On June 11th, the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and Health 2.0 Europe Conference kicks off in Helsinki, Finland. One of the world's most preeminent digital health and medtech events, the event showcases some of the world's leading innovations at the forefront of healthcare. One of this year's exhibitors and featured companies is hometown Helsinki startup, KAMU Health, a firm working to develop unique, personalised solutions for asthmatics. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 340 million people suffer from asthma, a chronic respiratory disease associated with premature death, reduced quality of life and increased financial burdens on national health systems. Over 30 million of these suffers live in Europe, where asthma is one of the continent's most frequent chronic conditions, and diagnoses are on the rise.
There is currently no cure for the disease, however, changes in lifestyle and environmental conditions, such as pollution can play a role. For many asthma sufferers, doctor prescribed treatments including oral and inhaled medications as well as behavioral changes remain a cornerstone of asthma care. Patients often manage acute symptoms with inhaled bronchodilators, and are encouraged to track inhaler use in an effort to better understand their symptoms and environmental triggers. However, patient recorded information, especially during an asthma attack can be unsystematic. KAMU Health’s hardware and software technologies help systematize treatment for asthmatics, helping them to better map and understand their course of treatment. KAMU Health's spirometer and app allows asthmatics to regularly measure the condition of their lungs and evaluate changes over time. Using comprehensive, location-based environmental data, the KAMU Health app further works to identify how environmental conditions may trigger asthma attacks and allow users to anticipate and react to changes in real-time. These insights can then be used by patients and their medical professionals to evaluate the effect of prescribed medicines and to determine further courses of treatment.
I connected with Seppo Salorinne, co-founder and CPO of KAMU Health over email to learn more about the company and their journey. Seppo is a distinguished inventor, with more than a dozen software patents to his name. He has over two decades of worldwide product management and marketing experience in both consumer and enterprise products for companies including SEVEN Networks, Smartner Information Systems and F-Secure.
Let's begin by talking a little bit about how the idea for Kamu got started. Who were the founders and where did the idea come from? How did you know that it was time to turn the research into a startup?
Like a lot of ideas this one was the result of a confluence of interests and expertise. I’ve spent my professional life in technology product development, while my father, [Professor Yrjö Salorinne], has had a long and distinguished career in healthcare. He was a professor of clinical physiology at Helsinki University and has also been involved with medical technology development including spirometry since 1970s. The conversation that led to KAMU was almost inevitable. My father was aware of a growing number of medical apps that guide and coach patients with conditions such as diabetes, but he hadn’t come across anything that was aimed to help asthma patients. On the other hand, I come from the tech side and my sense was that digital services had proliferated to the point where there’s pretty much an app for everything, so I was almost certain that the niche would have already been filled. It hadn’t. There was clearly a lack of a service that would support asthma patients in their self-care. After all, asthma is a huge problem with two million or so people in the EU alone suffering from the most severe form of the condition, of whom about half a million end up in hospital each year. Why wouldn’t someone have developed a service?
Finland ran a national asthma programme for 10 years since 1994 when, in Finland, a fifth of asthmatics’ symptoms were severe or uncontrolled, by 2001 it was around one in ten, by 2016 one in forty. Meanwhile, mostly thanks to better diagnosis, the number of recognised cases doubled, yet in the two decades following the start of the programme, the overall cost of treating asthma in Finland almost halved. That’s extraordinary. We wanted to bring together that medical expertise with product development skills and create a service that could really make a difference to the lives of millions.
What were some of the initial technical hurdles you had to get over in the initial product development?
Technology is, inevitably, complicated. People are more so. When you’re creating a service to address a challenge as multi-faceted as improving asthma care and self-care then you need to address a whole list of considerations. All medical technology is rightly closely regulated. We can make no claims for KAMU Health that aren’t supported by clinical evidence. Moreover, we have a moral obligation to patients; in so far as their wellbeing is in our hands we must not and cannot fail them. All the other challenges were tackled with this very much in the forefront of our minds. The formula that we’ve worked with involves taking hardware, in this case spirometers that can be connected to smartphones, creating an easy form of accurate self-testing, and making use of that data in practical ways – such as ensuring they take the right medication, in the right quantities, at the right time. That doesn’t just require a technical solution, that needs an understanding of how to guide the patient’s behaviour. We also need to give due weight to the relationship between the treating healthcare professional and the patient, so that far from physicians being cut out of the equation, they are a primary target for the data we gather so that, where needed, they can use it to adjust the patient’s care programme, and ensure that the service serves that end. So – a complex mix of handling regulation, technology and people all with the goal of helping people to manage their health better.
When it came to raising investment, how have you supported the company thus far? Why did you choose to pursue this route, over alternatives?
We were self-funded for our first years and received some grants. I think that’s an indication of the strength of our commitment to what we’re doing. We took in our first external investment in the form of seed funding from angel investors and Business Finland in the final quarter of 2018.
Where are you based? What are some of the benefits or bright spots of the local startup ecosystem there?
We’re in a really appropriate setting; the Helsinki Maria01 startup hub. The building was originally a hospital and it’s home to quite a few startups and many of them are, broadly speaking, also in the health and wellbeing field. It’s a good place to network and make connections. I think it would be fair to say the same of Helsinki in general. For more than twenty years now our economy and emerging innovations has been quite tech-orientated. There is a pool of talent completely out of proportion to the size of the country. So, I’d say there’s a critical mass of good people in Finland that produces the sort of environment in which startups can thrive.
In your journey as a founder, what is a key lesson you've learned along the way?
Firstly it’s not about you, it’s about your customers. Too many technology start-ups come up with a solution then go looking for a problem it can solve. Most of the time they end up solving non-problems. KAMU absolutely starts with a problem – how to improve asthma self-care – and from the very beginning has sought to arrive at the best possible solution. So it succeeds only in so far as it works for customers. If we can’t help people with asthma we don’t have a business. Secondly, work with the best. If you’re determined to be the best at what you do then you don’t fear ability, rather you want to surround yourself with it. I think this is probably the right place to mention Petri Louhelainen, our Chief Technology Officer. I’ve worked with Petri, on and off, for years. He’s brought an incalculable amount of experience, insight and sheer brilliance to KAMU.
What is next on Kamu's journey? What should others know about what's on the horizon for you and the team?
On the immediate horizon is HIMSS and Health 2.0. We’ll be exhibiting and pitching there and to meet with investors and potential customers. On the technical side, we have now a CE Class I Conformant Medical device available and that brings together the hardware and software elements of what we do. As for the business we’re currently recruiting more people to help bring KAMU Health to market, so adding expertise for different functions where we have the need, both business and product development.
Thank you Seppo for your insights!
Many thanks also to Marika Pirhonen, advisor to KAMU Health for assistance in this interview and to Pioneers ‘19 for connecting me to KAMU. KAMU Health’s mobile spirometer and app is available in Finland now, and the company plans to launch across Europe in the second half of this year. For further reading about KAMU Health, please see: Finland Leading the Way in Asthma Care