5.2.2022 | Savon Sanomat
It is rare for a medical student to establish a start-up. Medical student Samu Lehtonen, however, is an exception as he functions as the CEO of a start-up company Marginum Ltd. Lehtonen is studying for the fifth year at the University of Eastern Finland and is a young researcher at the Microsurgery Center of Kuopio University Hospital. Marginum was founded in 2020. The company received seed funding for a smart tissue monitor from North Savo Start-up Fund, managed by Nostetta Ventures, and from Constaco Oy in Kuopio.
Samu Lehtonen found himself studying medicine partially by accident. “Medicine occurred to me after graduating high school, but I first studied engineering at Lappeenranta University of Technology”, Lehtonen explains. He completed his bachelor’s degree and applied to study medicine at the University of Eastern Finland.
The young researcher describes that entrepreneurship came as a surprise because his original aspiration was to graduate as a physician. “I originally applied for a thesis position, but now I am working simultaneously towards a doctoral dissertation and as a start-up entrepreneur”, says Samu Lehtonen. The purpose of the dissertation is to scientifically prove the significance of Marginum’s invention.
“The only way to bring the invention from laboratory into practice is to set up a company”, Lehtonen states.
The new invention is based on the work started in a neurosurgical research group. Neurosurgery sounded like an interesting option when Lehtonen considered in which medical specialty he could focus on his studies. “The industry is really immersive. When doing research, one often reaches a state of flow”, Lehtonen describes.
Lehtonen’s research focuses on fluorescent biomarkers, i.e. glowing dyes. Before surgery, the patient is given a drug that accumulates predominantly in the cancer cells. When blue light is applied to a specific marker, the substance glows red. Thanks to the glow, the surgeon recognises the cancer tissue. “The problem with the current method is subjectivity. If there is blood on top of the tumour tissue or if it's located in a challenging angle in relation to the surgeon, it is difficult to identify the tumour”, Samu Lehtonen explains.
If the surgeon does not recognise all of the cancer tissue, it will remain in the operating area and may cause the tumour to recur. It increases cancer treatments’ cost to society and impairs the patients’ quality of life.
“Our invention can identify the cancer tissue many times more accurately than the human eye enabling its removal during surgery”, Lehtonen concludes.
In addition to Samu Lehtonen, Marginum employs three experts. Antti-Pekka Elomaa is an Adjunct Professor in Experimental Neurosurgery, serving as a medical advisor and Chairman of the Board. Dmitry Semenov is the Chief Scientific Officer. He has an extensive background in optics and prototyping. Juho Leskinen, an automation technology engineer, functions as the Chief Technology Officer.
Samu Lehtonen feels that he is doing interesting and meaningful work in neurosurgical research. “I am highly motivated by the idea that in the future, the invention can possibly affect the treatment of up to two million patients”, Lehtonen says. Although Marginum’s smart tissue monitor is designed in connection to neurosurgery, the method will also be applicable to liver, ovarian and gastrointestinal cancers in the future.
Combining research and entrepreneurship is not always easy, even if they overlap. “It is immensely helpful that I am able to make my own schedules”, Lehtonen says. Lehtonen is used to working efficiently. In his spare time, he enjoys playing sports.
Marginum has the potential for international growth. The company has filed an international patent application for the smart tissue monitor. The population is aging, which will increase the incidence of cancers as well as the need for cancer surgery. “We will start in Finland, after which we intend to export the method to Nordic countries and the rest of Europe. This will be done in collaboration with the Nostetta team heeding their suggestions”, Lehtonen plans. “We estimate market entry to be possible in three years, which is very fast compared to other companies in the industry”, Lehtonen mentions.
Heidi Ahonen, Managing Partner of Nostetta Ventures, which funded Marginum, is pleased with the start of the collaboration. “Samu Lehtonen contacted us in the autumn, and we have progressed relatively quickly”, Ahonen explains. Marginum’s diverse and capable team managed to impress Ahonen. “Their areas of expertise support each other. Additionally, I am convinced that the company will be able to bring its innovations to the market and there is demand for it”, says Ahonen.
Heidi Ahonen is pleased that Marginum has a long background in academic research, the results of which can help people. As an investor, Heidi Ahonen believes in Marginum’s success.
“This can grow into a million-dollar company, but it won’t happen in a few years. I see no obstacles to the growth”, Ahonen assures.
Matti Höytö, innovation specialist at University of Eastern Finland, says that the university does not have actual statistics on how common entrepreneurship is among students. “Students are not obliged to notify the university of founding a company, so it is difficult to acquire real numbers”, Höytö says.
However, the University of Eastern Finland archives all research-based companies as the companies transfer their results to the university. “On average four or five research-based companies are established on the Kuopio and Joensuu campuses a year”, Matti Höytö explains. According to Höytö, the number of companies at the University of Eastern Finland is at a good national level. Additionally, the number is in the same range as in other European universities.
In recent years, research-based companies have focused on the A. I. Virtanen Institute, but companies have also been established at the Department of Applied Physics. “Individual companies can also be found, for example, at the Department of Computer science. So far no, research-based companies have been established at the University of Eastern Finland in 2022."
The original full article in Finnish can be read at Savon Sanomat after accessing paywall.
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