15 Jul On a mission to improve people’s mobility
Jon Sigurdsson, President and CEO, Össur, explains how his company’s bionic prosthetics and other technologically advanced orthopedic products can transform lives
Össur is certainly one of Iceland’s best success stories that started 50 years ago. The company has become a global leader in orthopedics, manufacturing a wide range of non-invasive orthopedic equipment, including prosthetics and bracing and support products that greatly contribute to improving people’s mobility. This is a company that you’ve been leading for 24 years since 1996. To start, can you give me a brief tour of Össur, how does the company contribute to help people’s mobility and how does it stand out on the global orthopedic market?
Össur has been an innovation leader in this industry for a number of years and that has been one of the key pillars of our strategy. If we go back 20-plus years ago, the industry was extremely fragmented with very few big players and quite low technology levels. Products were very basic, low in technology and doing little for the amputees, so that upgrading the technology was a must. The issue we faced was a lack of critical mass. If you want to trade your technologies, you need to have a critical mass. So in 2000, we acquired two companies—Flex-Foot and Century XXII—which both had the competence we needed in order for us to offer a complete solution. At the same time, they had well established distribution systems, which helped us gain critical mass on the market. From there, we started to develop much more sophisticated products and solutions with artificial intelligence on board. We were the first company in the prosthetic industry to offer bionic solutions, products that have embedded sensors, artificial intelligence and other sophisticated technology that adapts to the user.
Another factor that can explain our success is that we have a very defined culture. We have 4,000 employees that are aligned on very defined goals. Our company values honesty, frugality and courage, which are embedded in our culture and embody our behavior toward each other and our customers.
Iceland punches well above its weight when it comes to scientific innovation, as it spends about 2.2 percent of gross domestic product on research and development (R&D), which is above the European Union average. Two thirds of this comes from private sector. That percentage is even higher at Össur, as the company spends about 5 percent of its turnover on R&D and has produced about 1,700 granted patents so far. Can you tell us about some of the company’s most advanced technologies that you are particularly proud of? How unique or disruptive are these technologies and how do they contribute to improving patients’ lives and comfort?
It’s always difficult to choose which one is your favorite child, and I’m very reluctant to do that. All of our products are very important, with their own functions and specificities. Our bionic products have been catching a lot of attention in the media, however we should not underestimate all the materials and technologies that are going into all our products, such as our silicone materials, carbon composites and mechatronics, which are all our specialties. Losing a limb is a catastrophic event for a person and, therefore, these devices are of extreme importance for the users. Our technology platforms are very broad and the expertise we have built over the past 20 years has certainly contributed to our success.
I’m particularly proud of how well-versed we are in our technology platforms as well as in the materials we use, some of which are not normally used specifically in this industry. We are also talking about biomechanics: we have to adapt rigid structures to the body, which is not easy. A large majority of the amputee population is over the age of 65, suffering from cardiovascular disease and diabetes. For this population, just to walk around their house or neighborhood rather than being stuck in a wheelchair or in a hospital means a lot: it means integration into society and that is very important. One of our challenges is to get the reimbursement bodies to accept that a person over the age of 65 can be an active and participating member of society.
Where are the needs today in this market and what are the key trends governing the sector?
A clear trend that we’re seeing on the market is the increasing focus on technology. The type of product that we’re selling is much more expensive than other products, as they are technologically very advanced and sophisticated devices that require considerable R&D investment. As a result, we must also convince the reimbursement systems of the health and economic benefits for the user and society as a whole. We place emphasis on conducting studies that prove the clinical benefits of our products and the importance of keeping amputees mobile for better quality of life but also for reduction of other co-morbidities.
Another trend we foresee in this industry is that the big players will likely become bigger, because of the sophistication and complexity of technologies, and because of the regulatory environments of the medical device industry and of industries in general. Regulatory requirements, such as security, data protection and so on, have become so cumbersome that a typical small company does not have the resources to live up to them.
Össur enjoys strong sales and marketing presence in the largest healthcare markets, with increasing direct contact with payers and prescribers. Tell us a bit about your global distribution and go-to-market strategy? How is Össur working to enhance its network, and expand its collaboration and partnerships with global healthcare partners and distributors?
We are market leaders. We are very well known in this market, even though we have only 4,000 employees. Within our industry we are known as innovation and technology leaders.
Our challenge is on the reimbursement side: to get our sophisticated—and, therefore, more costly—solutions accepted and recognized by medical professionals and payers within our industry. The customer base within the orthopedic and prosthetic industry is relatively small compared to other sectors and so this is quite important. In most markets, the end user is not the payer, so not the least of our challenges is to ensure that the end user and their family ask for our products and solutions when they go and see their medical professionals. End users are becoming more aware and want more of a say in the products and solutions they are fitted with. We are placing more emphasis on reaching and educating the end users and their networks of the options available to them.
I’m also interested in your company’s brain research programs and powered, intelligent and energy-efficient bionic solutions. Can you tell me more about your breakthrough product, the mind-controlled bionic prosthetic leg? How is Össur embedding artificial intelligence and the latest technologies in its new generation of products?
Our first generation of products had carbon fiber, silicone and titanium in them. That meant more comfort, more energy-return for the user and more sophistication. Our bionic products offer computer-controlled solutions that measure what the user is doing, and then anticipate and calculate what the user is going to do next, and then react accordingly in real time. For example, our knees are able to predict with certainty—and within a split second before—what the brain wants and adjust to that, whether it is climbing stairs, going down, kneeling or accelerating. That’s artificial intelligence and that’s the area we continue developing. We are in clinical trials for a mind-controlled prosthetics where a sensor is embedded into the muscle of the residual limb and the sensor picks up signals from the muscles and sends them to our bionic products in real time. It’s the closest thing to simply thinking about what you want to do and the artificial leg reacting to that thought. Interestingly enough, what’s been most difficult for us hasn’t been the technology aspect—we’ve been able to solve most of the technological issues—it’s been the regulatory angle, since we are utilizing embedded sensors.
To what extend is Össur working with university partners or open to other types of partnership to continue advancing its innovation?
We have some external collaborations; we are part of some pan-European projects, however we are also reluctant to rely on these programs, because these are often quite broad and can take many years. We are a commercial organization and so we prioritize our own specific R&D projects, working toward problem solving in our particular field.
You have a strong global presence but which markets are the highest priority as of now for the company?
Because of the nature, sophistication and price of our products, we have been mostly focusing on the Western, industrialized markets—essentially Western Europe and the U.S. However, there are markets that are rapidly developing for us, such as China, whose quality requirements are getting up to speed with those of Europe. In South Korea, for example, our market penetration is the same as in Germany or the U.S. What we’ve called “developing markets” are getting closer to our Western markets.
Since its establishment, Össur has acquired about 40 companies. I imagine your appetite for acquisition must have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, but do you have any further plans for new acquisitions in the near future?
Össur has made more than two acquisitions a year for more than 20 years. Acquisitions are an important part of our strategy because they enable us to grow our critical mass. We have 150 engineers today. Twenty years ago, a typical prosthetic company would have two or three, and they wouldn’t be able to operate on this type of technology that we have today. So critical mass, both in respect to technology and marketing capacities—to educate and influence the market—can be gained through acquisitions. We regard acquisitions as one of our core competencies.
The COVID-19 crisis has not changed our strategy at all. We are the same company that we were before. This crisis has had a huge impact, but a short-term impact for us and it doesn’t alter our strategy, which is as valid today as it was before.
Össur will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. This is a perfect time to reflect on its achievements but also on the way ahead, and on what the future holds. As one of the 20 greatest business thinkers in the Nordics, what is your view on the future of the industry and, going forward, what are the key strategic directions that you are willing to follow as head of the group?
I believe that the big will become bigger. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but the regulatory environment and the technological platforms are such that going forward we’ll see a market consolidation with more vertically integrated service providers. Now we have silos in the healthcare sector: the structure is very compartmentalized along professional lines rather than patient lines. The healthcare industry is not designed for the patients but rather for the healthcare professionals. I believe that will change in the future, slowly but surely.
To conclude this interview, do you have some final words for our readers?
We have an impressive past and I think an even brighter future. We are well poised with a talented team of employees around the globe to solve the future challenges we have. The customers and end users we serve are always top of mind and encourage us to do better each day. Ultimately, it is our mission of improving people’s mobility that binds us together and is the guiding light for our success.