Bone deformities: how lengthening bones is changing lives

Bone deformities: how lengthening bones is changing lives
© Siru Danielsson Photography

SYNOSTE Oy has developed a bone lengthening treatment for people with bone deformities.

SYNOSTE Oy is a Finnish venture which was started in 2007 by three young engineering students studying at Aalto University, Finland. Their passion, skills and competencies have led them to develop a solution for millions of people less fortunate than themselves – people suffering from bone deformities.

They have invented a novel patient-friendly solution for bone lengthening treatment, in which a bone is first cut in two parts and the parts are gradually pulled apart 1mm each day. After the target length is reached, the bone is allowed to heal before the implant is removed. The result is a longer but perfectly normal and healthy bone for people who had bone deformities.

Here, the managing Director Harri Hallila discusses how it has evolved since it was established in 2012 and where their priorities lie moving forwards.

SYNOSTE was incorporated to bring surgical solutions to the market for communities suffering with skeletal bone deformities in 2012. How was the idea originally created?

The idea was originally created by myself and Antti Ritvanen and Juha Haaja when we were students. Ritvanen’s 2007 thesis was about the use of smart materials in medical applications, and we went on to develop a business idea which resulted in a chain of actions (which included discussions with orthopaedic surgeons to better understand the medical need). The development of the necessary research and the business plan was then done in parallel, which led to the incorporation of SYNOSTE in late 2012.

Essentially, the first generation of implants on the market to help people suffering from bone deformities were not as optimal as they could be, and we knew that (smart) materials could really boost their efficacy; the fact that many offer wireless properties and others are able to interact with the environment and so on mean that such materials have potential in numerous application.

As such, once we had completed our undergraduate degrees we began to work on a business idea – and this is something which stands us apart from many other similar start-ups, in that we developed a business plan before we actually began the research, and not vice versa.

We were successful in a venture contest in the category of business ideas, and this gave us enhanced visibility, which in turn helped us to receive research funds. Following this, we were able to grow the team to ten members in the research team, including us three founders. We then went on to build on the knowledge we had gained in academia to investigate the smart materials with the most potential, before working on product demonstration and, of course, obtaining the necessary funding to evolve.

Was access to finances a particular challenge?

We were researchers with an entrepreneurial mind-set, and while we had worked on applications for research grants and so knew what they entailed, we had no knowledge of how the venture capital market works. It therefore took some time for us to be able to navigate this landscape.

The first issue for us was to look for venture capital funding in 2012, and the next year was a learning curve as we familiarised ourselves with the mechanics of this and as we continued to present our ideas to investors. From that, we have been able to establish a very good consortium of investors from both the public and private sectors. This includes entrepreneurs who have looked to make an early, high-risk investment, as well as venture capital companies from Finland and Germany, who supported us in the early stages.

Do you think that more can be done by both Member State governments and perhaps the EU to support (in a non-financial sense) young companies when they are working to establish themselves?

There is room for more support, of course, and things can always be improved. Nevertheless, we were fortunate to receive quite a lot of support while we were starting out. For instance, Business Finland (formerly TEKES) provided financial support, whilst we obtained mentoring from Finland’s Centre of Economic Development.

Perhaps the most valuable support we received was in the form of being able to approach those with much more business experience, which meant we were able to discuss our ideas and receive advice. Indeed, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) also supported us. The EIT works closely with Aalto University via an Innovation Centre which works with the university’s spin outs, and that enabled us to access a great network.
We also worked to become actively involved in congresses and events, which further enhanced our understanding of how the community works, and also enabled us to receive feedback on our ideas from both experts and the venture capital community, which was essential.

When it comes to establishing a business in Finland, the landscape is particularly strong. We have many acceleration and mentoring programmes, in addition to well-established communities and internationally recognised events.

Regarding limb lengthening and the corrections of bone deformities specifically, this is a growing area with increasing interest from surgeons, patients and public, which means that the appetite for new products and services is already there. At the moment, there is an on-going transformation from external fixators to implant solutions, which we are involved in, and there is a sense that Europe is now following the USA in this transition due to the better availability of the products in the States.

The market is still waiting for the true disruptive third generation of products, which is much more than just a new version of an existing implant; they should disrupt the entire patient experience and have a significant impact on outcomes. When it comes to platform technologies that have this disruptive potential with regard to deformity corrections in wider application ranges, SYNOSTE is at the forefront.

Lifeline Ventures and the AO Foundation have supported the company with early funding of over €5m. How do you expect this to assist with the development of the technology, and what is the team’s goal for 2019?

We have two main areas here: The first is to obtain the clinical evidence that demonstrates the suitability of the technology platform to bone deformity corrections. This will be achieved with a clinical trial for technology applied to a limb lengthening implant and initiation of the market approval process. The second element concerns proof of concept of the scalability of the technology for other applications.

In an effort to strengthen our position moving forwards, which will help us to raise more capital next year, we are working closely with our medical advisors to define and bring to market a true third generation limb lengthening solution.

In line with efforts from various research bodies to further develop novel materials for medical applications, how can the research community best support your efforts to bring the technology to the surgeon?

Our co-operation with Aalto University, which is very close to our lab and office, means that we have access to talented researchers locally and we want to see that develop further. Furthermore, we are looking to work with research organisations elsewhere in order to draw on the world’s best understanding of the science behind smart materials, and especially nickel titanium alloys.

We are also interested in the electrical and mechanical interfaces of other biocompatible materials, as this will allow us to make even smaller and stronger implants with various geometries for many applications for patients suffering with bone deformities. Indeed, we are working on systems that are based on those types of material, and so access to the research community here will be invaluable moving forwards.

We are hungry to strengthen our core competences, and materials science is in that core.

Harri Hallila
Managing Director
SYNOSTE Oy
+358 45 179 6300
hallila@synoste.com

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