Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions

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 clinicians 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 clinicians 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. For getting more into this topic see Professor Andrew Lo’s (Head of MIT Financial Engineering Lab) presentation at SPARK 10th anniversary event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doLvjy7v4JQ

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.

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.

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.

Associated institutions are (in alphabetical order):

Aalto University
Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences
Helsinki University Hospital/The Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa
Laurea University of Applied Sciences
Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Tampere University Hospital/The Hospital District of Pirkanmaa
Tampere Universities
Turku University Hospital/The Hospital District of Southwest Finland
Turku University of Applied Sciences
University of Helsinki
University of Eastern Finland
University of Turku
Åbo Akademi University

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 very small, in reality, the feeling that you are not alone anymore… 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.

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.

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.

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, not generate money. As such, the potential market earnings for a project do not factor heavily into project selection. 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.

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.

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 clinicians 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 of 15-20 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 call, 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.

Institutions participating at SPARK Finland are (in alphabetical order):

Aalto University
Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences
Helsinki University Hospital/The Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa
Laurea University of Applied Sciences
Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Tampere University Hospital/The Hospital District of Pirkanmaa
Tampere Universities
Turku University Hospital/The Hospital District of Southwest Finland
Turku University of Applied Sciences
University of Helsinki
University of Eastern Finland
University of Turku
Åbo Akademi University

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.

We recognize that every location doesn’t have the density of potential R&D and business mentors as they have at Stanford ecosystem.

While geographical spread 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 clinician 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.

Mentors and mentoring

Our mentors 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 form other countries for our Finnish projects, so SPARK provides true 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 almost 40. And the number is growing.

No, we don’t. We respect our mentors 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 wish, they have right to tell that they are mentors 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.