cannot find anyone willing to actually pay for what they do, they may consider putting their pride and joy into an incubator.
This is a type of shared office space, often backed by a private equity fund, designed to help founders learn from those around them, get coaching from seasoned business owners and build useful contacts for sales, funding and to build a team. The number of incubators and accelerators (a similar concept for later-stage companies) rose by more than 400 per cent in Europe between 2007 and 2013, to about 260 programmes, according to the latest data on the sector from Spanish telecoms group Telefónica.
In cities that have seen a boom in young tech companies, incubators have become a growth industry in themselves. This does not bode well for an industry, where boom is so often followed by bust. The problem for incubators is that there will be no organisation to help them when, as seems inevitable, large numbers fail to live up to their hype.