Frequently Asked Questions

Selection Questions

SPARK has a wide range of projects in each batch, from early ideas to a preliminary solutions. We don’t require patents applied in before hand, but many of the projects will apply patents during the process.

Why focus on unmet medical need? Wouldn’t second in class be commercially viable?

SPARK is driven to address unmet medical needs. As such, the potential market earnings from a new solution and possible company are not main drivers for becoming selected. Also, we feel the best way to utilize the innovation occurring in academia and clinical setting is to focus on novel approaches to treat disease.

We accept applications from all academic and clinical areas related to health tech and life sciences. Project team should come from our associated institutions (see below) in Helsinki capital region, Tampere, Turku, Kuopio and Joensuu regions. Applicants can be scientists, students and health care professionals from these organizations.

Every year we will have an open call for eligible applicants. Typically it is open during fourth quarter of the year. Final selection will be done by an international evaluation panel that consists tens of professionals in R&D, business, finance, regulation, clinical validation and science in health tech and life sciences. Since we are fortunate to have these top tier professionals in our evaluation panel, we rely on their judgement.

Each year, prior our open calls, we try to meet as many potential applicants as possible for screening potential dealflow and for giving feedback to project owners. That is why we request potential applicants to contact us any time of the year. And it really makes sense. Based on our experience odds for becoming selected by our international evaluation panel will be higher if there has been a preliminary contact and meeting(s) with our managers.

You can check participating institutions in About us section.

SPARK program is not –  as such – a business development program.

If you have already an operating company then you will receive support from existing business development service providers (incl. local accelerators, incubators…).

The only exceptions are projects in which scientists, students or health care professionals need to establish a company as an “IP parking place”… We support also those teams with our expertise, education, mentoring and global connections. We have had several projects in which team is from our associated institutions, but IP belongs to those individuals. Unfortunately there is no public project funding available for individual persons in Finland. If team needs funding for example from Business Finland for professional expertise for applying patent(s), it means that IP needs to be owned by university, hospital or a company.

If and when this type of a “IP parking place” starts operating and/or raises outside funding for operations, then it will become an alumni and receives support from other programs and operators.

No… you don’t need to have external funding (from Business Finland or other financiers) for getting into the program and we don’t use it as a selection criteria. In fact remarkable share of applicants and selected projects are in idea phase and don’t necessarily even know what funding instruments could work for them. But at SPARK program project teams build their competencies for becoming fundable, majority of non-funded projects will get funding after attending, and we have strong evidence that it reflects even to the startup phase.

SPARK initiative is looking for all innovative, novel projects targeting on clinical unmet needs. As long as the projects meet the requirements for SPARK they can be accepted into the program.

Definitely yes. Applicants can be BSc, MSc or PhD students from institutions that are associated with SPARK Finland (see below).

As a matter of fact our first alumni company, Surgify Medical, was a student project at SPARK Finland. Currently they have raised remarkable funding from Finnish and international investors, and proceeded faster than experienced professionals expected. They have gained also lot of public attention… For example in 2017 Visa Sippola (Co-Founder & CEO at Surgify) was announced by MIT Technology Review as one of the top innovators under 35 in Europe.

Teams must participate actively in SPARK activities: attend the mentoring sessions, meet periodically with their local SPARK manager, join educational courses and participate industry and investor related “exposure events”. We understand that projects can take longer than anticipated, but the SPARK management must feel that the team has made adequate progress and shown the commitment to advance their projects in order to continue full two years.

For very early stage projects we can allow also a third year in the program – typically for pharma and vaccine related projects.

There are several ways and reasons why projects become alumni. Here are some of the key aspects:
– Your project is becoming a startup company and starting its operations
– Your maximum time (2 years, in some cases 3 years) at SPARK comes to an end
– Your project has generated a solution/product that is in use in service providing at the research institution or at the clinic
– Your project ends up to different direction outside from the health sector
– Your project and team participation doesn’t meet requirements that are expected

We also have a very specific positioning for our support and services. That is why we try to avoid the situation that there are accelerators or incubator services overlapping our support. That is due to potential different orientation in focal points or approaches.

During Covid-19 pandemia we have had only virtual meetings.

We also recognize that every location doesn’t have the density of potential R&D and business mentors as they have at Stanford ecosystem. Virtual meetings enable having professionals in our events literarily from other side of the world.

While geographical spread also forces in Finland using online meetings, occasional in-person meetings are also very important. Mentors and advisors can give much more in-depth advices and open new perspectives in face-to-face meetings. The informal networking before and after SPARK meetings helps also building the sense of community and has resulted in multiple collaborations between SPARKees (the teams). In-person meetings hold everyone accountable and engaged—if a researcher or health care professionals hears a great presentation from another team, they are driven to make their own presentation just as impressive. The same goes for mentors and advisors—everyone wants to make the great suggestion that gets the team over the next hurdle.

General Questions

As Kevin Grimes (co-founder of SPARK at Stanford) often reminds us, when starting your path toward developing a new solution, you should ask questions like

Why will patients and providers use our product?
– What clinical problem are we solving?
– What specific unmet medical need does our product address?
– Is the risk to benefit ratio acceptable?
– Will delivery and dosing be acceptable?

What is (will be) the competition?
– Will payers reimburse for our product?
– Will it significantly improve outcomes?
– Will it save money for the health care system?

There are several compelling arguments for being interested in translational work:

  1. Social obligation: Much of the money to fund research and clinical services comes from public funds, so it makes sense that researchers and health care professionals should try to help their discoveries improve public health if translational opportunities exist.
  2. Foster culture of innovation: Academics are risk-takers, in that they are not afraid to embark on big high-risk research questions if they have potential for a high impact. Industry tends to be more risk-averse, as corporate heads have investors to please. Given the escalating costs and timelines associated with drug and health tech development, the field needs more innovative people tackling challenges in order to meet medical needs.
  3. Science and healthcare are dependent on new solutions: Health related sciences and healthcare services are highly dependent on solutions by companies. If you think any life science laboratory, everything that you see there is provided by companies… microscopes, pipets, protective clothing, laptops, software. Same is at clinics… drugs, diagnostic devices, hospital beds, wheelchairs. For improving modern science and clinical practice we need new, novel and valuable solutions. That is why we need to be driving development of those rather than waiting for others to do it.
  4. Need to take responsibility: Even the most promising solutions need “owners” and “champions” to promote their development across the “Valley of Death”. If not you, then who? If inventor doesn’t take responsibility – at the earliest stage – to increase maturity of the case, there is high probability that the case is not going anywhere and will not be able to attract required resources and competencies. That is a brutal fact. That is why we at SPARK support taking the responsibility of projects and we support innovators and teams in it.
  5. Improved skills and career opportunities: While researchers and health care professionals have education and skills for scientific and clinical work, reality is that most do not have education and experience on how to develop new solutions in this industry neither basic understanding on business or finance in this industry. While expectations for better solutions through translation from science or to business are growing, there is a great interest for more skilled professionals into academia, clinics and companies. And improved skills opens also new career opportunities for those individuals.
  6. Financial and business development reasons: There is a real challenge in getting early stage health tech and life science projects funded by private investors. That is a global phenomenon and it prohibits introducing new and better solutions for treating patients.

According to the SPARK participants one of the most important benefits of SPARK is support by experienced and competent mentors and advisors. With their support founders are not anymore alone with their limited skills and experience.

Peer support is also extremely important part of the support. In SPARK project teams there are tens of different kind of professionals supporting each other… engineers, physicians, molecular biologists, chemists, nurses, AI experts… a large spectrum of talented and well educated professionals.

One highly valued element is that SPARK Finland supports (also financially) project teams to get exposed with the global industry, investors and business professionals It is possible by participating in events where one can meet those professionals. Meetings with them are crucial enablers for developing market understanding and getting relevant feedback. By meeting business people one can build also own networks of relevant parties.

When projects are maturing and becoming alumni, if needed, SPARK can also act as a matchmaker between projects and interested investors and industry partners.

SPARK global network is also highly valued. Our global network supports SPARKees despite where they are located. In small countries like Finland we have limited provision of top tier expertise to support all projects so we need to find experts from other countries. That is where our global networks can be extremely valuable. We have already advisors for our projects from several other countries.

Overall, SPARK’s efforts help reduce the barriers to translation at our partner institutions.

Quality of our support is the cornerstone of SPARK Finland.

As you can see from our team composition we have a setup of professionals that have personal business and entrepreneurial experience in this industry – as well as long experience in technology transfer and novel education models.

Latest acknowledgement that might have some relevance is that in March 2021 – the leading digital media covering the European Biotech industry- selected SPARK Finland as TOP25 biotech incubators in Europe. And if you take a look on their list of top tier incubators, that is a list in which every development organization would like to belong.

But… Success of Finnish SPARKees and alumni is the most important evidence. Finnish SPARKees have been highly successful in global arenas in different kind of pitching and startup competitions, and have gained remarkable attraction by investors and industry. They have been also highly successful in raising new R&D funding during their SPARK journey and at startup phase they have been able to raise remarkable funding from private investors.

Technology transfer offices and innovation services are our key partners. We have our specific role in supporting very early stage projects and many of those need to be developed further before there is a clear opportunity for IP.

Our goal is to support emergence of high quality projects for TTOs and support increasing the maturity of cases based on their needs. We support many of our projects all the way until establishing a startup and getting it funded and operational mode. And even if the IP doesn’t belong to the university or hospital, we still provide support as long as project teams come from our associated institutions.

It is sometimes challenging to find that balance. Many of SPARK projects are closely associated with research, clinical work or studies of team members, and things can be done in parallel.

When projects join SPARK program our managers support applying appropriate funding. Luckily a large portion of our projects has been successful in raising remarkable funding from Business Finland, Academy of Finland and private foundations. That has enabled many of our teams to focus in their projects.

Since the financial support by SPARK Finland is not the case, in reality, the feeling that you are not alone anymore… you have an access to systematic top-notch mentoring… access to global industry, investor and academic networks… peer support… and our educational courses… Those are the biggest motivating elements for participating at SPARK.

These have not changed much during first years that SPARK Finland has been operating.

One thing that needs to be always remembered; our program is not as such an entrepreneurship or business development program. Our main focus is supporting idea owners in increasing the maturity of their ideas towards practical and value creating solutions. We provide our tools, managers and mentors for supporting teams, and integrate teams to our global networks. On top of that we organize relevant education for wider audiences.

Because the technology transfer offices (TTOs) negotiates all IP related things like licenses and decides what patents to file, SPARK does not track royalty revenues or patents filed as metrics of our success. SPARK also does not receive any fraction of royalties or ownership of companies generated from SPARK projects. We have no strings attached.

SPARK can investigate with the help of tech transfer offices to determine how to proceed.

The overall freedom-to-operate review is one of the most important things do at the earliest stage of a project. That helps building your understanding how crowded and competed the IP landscape is and if the case has required novelty aspects. You should pay attention also to the quality of an application. That is why using experienced and specialized patent attorney is highly recommended.

Mentors and mentoring

Our mentors and advisors are typically experienced professionals in R&D, business, finance, regulation, clinical validation, science or clinical practice. Most of them have practical experience in healthtech and life science industries. We try to cover many aspects of expertise in building our mentor pool. If you feel that you have expertise and experience that could be helpful for developing new cool solutions, we’d be more than happy to discuss with you how you could join our community to support projects at SPARK.

No, we don’t. Mentoring events are based on voluntary activity – it’s about giving back to the community. But, we are more than happy of emergence of strong links between mentors and individual project teams. Then it is up to projects and mentors to agree how they want to collaborate. We have several cases where the needs and offering have met and those have lead to different kind of collaborative activities. Even some investments to the alumni companies. We have also advisors with  different competencies and even from other countries for our Finnish projects, so SPARK provides true multi-competence and international collaboration opportunities for all parties.

Yes. That is a prerequisite for everyone for attending our events, not only in Finland, but allover the world. We will keep our mentoring events as closed-door events so that we don’t spoil IP opportunities and teams have more freedom to talk about their projects.

No, we don’t. Many times there are no answers what is right or wrong for challenges that projects are facing.

Stanford program was originally built on five principles and all of the SPARK programs follow these:

1. Multiple opinions and perspectives

2. No need to reach consensus

3. Open exchange and no hierarchy

4. On University campus

5. Ongoing, two year program

SPARK at Stanford has currently almost 150 mentors and advisors, and almost half of them attend any given SPARK session. But they started in 2006 with only 5 mentors and advisors.

SPARK Finland started with less than 20 and currently number is around 40. But the number of mentors is not the most important thing… Most important is the relevance of advice that mentors can bring.

No, we don’t. We respect our mentors and advisors tremendously and as they donate their valuable time and expertise for our community, we want to provide an opportunity to do it privately. If mentors and advisors wish, they have right to tell that they are in mentor and advisor pool at SPARK. But that is their choice.

Corporate Relations

SPARK managers meets and speaks quite often with professionals in pharma, biotech, healthtech, health IT industries and with financiers/investors. Aim is to find better match between SPARK projects and investors and industry. Discussions are always discrete and conducted based on the consent by project team. Based on the request our managers can also make introductions between projects and different stakeholders.

No, SPARK Finland does not receive industry funding to support the SPARK program or fund certain teams.

Yes, but only with the consent of the team leader and owners of IP. SPARK Finland will maintain a list of non-confidential two-line summaries for all unlicensed projects, which we share with interested potential collaborators or licensees. When a project has reached a new value point, we will also promote meetings with investors and industry partners. But this happens always based on the request by SPARK project team.

Not at the moment, but we promote emergence of new financial instruments for startups in this industry.