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Hans-Florian Zeilhofer (Img: Charles Rudin/Universitätsspital Basel)

Hans-Florian Zeilhofer (Img: Charles Rudin/Universitätsspital Basel)

03.09.2015

«Only when it is shared in the team does an idea take shape»

Hans-Florian Zeilhofer is a surgeon, innovator, scientist and entrepreneur. He has performed pioneering work in many fields of reconstructive facial surgery. Always driven by the goal of improving the situation for his patients, Zeilhofer is constantly initiating new projects that meet with international acclaim – as also with his latest project, Miracle, which his team will present at the Lift Basel Conference 2015.

In this interview he explains why work in an interdisciplinary team is so important for him and why he is convinced that new impulses are being generated worldwide from Northwest Switzerland.

You are a surgeon with an extraordinary background – how would you describe yourself?
Hans-Florian Zeilhofer*: Above all I’m an inquisitive person who likes to explore new paths. Even in areas where there is no path as yet, and even if I don’t know whether and how I will arrive. It‘s an enriching experience to keep meeting new people on the way and finding the solutions together that will hopefully fulfil their purpose. It’s really inspiring when you approach and arrive at a goal in this way.

You perform surgery, establish companies and are scientifically engaged in diverse areas. How do you manage with your work-life balance?
I dislike the term work-life balance. I don’t put my professional life and private life on the scales to make sure they are in balance. You should always do your work with joy and passion and find fulfilment in your work. Then you will also no longer speak of work-life balance. If work is done or has to be done without any consideration of the overall context behind it, then there will be no sense of purpose or meaning. It is therefore important to establish working conditions that help to invest the work with meaning – and that applies in all kinds of work.

You have already done a lot in your life: medicine and dentistry, philosophy, science and management – how do you reconcile all that?
I don’t see my different activities as contradictory, but rather as mutually complementary. Today I can do a lot of things that I could not do five or ten years ago and am constantly trying to appreciate what new perspectives there are and what I would like to keep working on. You never stop learning, and I learn a lot from younger colleagues. That’s very enriching for me in the late stage of my professional career.

Do we live in an age where more Leonardo Da Vincis are needed? Should doctors acquire a broader knowledge?
It’s not absolutely necessary to emulate the universal genius, but a certain knowledge base is extremely important. The oral and maxillofacial surgeon has to study both medicine and dentistry. But that is no longer enough by many means. A budding specialist should acquire a wide variety of knowledge, for example in engineering and the use of computers or media, but knowledge of economics and ethics is also become increasingly important. I also believe that the training has to change. I’m in the fortunate position that I am able to influence developments and guide the youngsters. That’s a really nice experience.

You are a pioneer in many areas of medical technology. How do those famous Eureka moments come about?
My innovations always start out from an everyday problem for which I am seeking a solution. If I find a conventional solution for our patients is no longer adequate or satisfactory, then I start looking for an alternative. Solutions often emerge quite suddenly or spring from a moment of meditative calm.
The idea then comes, for example, when I’m sitting in the train with my eyes closed or in the morning under the shower. It’s working there somewhere in the subconscious and then suddenly an approach to solving the problem presents itself. As a rule it will not yet have clearly defined contours, but will be sufficient to allow me to make some brief notes. Then it is important to have friends and partners with whom I can exchange ideas. For only through this exchange can the idea come into being and take concrete shape. If a partner then asks the right questions, this quickly takes it forwards and you can see what aspects of the idea are still incomplete, where there might be a hitch that has to be considered to ensure the solution will work.

You’re known as a doer – many of your ideas are implemented and you have been involved in many spin-offs. What does the risk of failure mean for you?
The risk of failure is a very serious matter, and it’s always there wherever you go – for surgeons in particular this is a huge challenge every day. When a patient entrusts himself to me, he wants the operation to go well. For me this means I have to plan a lot to make sure the procedure is as safe as possible. And I also have to be aware that Plan A might have to be abandoned in the course of an operation and that an unpredictable moment may spontaneously necessitate a new Plan B.
In the course of my professional experience I have learned to cope with this. We have often tried to learn from other professional groups such as musicians, who also have to improvise. It can only enrich us all to think outside the box and to learn from other disciplines; in my case, that is art and the humanities above all.

And what does entrepreneurial risk mean for you?
This also requires courage. It took me a long time to venture taking this step for the first time. I have often found that outstanding and especially innovative medical ideas have hardly been taken up by industry. There are a wide variety of reasons for this: sometimes it is down to production processes that don’t fit, or there are logistical problems, and the regulatory approval processes are also often too protracted. I came to realize that we doctors and scientists need to find the courage to start companies ourselves if we do not want good ideas to land in the drawer. However, we then take an entrepreneurial risk that brings far-reaching strategies for action with it. For example, I first have to protect my idea before I go public with it. After the patent and the start-up, you then have to develop the product to market readiness and resolve the problems associated with this. Not least, and here lies a more complex part of the venture, you have to find investors who are prepared to provide financial support for a new development. But such investors of course also want to keep the risk as low as possible if they are to come in with several hundred thousand to a million francs. But ultimately, it is precisely the riskier ideas that are the really exciting projects.

Where does your enthusiasm for entrepreneurial risk come from?
You know, as a young doctor in Germany I developed my first idea for a product innovation. And when I presented this to experts, I was told no one needed it. Soon after that I attended a congress on medical imaging in Silicon Valley. There everyone congratulated me and encouraged me to pursue the idea. Eventually I found my partners in related subjects, such as mathematics and engineering. Leading research and cutting-edge technology can no longer be developed today in a monoculture. You need small and flexible, interdisciplinary teams of physicists, computer scientists, biologists, engineers and physicians for creative and quick solutions. There is enormous energy and dynamics here. It’s a culture that we have developed in Basel and taken almost to perfection. This is precisely the secret and the key to our success in the region. Such a culture needs sufficient space and time to develop and does not work as a solo effort – you always need a team.
I see my role increasingly in encouraging others, offering security and trust and also simply being present. Trust always rests on people, and you have involve yourself as a whole person. The partners feel this. I like being described as a door opener, but actually I only support the teams – they open the doors themselves.

And was this also the case with your last two coups: the MIRACLE project and the MedTech Fund MTIP?
Put simply, the MIRACLE project is about minimally invasive, computer-assisted, robot-guided bone cutting. The project is almost like a miracle. We are already world leaders in the use of laser technology to process hard tissue. In the next generation we want to work with flexible instruments directly in the body in order to make the procedures less stressful. I’m quite sure the MIRACLE project will have major significance for our society around 2050. Then there will be almost two million people aged over 65 in Switzerland. Greater life expectancy will bring an increase in age-related diseases due to wear and tear. The treatment of these diseases will require very complex technology and should not compromise the quality of life of patients. We therefore have to develop technologies with specific solutions for elderly people that allow the minimum possible invasiveness and rapid healing. With MIRACLE we will broaden the spectrum for surgical procedures and also make therapeutic measures accessible for elderly patients in relatively poor general health. At the same time, it will be possible to shorten the length of hospital stays and the subsequent rehabilitation phase.
It is our task today to research the basic principles that can deliver satisfactory results for the population in 30 or 40 years.
The special feature of MTIP is that the University of Basel and Basel University Hospital are partners in the fund. Both are sharing the entrepreneurial venture with us. I see this as a commitment that gives us courage and trust in science to continue down this path with industry.

Last year you made a highly regarded impression at the Lift Basel Conference that aroused a desire for more. What can visitors expect on the subject of Surgeon Superpowers this year?
We will present the Miracle project at the Lift Basel Conference 2015 and show the robot in Action. I very much hope that physicians will also be at the event and that we can dispel any reservations they may have about this technology. I believe it’s very important that we develop technologies out of our field, design them ourselves, keep them under our control and don’t place them unconditionally in the hands of industry. We will also present the latest 3D printing at the Lift conference. We already worked with this technology many years ago, when it found use in the automobile industry. I was one of the first to use 3D printing for medicine. Today we can produce individual implants from titanium powder that are better accepted by the body and are adapted to the needs of the patient. A third important issue is Big Data in medicine. We need cross-sectional images through the body for diagnostic purposes. These images contain an awful lot of information and we use only a small percentage of this – if any of it at all. Using today’s computing power we could process this data and use it, for example, for prophylaxis. We therefore intend to pay greater attention to Big Data here in Basel.

What other visions do you have for the region?
My vision is for the structures we are building up now to endure. I call the environment here a Medtech Innovation Hive. Beekeeping has been a hobby of mine for more than 30 years and I‘m fascinated by the way 40,000 individuals live together in a superorganism with a highly complex organization. For me the beehive is a source of inspiration and problem solving. And precisely for this reason I call our environment a hive, because like a bee population we need to be sensitive and flexible in the way we react to our environment. The research structures are like an organism which is in a state of constant change, can divide and grow, but is also vulnerable. In view of the high degree of interdisciplinarity, we need to develop new structures of cooperation. These will have an impact on industry, on the way a company is organized. And I’m sure these structures will also have an impact on universities. There are structures - such as the division into faculties - that are difficult to overcome. In Basel we have had help in resolving this problem with the establishment of departments. But in my opinion that is only an interim solution. At university level we need to find new ways to give structure and support to this form of research and facilitate a sustainable development for the future. And I’m delighted to have the privilege of playing a part in helping to shape this.

You came to Basel from Munich in 2002. Certainly a stroke of good fortune for Northwest Switzerland. And for you too?
I find very open people in Basel with whom I can discuss my ideas. And I appreciate the fact that Basel has a full university. For I believe there is an advantage in this that cannot be overestimated. In the Basel region we have not only a strong university, but also universities of applied science that are doing very good applied research. At the same time, we have very short paths of communication with the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and Lausanne (EPFL) and with EMPA and the CSEM. The triregional metropolitan region lends the Basel region a cultural diversity that we need to put our ideas into practice. I know many places in the world where people are engaged in innovation. And I’m convinced that something like a Silicon Valley for Europe can grow here – with impulses for the world and of similar consequence. And you talk of good fortune: yes, I do see it as a real stroke of good fortune that I can initiate and follow such a process together with i-net, the Swiss Innovation Park Northwest Switzerland, the university and university hospitals – I won’t get another chance like this.

Interview: Fabian Käser and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

*Professor Hans-Florian Zeilhofer heads the clinics for oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University Hospital Basel and the Cantonal Hospital Aarau, as well as the High-Tech Research Centre at the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Basel. After studying human medicine, dentistry and philosophy, he trained as a specialist in oral and maxillofacial surgery and gained his postdoctoral qualification at the university hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar of the Technical University Munich. In June 2002, he joined the University of Basel. In 2004 he established and headed the High-Tech Research Centre at the University Hospital Basel. In 2005 he became the founding president of the annual International Bernd Spiessl Symposium for Innovative and Visionary Technologies in Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery. Since 2013 he has been establishing the Med-Tech Innovation Hive in collaboration with i-net and the Swiss Innovation Park (SIP) Basel. Since 2007 he has been president of the Swiss Society of Maxillo-Facial Surgery. He has received numerous honours and awards for his innovative research work. He holds a number of international patents and has created several startup companies in recent years out of high-tech innovations from university research. Most recently he founded the new innovation platform Med-Tech Innovation Partners (MTIP) as a private public partnership together with the entrepreneur Felix Grisard and the manager Christoph Kausch with the involvement of the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel.

Project «MIRACLE»

Webpage of MTIP

Department of Biomedical Engineering

Video of Hans-Florian Zeilhofer at Lift Basel Conference 2014

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