Mannheims health-revolutionaries are developing the hospital of the future
For most patients the following is still almost unimaginable: no wait times at the hospital, more safety, unstressed employees and less mistakes. OPASCA from Mannheim has been helping hospitals manage their workflow since 2011, employing digital solutions, such as sensor based data collection and real-time analysis. The three founders Timo Machmer, Steffen Liebscher and Alexej Swerdlow are revolutionizing the way patients are treated – and have now set their sights on expanding their business model – on a global scale.
What idea drives OPASCA?
Alexej Swerdlow: As of today a patient will have to wait for hours to be treated. OPASCA are focused on preventing these wait times. We digitize the whole process, thereby making everything more efficient, better functioning and faster.
So your approach guides the patients from registration, all the way till they are released?
Alexej: Ideally the process will begin while the patient is still at home! Our system solution lets you check in via smartphone, like at the airport, so the hospital will know you’re there. This is where things get difficult in hospitals at the moment, as patients will often wait for hours, because the hospital does not know they have arrived.
Steffen Liebscher: If waiting times arise, the patients should be informed about the circumstances – should an emergency have occurred, for example. We aim to make the workings of the hospital transparent for the patients. This way you will be informed if something isn’t working ahead of time, so you can schedule your visit later, in accordance to the repairs. Making processes more transparent is an advantage for everyone involved.
Why is it such an ordeal for hospitals to manage their workflow?
Steffen: Hospitals are highly technological and complicated, but the tech is focused only on their medical applications. Even with cutting edge systems there is no regard for the medical staff of patients. Collecting and integrating this data is something no other manufacturers are addressing as we do. It massively eases things in the hospitals. Initially we couldn’t believe it ourselves, the way our system can help things, but now that we are running the tech in several clinics, we can attest to the advantages: proceedings, the patients and the staff are much more comfortable.
And in return you get good healing prospects?
Steffen: A well informed patient is much less stressed, and studies show that reducing stress will help with recovery. This is very hard to measure though.
Alexej: We have visited hospitals running our system with new clients. They said that the employees felt like actors to them, as they had never seen such relaxed personnel. This is a central marketing tool to us. Our product is nothing you can easily present, as we are devoted to optimizing very complex processes. The result is what we sell, in the end.
What is it that you sell to hospitals, more concretely?
Alexej: We provide both hardware and software, to analyze the interplay of different machines and processes. What distinguishes our approach, is the fact that we don’t merely offer a digital analysis, but aim to change the processes physically.
OPASCA has been situated in the Mannheim IT start-up center MAFINEX since 2011. Now you are planning a move to the technology park. Have you grown so much?
Timo: The luxury of being able to move three times within MAFINEX, to accommodate our needs, was something we are not expecting to find again anytime soon. We need a location now, which will offer enough space in the long run. Being seated in the technology park also offers us the option to show potential clients our system in the adjoining university clinic.
What are important factors in company growth?
Alexej: To scale a business certain structures must be established. You need good HR to well attend new employees. And you can’t just keep endlessly recruiting new technicians. When we exceeded 12 employees, our internal communication needed a complete overhaul. This was a new thing to us, and presented a first real challenge in growing the business. The second challenge came at 25 employees. At the moment we stand at 50 employees, and we are constantly restructuring things here.
Steffen: Our employees must grow together with us. Some might not really like it, as they might have preferred the familiarity, that comes with a smaller size business.
Timo: The process of growth concerns everyone here, and it’s tough, as it affects core elements of the daily business. If anyone had asked us about business administration two years ago, we would have given a much different answer. It’ll probably be a much different answer in two years from now. The process of growth and change must happen on all levels. This can be hard for veteran employees, but understanding and adapting to this process is very important.
Steffen: The medical technology sector is rapidly changing. A few months may introduce massive changes. This alters your every-day business. New fields will appear constantly, and bring on new challenges, such as team building. The larger we grow, the more dynamic we become.
Is individual responsibility a big factor?
Alexej: Yes. This is an important factor to us, which might even overweigh professional competence within the recruitment process. It’s easier pick up technical ability, than it is to do so with a sense of responsibility.
Timo: It’s not easy to teach people a sense of responsibility, and it comes with oneself learning to give away some of your own responsibility. We’ve learnt this by now, and are now teaching our middle-management.
The OPASCA-spirit holds everything together?
Alexej: Sure, but we need everyone onboard.
Steffen: We need to keep our eyes on a shared vision and the mission. It’s essential, as many don’t see us as a young and dynamic start-up, but rather expect a high level of professionalism, security and reliability.
What were the beginnings of OPASCA?
We moved to MAFINEX in October of 2011. Mannheim offers a lot more support, compared to our starting point in Ludwigshafen, which is part of the Rhineland-Palatinate. An important factor was the fact that the cities capital fund invested in us, which we are very happy about.
And you guys knew each other before founding?
Steffen: We all studied computer engineering in Mannheim. I’m a few years younger than the others and finished my diploma in Karlsruhe. Shortly before I was finished, I got a call: How long will you need for your diploma? Do you want to found a company with us? I said yes right away.
Timo: Alexej and I went to school together. After school I went on to absolve compulsory paid community service. As Alexej was not a citizen yet, he wasn’t required to do this, which was lucky for him. We remained friends through uni and got back to working together during our PhDs. Alexejs special-research-department was looking for a doctorate at the time, and I applied.
Alexej: I was mainly looking for someone to car-pool with every morning, commuting from Ludwigshafen to Karlsruhe! No, seriously … Timo was the right guy for the job. As developer he was perfectly suited to work on our project at that time: developing a humanoid robot.
Which part of the robot were you developing?
Timo: Visual and audio. In the process we were very solution-oriented. We wanted to create something that really worked. Within the research community our approach was not always taken seriously, but in the end it led to the creation of OPASCA.
Alexej: Close to the end of my doctorate I received a call by mere coincidence. These people were looking for a specific solution regarding radiation therapy. The aim was to ensure only the patient would be exposed to the radiation. The solution we developed led to the basis of our firm.
Timo: This element of our business is still relevant to this day. Personal security in radiation therapy is part of our Workflow-Suite in radiation safety. Aside from this we offer patient validation and other modules. We offer small, singular solutions, as well as wholistic systems.
Alexej, you’re from Uzbekistan, and this is where a unique opportunity for OPASCA has arisen.
Alexej: I was born and raised in Uzbekistan, and left for Germany at 14. For the longest time I had no real connection to Uzbekistan. While reflecting on the subject of internationalization a year ago, I began to wonder what the state of radiation therapy might look like in Uzbekistan. At the time we were involved in a project in Cyprus, where the second center for radiation therapy was being built.
Go on …
Alexej: The center was founded by a doctor from Germany who had returned to his home country, Cyprus, after 50 years. We equipped that clinic. I called my dad, and he called some people, and in the end we found out, that Uzbekistan has no radiation therapy at all. I done were to apply German standards the country, which has a population of 32 million, would offer 200-300 radiation centers. We have now founded a subsidiary company, to build and operate a radiation clinic in Uzbekistan.
Why are you operating the clinic yourselves?
Alexej: Because there is no know-how in the country to rely on! This is the case in many countries, such as in Africa. The World Bank might finance the equipment, but without the right personnel, this is futile. We want to introduce German standards, which is why I have returned to Uzbekistan, after 23 years. This October we participated in holding the first Central Asian conference on radiation therapy. It was a real success for us. Aside from many physicians and specialists from Uzbekistan, and the surrounding countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Russia, we were able to get in contact with industry partners and political players, including the ministries of health and finance of Uzbekistan. The media echo, as well as the general motivation to improve the health sector, was amazing! We are looking forward to tackling some very exciting frontiers!
Interview: Paul Heesch / LA.MAG
Fotos: Daniel Lukac