She was named Engineer of the Year in 2019. A few months later, her company went bust. Growing up in Serbia, Maja Rudinac had learned as a child that you have to seize the day. Motivated by this awareness, she did everything possible for her innovation, the Lea care robot. All lights were green, everyone loved the product and still, the innovation didn’t make it.
The summer of 1990. It was a sunny, carefree time and Maja Rudinac was a happy child. Her parents had made plans for that summer: the family was going on a long holiday. They decided to postpone the trip for a few months so that Maja, who would be a bit older by then, could appreciate it more. They would also be able to take additional time off from work. A few months later, civil war broke out in Yugoslavia. “We never went on that holiday,” Maja recalls. “What that taught me, as a child, was this: if you see an opportunity today, grab it with both hands. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Today is the day you can make a difference in the world.”
Maja completes her studies in Serbia – electrical engineering with a specialization in AI – and is subsequently invited to do her PhD at Delft University of Technology’s Robotics Institute under the supervision of professor Pieter Jonker. In 2015, together with Jonker, she launches the Robot Care Systems startup and develops the Lea care robot. Lea helps people with Parkinson’s disease to walk again, to be able to dance and to enjoy life. The robot senses when the patient experiences a freeze when walking, brakes when the patient leans too far forward, keeps appointments and guides the user through physiotherapy.
In 2016, a consortium of investors – including Innovationquarter, Rabobank The Hague, CZ healthcare insurer and Lobeco – invests 5 million euros in the innovation. In 2019, Maja receives the Prince Friso Engineers Award from Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands. A few months later, the startup is declared bankrupt.
What went through your mind when you knew your company was not going to make it?
“We were devastated. Heartbroken. In January 2019, we were at Amazon’s stand at the CES innovation show and in March, we received the Engineer of the Year award. Everybody loved our product – patients, physiotherapists, healthcare institutions, investors, distributors, the government. Nobody could predict what would remain of that good fortune and our plans a few months later. I thought back to that summer in my youth. Seize the day because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You have to make a difference today.”
Where did it go wrong?
“The explicit reason we didn’t make it is that we couldn’t find any scale-up investors in the Netherlands. And every foreign investor who was willing to provide finance asked us to move away from here and bring the IP rights and all. But that’s not possible if you’ve received large investments from the Dutch government, which is only logical. So, we were stuck in a catch-22 situation.”
“The healthcare system is also in a bind. Medical investments have an incredibly long life cycle. There’s an average period of twelve years from the time a product completely meets the relevant criteria to the point it’s fully reimbursed by health insurers. By the time your innovation is finally on the market, it’s no longer an innovation. It’s this long turnaround time that makes it incredibly difficult to get investors on board. In the Netherlands, investors like to see that you can stand on your own feet with profits in the first year. Incidentally, what’s true for healthcare also applies to the energy transition. Those investments also have very long life cycles. Publicly funded investment funds could enter into even more strategic partnerships with private venture capitalists to enable these types of investments.”
What more can investors do?
“Obviously, you have to hit certain milestones to receive the investment tranches. But investors could be more flexible with those deadlines. If a company doesn’t reach a milestone at precisely the agreed date but two or three weeks later, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem for the investor. The startup, on the other hand, is immediately in big trouble, so the timing of the tranches is vital. If the money comes after you require it, you can’t pay your suppliers; if suppliers deliver in three months, you can only get your product on the market three months later, which means your profits will be deferred and so on.”
“We have a lot of smart people here, a lot of talent – the Netherlands has enormous potential. But what we’re not so good at is scaling up. This is when we scale up our startups, in which we’ll already have invested a lot of money, to a corporate business. We were extremely happy that Innovationquarter introduced us to several big investors. But this scope could be broader. Consider, for instance, a scale-up academy that links you to significant investors, helps you with pitch decks and financial decks and truly guides you through the whole process. Parties like Innovationquarter can play a huge role in this.”
But even though the Netherlands has its stumbling blocks, you stayed.
“I received many offers after Robot Care Systems went bankrupt and could easily have moved to a different place and continued my career there. But I want to make things better here. I don’t want to go to Silicon Valley – I want to bring Silicon Valley here. So I convinced a scale-up there to open a branch here and bring some of their production to the Netherlands, from where we now serve the European market. I want to empower the economy here and I’d like to spread the word to other parts of the world and tell them just how innovative this country is.”
So, you were heartbroken, the system had let you down. And yet you are still committed to strengthening the ecosystem here?
“I don’t think the system let me down. Innovation is a voyage of discovery. The government, our shareholders, the distributors – everyone had the best intentions. I also received a lot of support through the Innovation Credit Grant of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. Actually, I’m incredibly grateful for all that help. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve all that we did without it.”
“What our case shows is that we’ve not sufficiently covered the gap between startup and scale-up. This doesn’t mean that everything we do for startups is wrong; we have the World Startup Factory, CIC, Yes!Delft, many incubators, Amsterdam Campus, Brainport Eindhoven, Innovationquarter and the Innovation Credit Grant. I’d say that we do very well as a country during the R&D phase. We just have to learn from our experiences to do better for scale-ups and I’m happy to help with that. I’m now working with the Economic Board to improve the funding system for energy investments.”
What makes being an entrepreneur so rewarding?
“When you make something and deliver it to the user, you see how your innovation can improve lives. That’s worth everything. When I look back and see how much effort not only I but especially my fantastic team put into this… I’m still moved by it. We put in many weekends and often burned the midnight oil. Even in the darkest moments, even when they were not sure if they would get their salary at the end of the month, they continued to do their work with total dedication.”
“You know, it doesn’t matter that we as a company didn’t succeed this time. Even if another firm picks up the innovation where we left off and helps people with Parkinson’s walk again, our experiences will have been worth it.”
You didn’t walk away and aren’t bitter. You’ve stayed close to the Netherlands, your team and LEA.
“Yes, but how else do you improve things? What do you achieve by walking away? It would have been a different story if everyone had walked away from us. But this country has helped us so much with our innovation. Everyone was involved – from government to journalists and healthcare institutions.”
“If everyone with a broken heart runs away or leaves the country, we shift the problem to the next innovation. We’re not the only ones with this problem. Hopefully, there will be hundreds of thousands more wonderful innovations that will change the world. Let’s make it as easy as possible for these innovators. Your opportunity is today – grab it with both hands.”
This article originally appeared on innovationquarter.nl.