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Terry Boyd
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Tech Tuesdays: After toughing it out for years, Usono is finally having its moment

(Editor’s note: Usono is an alum of HighTechXL’s hardware accelerator program before pivoting to deep-tech venture builder in 2018. This article was written by Terry Boyd and published on Dispatches Europe, who followed Usono’s progress from the earliest days at HighTechXL. The article is part of Dispatches’ Tech Tuesdays series, and it’s reposted here with their permission.)

Back in 2015, when we were checking out various cities in Europe, looking for a place to start a new media company, I landed in Eindhoven without a clue. Somehow, I ended up on Technical University of Eindhoven’s campus at an event where students were demonstrating what they could do with drones, including a drone café.

There, I met a young TU/e engineering student, Victor Donker, who told me essentially, “This is nothing. You have to come to High Tech Campus and HighTechXL.”

HighTechXL, now a deep-tech venture builder, was then an accelerator and Victor and two TU/e friends – Benjamin Tchang and Jori Verbeek – had a startup called Usono. Usono made a simple device, the ProbeFix, that attaches to the patient’s knee or other areas and holds ultrasound devices in place so doctors and therapists can make diagnoses in dynamic environments without having to hold the device for long periods of time.

A “duh” obvious idea, filling a real need.

So, I went to HighTechXL and there I was impressed. I thought, “These are real startup kids, willing to do anything, work any hours and go the distance just like the American startups I was used to working with.”

I was right.

Since then, Usono stalled in the pandemic like so many startups. Moreover, they might have been too early to market and focusing on the wrong markets. They lost CEO Tchang, and there was even a moment where Victor and Jori thought about pulling the plug.

But the duo decided their device has serious potential and since then, they’ve had a number of big victories including:

  • a working partnership with Chicago-based GE Healthcare, a spinoff of the global conglomerate General Electric.
  • a partnership with Italian football club Torino FC. The Torino medical team will use ProbeFix Dynamic with two different ultrasound probes in their training facilities.
  • a partnership with Vancouver, Canada-based Clarius Mobile Health, a provider of high-definition handheld ultrasound systems, to introduce a wireless and wearable ultrasound imaging solution for researchers studying the anatomy of people while they move.

So, we sat down with Victor earlier this month at Usono offices in High Tech Campus Eindhoven’s Startup Hub to find out what’s next for Usono.

Dispatches: What’s the biggest news you’ve had? Is it the partnership with GE?

Victor: Recently? Yeah. Internationally, having GE Healthcare as a big partner is definitely the biggest breakthrough. To have, you know, years and years of people trusting us and customers trusting us and a big company publicly endorsing us. Also, the whole process … they’re a very nice company and working with them feels natural.

Are you working with GE people here in Europe?

Mostly. Basically, the team of the GE Healthcare ultrasound business. They have the handheld devices, which are the portable wireless Vscan Air scanner. They have a team of people all over Europe. So, we work with people in France, the UK, Germany and also Norway. But I think that’s a cool thing. It feels like a team. But then, they’re all over the place in Europe.

Which football team are you working with?

Recently we announced a collaboration with Torino FC.

And is that a big deal?

I mean, it’s not such a big brand as GE Healthcare, obviously. But to become the official supplier of a Series A football team is obviously a big deal. And I think the cool thing is that we’ve already had a relationship with them for over two years. So, at that time, they had a radiologist working for them who wanted a ProbeFix but went with another brand, which is basically a competitor of GE. And so, since then, we already have a relationship with them. And now they have new people on the medical team and they again approached us. And now it’s us having a direct relation, official partnership with them.

So, you’re changing your strategy to building Usono through clients and clinicians who are also brand evangelists?

We work with clinical experts, well-known people in the industry who basically tell our story. So, last week, we had a really, really well-known professor – a globally well-known professor – from Spain, who did two courses in Mexico using our products. And that’s so much more valuable than if I would tell them about the products.

Yeah, I can see if you get them into the hands of the right people, then all of a sudden, you start to get good buzz, good word of mouth.

That’s exactly what we’re doing now. So, that’s the whole strategy this year – ambassadors, big brands and distributors. Ambassadors like Dr. Fernando Jimenez from Spain. Brands like GE. We also closed the deal with Clarius. Brands like Torino FC.

We have some pending deals and close to getting the contracts. We are in conversations with a few agents, distributors in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Mexico. We already have dealers in Taiwan and Japan. So, we’re basically, again, building the distributor network.

The early approach using ProbeFix for coronary didn’t work …

It takes a lot of time for the medical scene to accept (a new product) if there’s no proof. And then there’s always the difference between evidence-based medicine and experience-based medicine. And there are people who wait for more and more and more and more evidence, scientific evidence. And there are some people who are using more experienced-based medicine. And there are some people who just see our product, understand it and love it and want it.

So, you were maybe a little early to market?

Yeah, definitely. And then we decided, okay, we scale down, but we’re not letting go. That’s what we had to do in 2019 and 2020. We considered closing down the whole business. But then we said, okay, there’s so much potential in this. Why would we close it?

Six or seven years ago, we spoke to a lot of physiotherapists and sports doctors, and they hardly used ultrasound at that time. And now most of them use ultrasound. And now we feel like the time is almost there for them to start to scan dynamically.

You know what? We’ve got an eight-year head start on everybody. We have customers, we have the markets, we asked connections, we have everything set in place to make this grow and scale in the next 18 months or so.

So, that means everybody’s sort of catching up to where you were in 2016.

Yeah, and I mean, that would be in an ideal scenario. That will take maybe even 10 years to prove that with ultrasound and our products, we could eliminate some exams in the MRI machines, because the MRI is very expensive.

The MRI has long waiting lists, etc. And it’s only static imaging. We think that some of the injuries could be detected with ultrasounds in a dynamic setting, way easier and way quicker than waiting for a very expensive MRI in hospital. So, we basically want to bring the ultrasound, the imaging, the diagnosis to a more real life setting.

Do you want to say how much the ProbeFix costs?

Not yet. In two months roughly, because there’s a bit of news to come. Our products are going to be CE marked. The past two or three years, we only sold them to researchers. But if a doctor, physiotherapist, etc., want to officially use the product for clinical applications, according to the new European rules, yes.

So, that’s high, high highest priority at this moment.

The products are going to be CE marked in a couple of months and come in at a lower price. And, yeah, totally scale up again. And in parallel to that, we have a few custom development tracks with some international customers for the knee.

How many people are working with you now? I mean, how many people are keeping track of all this?

Basically, it’s a team of three. It’s me as CEO, Jori our CTO, and we hired Paul Venema in May as our chief commercial officer/commercial director. He’s a Dutch guy, but he lives in Antwerp. And he used to work with Physiosupplies, which is the market leader of physio, online physiotherapy-related products in the Benelux. They have an online business in around 15 countries in Europe. And he was actually hired by them as interim commercial director a couple of years ago and basically helped grow their business quite significantly.

He stopped working with them December last year, and he approached us via one of our investors. And it was like love at first sight, you know? Okay, we’re going to work together. We’re going to make this work. Good fit. Yeah, really good fit.

Obviously, Jori and I are engineers, graduates from the Eindhoven University of Technology. I honestly believe that we have good commercial (ideas) and we can close some good deals. We can do the sales and the marketing and everything. But to have a real commercial guy on board is really good. And I think one of the nicest things is that we already did a lot of strategizing and a lot of like concepts of how to change the business last year, but we never really found the time, the guts or the balls to do it.

At the time, we had all these plans. “Okay, we have to make the product a bit cheaper. We have to do the product differentiation. We have to work with distributors in certain countries, et cetera, et cetera.”

We hadn’t managed to do it yet, and when Paul came in, he said, “What’s the plan? … that’s exactly how I see it. We don’t need any meetings. We’re going to do it.” A lot of companies in our industry, and even people, he already knew because of his work with service suppliers. So, that’s really good to have him on board.

Funny, because we’ve been here for every one of these periods in Usono’s history. I remember when you got your first distributor. And that was a big deal. I feel like I’ve watched this whole thing. But only now is Usono really starting out?

Yep. That is, my wife always tells me I’m crazy. But yeah, we have to be so patient in this business. I can see that anything medically related is going to take a long time, even when our product is quite simple. It still completely changes the workflow, the perception, the application of the medical specialists.