The Startup Blueprint series shares stories of founders and team members from some of Aotearoa's most epic and fast-growing startups. Hear about their journeys, learn from their insights, and maybe leave with a dose of inspiration.
We spoke with the co-founders of Kitea Health, Simon Malpas, Natalia Lopez and Bryon Wright, a Medtech startup that is changing how chronic health conditions are managed by building the next generation of micro-implantable devices.
Kitea Health is a Medtech startup that is transforming healthcare for people living with chronic conditions by building the next generation of micro-implantable devices.
Kitea was founded by Simon Malpas (CEO), Natalia Lopez (COO) and Bryon Wright (CTO), a trio with decades of experience between them and almost more PhDs than headcount. For the last one and a half years they've been directing their energy toward commercialising and scaling Kitea's technology that will enable remote and proactive monitoring of physiological changes in people with chronic conditions.
Simon's background is as an esteemed scientist and serial entrepreneur, having previously co-founded three successful medical device companies. Natalia has spent the last ten years working in the life science and medical industry designing and implementing management systems, and Bryon is a bioengineer with over 20 years of experience developing microscale technologies in academic and commercial environments (and that's without getting into the experience of the rest of the team!).
We sat down with Simon, Natalia and Bryon to chat:
- Commercialising a business from a university
- Focusing on a specific target market when you have a product with multiple use cases
- Navigating strict regulatory environments while executing GTM strategy
- Building and retaining a passionate team
You’re building a company that will help to combat a major global health condition. Could you describe what Kitea Health does and what drew you to the idea/business?
Natalia: Kitea Health is a medical technology company building the next generation of micro-implantable devices for managing chronic health conditions. Spun out of the renowned Auckland Bioengineering Institute NZ, the technology is backed by 20 years of scientific research into wireless power, implantable devices, bioelectronics, and sensors.
Our technology enables pressure-guided management of chronic disease through the world’s most accurate and smallest implantable digital pressure sensor. Our core clinical focus is to reduce the cost and improve clinical outcomes for patients with heart failure through remote pulmonary artery pressure monitoring. Our secondary focus is hydrocephalus and brain pressure monitoring to indicate shunt failure.
Simon: I was drawn into the business through a long-standing research interest in the sensing and clinical need for pressure sensing. Seeing unmet clinical needs was first and foremost and realising that we had world-leading solutions.
Kitea Health began at the University of Auckland. What are some of the benefits and hurdles of commercialising a business from a university? And, if you were advising another founder who is pursuing commercialisation from a university, what advice would you pass on?
Bryon: Kitea Health’s journey began in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland and is a spin-out company backed by years of research. The benefits of commercialising are about taking integral research and development into our communities and making a difference. Of course, like most startups, there are hurdles. As a startup coming from academic research from within a university, we faced our hurdles.
I would advise those seeking to venture from academia into the commercial space to reach out to those already established companies and seek guidance. Getting a good agreement around the equity position is paramount to not hamstring the company going forward in terms of its investment capital capability. You will find that there is a very supportive environment in general and often groups that have been there done that are willing to offer helpful guidance.
With a Medtech device that could have multiple use cases and ultimately help address many different chronic health conditions, how did you decide on what market to target first? What are the benefits of this approach?
Natalia: In our case, we had been developing platform technologies: wireless power and communication, microfabrication, and of course pressure-sensing devices. These were always developed with an unmet clinical need in mind. We were exposed to several scenarios where our core technology platform could make a serious difference.
We have chosen to focus initially on the hydrocephalus market, not because it’s the largest market we could target, but because it’s a market that is absolutely unmet. In terms of pressure monitoring, it has enormous potential for making a massive difference in treating a lifelong condition. It often leaves patients with a repeat of unnecessary hospitalisations due to the elusive nature of determining whether a shunt is failing (current treatment for hydrocephalus is shunt insertion). Not only are we able to impact patients and clinicians but, from a market entry perspective, our competitors are far behind what we can offer.
You’re heading into the clinical trial phase and subsequently aiming to enter global markets, with the US being your first port of call. What’s it like navigating and implementing an international go-to-market strategy as a Kiwi-based Medtech company? What have you learned from the process to date?
Bryon: For a medical device company, the first step when trying to enter another market is getting regulatory approval. The regulatory approval process can be long and arduous so it’s paramount to get the strategy correct as getting approval in one region can serve as the springboard for expanding the clinical indication of the product (i.e. Heart failure which is a larger market) or entering another region of the world.
Kitea Health’s first step is pursuing FDA approval for the US market. Kitea is focused on the US market due to its significant spending power, which is two times that of the nearest spending country, Switzerland. We have learned that garnering this experience and knowledge and sharing it with the local MedTech community is key. We can’t keep relying so heavily on offshore consultants if we’re serious about growing the MedTech industry in New Zealand.
"We have learned that garnering this experience and knowledge and sharing it with the local MedTech community is key. We can’t keep relying so heavily on offshore consultants if we’re serious about growing the MedTech industry in New Zealand. "
We’ve gotten to meet quite a few of the Kitea Health team and witness first-hand how passionate the team are about the problem you’re solving. How have you gone about scaling your team to date and creating your internal culture?
Simon: This is a great and key question. I believe that as the CEO I have 3 primary roles in the business. The first is culture, the second is strategy, and the third is execution. To me, the culture of an organisation is fundamental to get right, this means finding the right people who can be part of the journey.
Creating a free-thinking environment where people feel supported and enabled to translate their experiences and expertise into their work means they can see how their involvement can impact outcomes. There’s no better way to ensure engagement than to have staff feel they matter when it comes to achieving company goals. A company will always need to continue to work on its culture, especially as the company grows.
🔥 Quick-fire questions
Most useful resource you’ve listened to/read/absorbed recently that you’d recommend to others?
Simon: It’s important to gain knowledge from different platforms and stay informed of current events. I particularly like anything med-tech related, LinkedIn articles, or The Chat_GCP Podcast.
Natalia: Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt and (an oldie but a goodie) Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey
A word or phrase that reflects how you approach life at the moment?
Simon: FOCUS. The keyword that people know me for is focus.
Natalia: Two that stick out –
- Desmond Tutu - there is only one way to eat an elephant, one bite at a time.
- When there’s trust you can move FAST
It’s the year 2043, what’s one thing that you hope has materially changed for the better as a result of the work you’re involved with?
Natalia: In 10 years, I believe remote healthcare will be the norm. Kitea’s products will be at the forefront of helping patients with chronic conditions avoid hospitalisation and not have to centre their lives around their ailment.
Simon: I certainly believe that we can improve the lives of people with chronic health diseases. The opportunity for allowing remote home-based care through technology is an industry that has yet to be fully embraced. You can however see this approach to health care come to light with remote glucose monitoring systems and home blood pressure monitoring (to name a couple). Imagine a world where this approach to health care is carried out to prevent needing to go to hospitals for what turns out to be a false alarm or informs whanau when you need to get to the hospital. This will reduce costs, and stress, and see some significant improvement in health outcomes.
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