Elena García, creator of the exoskeleton for children: “The Spanish entrepreneurial ecosystem is completely infertile.”

Elena García Armada never imagined she would need to create a startup to move forward with a project she began to conceive in 2009. However, faced with the impossibility of finding a company to bring her pediatric exoskeleton to the market, she decided to establish Marsi Bionics in 2013. The road has been full of difficulties, but this year, the company has finally achieved the CE mark to commercialize the device. After that authorization from the Agencia Española del Medicamento (Spanish Medicines Agency), this CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) spin-off has raised 943,000 euros from around 160 investors through the Fellow Funders Crowd Investment division, a firm dedicated to supporting SMEs and startups.

The researcher talks to 20minutos about her journey through the desert to ensure that the world’s first children’s exoskeleton, an entirely Spanish breakthrough, leaves the laboratory.

How do you transition from industrial engineering and research to the company’s CEO? I entered a completely unknown world, but there was something that motivated me: to ensure that the results of my investigation would meet the need for which they were created. It didn’t make sense to me to lock them up in a lab. So it was a necessary step, I don’t say it was natural because I had to force it, but I have been adapting to what this path was asking me. It is a learning and professional growth process, all marked by a very clear objective.

What has been the most rewarding moment? Seeing the happiness reflected in the faces of the families, the children feeling better. This impacts their quality of life. There is no greater reward.

And the hardest? The most frustrating thing is to carry out a deep, capital-intensive, technological project in an ecosystem that is not well prepared for this type of project. The Spanish entrepreneurship ecosystem is completely infertile. There are too many obstacles that lead you to consider many things.

Even throw in the towel? The goal was so important and necessary for us that we have never considered throwing in the towel. However, we did drop it a lot of times. Many times we said we wouldn’t make it. But we have succeeded.

What causes this situation? The difficulties come from several aspects: bureaucratic and legal. But the worst is the economic one. If you have good support, the bureaucratic and legal barriers can be overcome even when they slow the process down when you need agility.

Time works against these children. Of course. Given their illnesses, they need this equipment as soon as possible. It has taken us eight years since the technology was developed until they can finally use it.

Have you also faced barriers to being a woman? Yes. In my research stage, I often had to work three times harder to prove my worth. In the entrepreneurial stage, I think it has also been critical to get the credibility of investors to invest in a technology company led by a woman. I had to work hard to prove my leadership ability constantly. It’s still a problem our society needs to solve.

Has your team been an important support? The team is essential. To move the project forward, many funds ask you to have it from the beginning, which is highly qualified, multidisciplinary, and, therefore, numerous. You have to build it little by little. Marsi Bionics now has 21 people on staff.

Have you also lacked public support? In terms of intention, we have had the support of all the institutions. The problem is that the intensity of that support is not what a company of this type needs. We have had the greatest support from the European Commission. In the initial stages, we had to resort to crowdfunding from people on the street because we did not even meet the requirements for public funding, neither national nor European. In the first two years, all doors were closed to us.

How did you come up with the idea of approaching Fellow Funders? Fellow Funders was who offered us support for the first round of preparation and the rest of the way. When we came to them, we had already tried to get investment through venture capital funds. We did not yet have the CE mark for Atlas -the exoskeleton- but we did have the CE mark for Mak -a brace for knee rehabilitation in adults-. However, we did not attract the interest of those funds.

You had a lot of difficulties. Yes. The investment ecosystem in our country does not understand the potential of high-tech companies. Investment funds ask for a turnover history and do not assume the risk of investing. In other countries, these companies have a very high valuation even though they are not yet on the market because their high potential is understood.

Does Fellow Funders have a lot of requirements? They have an internal decision-making process. They evaluate a lot of projects and select a few. You have to meet certain quality criteria, which we did. That’s how we entered their portfolio and solved the need for a capital increase.

How many devices will you be able to market with the 943,000 euros? The round was closed last month, and now the sales team is touring Spain and closing deals with other European countries. We could sell about 12 exoskeletons between Spanish hospitals and rehabilitation centers and around 8 Mak units this year. However, sales will probably skyrocket in 2022 because many of the budgets for this year are already closed. On many visits, we are referred to the next one.

Have the Autonomous Communities been willing to allow the exoskeleton to reach public hospitals? Yes. It is not an immediate process, but there is disposition. We are meeting with all the Health Departments, and the feedback is generous.

What would you say to an entrepreneur who is starting now? The most important thing is to have very strong motivation and resilience. There will be many stumbles and difficulties. And I recommend leaving Spain as soon as possible. It is not easy either because you have to have a financial injection. It is very difficult here. It is not very patriotic to say it, but it is very frustrating to try to get something going that in any other place would flourish in a short time.

But in Spain, there is an enormous amount of scientific talent. We are in the top 10 internationally despite our country’s very low investment in science. If a little more effort were made, we would achieve even more impressive results. But we have a clear failure in technology transfer in bringing results to society. If we do not want our entrepreneurial projects to go abroad, what we cannot do is accuse the entrepreneur of being unpatriotic. The problem must be solved.

What needs to change? Public research organizations already understand the need to transfer the technology or knowledge they generate to society. I personally took on this challenge based on the results of research that was not mine but that of the CSIC, which did not take on this responsibility. That no longer happens. Even so, you have to understand that no two companies are alike. Almost all the aid for the seed stages is measured by the same yardstick, that of the service sector. Many companies do not find an answer to their needs and die in the first year.

Source: 20 Minutos

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