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Askel Healthcare takes steps towards healthier pets

The COPLA Scaffold implant gives new life to dogs and horses by boosting natural healing mechanisms.Askel Healthcare

This Finnish health startup has discovered the fountain of youth – at least for worn out joints. Fuelled by a passion for animals, its cartilage repair innovation, initially designed for humans, is now making its way to slightly furrier markets.

Damaged cartilage is one of the most common health problems around the world, causing impaired movement to a billion people. Even so, the available treatment methods are mainly temporary or involve artificial joints.

In Finland, this lack of an effective natural remedy sparked a project in 2009 that eventually led to a completely new way of healing joints. However, when science was turned into business the focus changed. A significant gap in the market was identified.

“Severe osteoarthritis in pets is often a question of life and death,” says Virpi Muhonen, the CEO and co-founder of Askel Healthcare. “We realised that there is no treatment in veterinary medicine that would permanently heal cartilage.”

Until now, that is.

Scaffolding for cartilage repair

Nonetheless, the wellbeing of our four-legged friends was far from being on the radar back in 2009. The original research project by the University of Helsinki and Tampere University of Technology sought to prevent the emergence of osteoarthritis in humans by regrowing damaged cartilage.

“The idea was to create an environment on the surface of the joint where natural cartilage regeneration would be possible, so that permanent healing could take place,” Muhonen recalls.

Following much trial and error, the project resulted in a new type of implant, COPLA Scaffold, a long-term solution that has not been seen on the market before.

The biodegradable implant temporarily fills the hole that the worn-out cartilage has left in the joint. It then eventually dissolves while new cartilage is formed, leaving room for new, healthy tissue. Image: Askel Healthcare

The innovation lies in the implant’s texture, which is porous enough to provide fertile ground for new cells, but at the same time is capable of adapting to the heavy loading of the weight-bearing joint, acting as a temporary cartilage while the tissue heals.

“The idea is to treat the damage when it is still small,” says Muhonen. “In a way, it is like reversing time, taking the joint back to a healthy start.”

Keeping animals company

Muhonen and her Askel Healthcare co-founder, Anne-Marie Haaparanta, actually already had a working product back in 2012, when the original research project ended. But they were left with questions about how to turn it into a business. Enter Tekes (nowadays Business Finland), whose funding, advice and contacts enabled the commercialisation of the scientific results.

During several years of development, it became clear that a change of direction was needed, as the market approval of the product for human use would become too expensive and too time consuming. The focus promptly switched to animals.

“When the aim is a new medical treatment method, it’s not much help if it doesn’t move further than an academic article,” says Virpi Muhonen (far left). Image: Askel Healthcare

“We realised that horses and dogs have the exact same problems, and animal healthcare is a growing business sector,” says Muhonen. “So, we decided to forget about human knees and hips for a while, and instead put all of our efforts into the veterinarian market.”

Askel Healthcare was founded in March 2017. By October, the company had sold its first implants in Finland.

“We have received really positive feedback about how painless it is for dogs to move shortly after the operation – they just heal really fast,” Muhonen enthuses.

Making room for cartilage repair

Now, the young startup is marching forward with increasing speed – and 650 000 euros of recently raised crowdfunding. The money is being used to open its production unit this spring, which will then see COPLA Scaffold entering international markets.

Sales are also set to commence in the UK this year, where there is already a network of interested veterinarians. While the natural next step initially was to establish themselves on the European market, a happy coincidence is taking them further afield: one of the British orthopaedists they met in the UK has since moved to Florida.

“This then lead to a distributor that we will probably sign a deal with, as soon as we get the production price fixed,” says Muhonen.

She emphasises the importance of pricing the product in a way that prevents it from being a luxury product for performance enhancement, and instead makes it widely available for animal wellbeing.

“This is not only about making money, but about our love for animals,” Muhonen summarises.

Good News from Finland is published by Finnfacts, which is part of Business Finland.

By: Elisa Häggström