We recently had a chance to chat with the founder and CEO of medical device start-up, OPUM Technologies, Andrew McDaid, to see how he is navigating his business through the crisis and what tips he could provide to fellow Kiwis to keep spirits up.
Q. Tell us about OPUM Technologies and how you formed the company?
OPUM was spun out of my research program at the University of Auckland in 2016. My team included around 20 researchers, engineers, physiotherapists and focused on robotic exoskeletons, wearables and machine learning/artificial intelligence. I saw that there was a significant need to automate therapy in order to be able to sustainably scale to maintain current standard of care with the growing healthcare burden from physical injuries and disease. It was also clear to me that commercialising research is the only way to translate technology into the real world to help patients at any meaningful scale. Our first product is the Digital Knee which is a modular digital knee brace platform for automating orthopaedic care.
The current circumstances with COVID-19 has also highlighted the vulnerability of even the most well-prepared healthcare systems. In my field, elective surgeries are being postponed indefinitely and this is causing significant issues for patients and healthcare providers. A technology like OPUM’s can aid by protecting and monitoring patients whose surgery is being delayed, as well as help surgeons to increase capacity when surgical theatres are coming back online to help clear any patient backlog.
Q. When did you start going to the US and how did you develop those relationships?
Through my research work, as an Associate Professor at The University of Auckland, I have had long standing relationships with leading institutions such as Rehab Institute of Chicago (#1 rehab hospital in the US) and Stanford Medicine. My links grew from a number of places including colleagues in NZ. I have also been fortunate to have very generous networks share their connections. On top of that I have done a good few lifetimes worth of cold calling and trying my luck! I have found that developing your own reputation and credibility is essential in mobilising people to want to work with you.
Q. What difficulties did you have to overcome in doing business in the US market and what advice would you have for other NZ start-up businesses coming to the US?
I have found doing business in the US extremely rewarding. Of course the biggest hurdle is not being based up in the US so it takes longer to build solid relationships and you miss out on a lot of events and chance interactions. In saying that, being only 5 hours time difference (+1 day) makes electronic comms very easy and the overnight direct to SFO and LAX is perfect, 8 hours sleep and you are there for a meeting the next day. I have been known for flying up for little over 24 hours before coming back (although I try to avoid that as much as possible to reduce my carbon footprint).
Biggest piece of advice is not to be a stranger up in the US, build networks, and spend time up here. Relationships take time to develop so don’t delay getting started connecting.
Q. How has COVID-19 affected your company and how have you adapted?
We were due to launch our first product, which has been FDA approved, into the US market at AAOS (the largest orthopedics conference) in March, and then start commercial rollout across clinics. Of course the conference was cancelled, along with travel and almost all elective surgeries (and sports!) so we have had to delay. We now are looking to focus more on the NZ market for likely the next 3-6 months. Given the healthcare systems are very different, our efforts in NZ will be more clinically focused (rather than commercial) so we are looking to do more research and trials to build clinical evidence while we wait for the timing to be right for a US launch.
Each business and industry is different so I wouldn't want to give any operational advice. What I would say though is given there is still so much uncertainty, make sure you have a number of scenarios planned out, and keep optionality so you can be agile in making decisions. Prepare for the worst. It is proven that those who are most well prepared fare best in a downturn.
Q. As the leader of your business, how are you keeping your spirits up through the crisis?
All our staff are working from home throughout the lockdown, so the first thing was to quickly ensure that all staff were adequately set up with processes and equipment to enable them to be comfortable in this new situation (this includes being able to juggle family with work!). The team has daily catch-ups and we have had drinks over Zoom as well to keep everyone connected and up beat. Being at Level 3 now I have just sent them all a food package to keep their spirits up and let them know all their efforts through this difficult time are appreciated.
Q. Is there any help or things that the NZ-US connected community could help or assist you with?
When we launch in the US, we will look to launch the product into orthopaedic centres, so it would be great to chat with anyone that is in this field and connected with orthopaedic surgeons or hospital networks as well as medical device companies and distributors.
Q. What is the best way to follow the work you are doing?
We have a fledgling instagram account @opumtechnologies which we are growing to show our progress. On top of that our website www.opumtechnologies.com also has a news feed which features our press releases and most relevant news. And I am always happy to connect directly, usually over a tea or beer (either in NZ or when I’m in the US), to talk about OPUM or anything I can help others with too.