The technical team of the Malta Institute of Accountants, interviews co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Umana Medical Technologies.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
I believe I am very persistent, focused and a risk taker.
What led to the change from a researcher to an entrepreneur?
This was very easy, I hate stalling a good project when the research funds finish, and unfortunately that is very often the case when working in academia. I wanted to be in a position where I could follow an idea/ concept from start to finish.
Considering that the setup of both companies are based on two innovative ideas, what is the key to generating new ideas?
In this field it is a combination of the need to help others and being in the right place at the right time. The idea of the first research project started from the desire to help a child when living in France. In the case of the other project I was approached by two professors, who had developed a material, but needed someone to develop it into a commercial product. In the medical world only 3 in 100 medical technology start-ups succeed, therefore there is a lot of pressure in order to make it work.
It is unfortunate that even though you would like to help people, feasibility of the project is key. If the product will only help a few people then it cannot be developed and if possible we try to find alternative ways how to help the people involved. On the other hand, if it affects 10-15% of the population, then the project is viable.
What is unique about your business?
It is a niche market. Before starting out the project we performed the necessary research and feasibility studies. This enabled us to ensure that there is a market for the product and that its features distinguished it to the other available products.
What are your responsibilities as a business owner?
The heftiest responsibility is towards the patients. In view of the fact that we produce medical devices it is a highly regulated environment. We are subject to a number of EU Directives and legal requirements. Other responsibilities include the usual legal and financial responsibilities and meeting the expectations of the investors. Another important responsibility is the well-being of my employees and the security of their jobs.
When you started the first company what where the main challenges that you had to overcome?
At the beginning it was very difficult, yet it was also a very exciting period. Together with a colleague of mine we started developing medical devices from home. Obtaining finance was one of the initial challenges and often meant not earning a salary for a number of months.
In your opinion what was the catalyst for the company’s growth?
A catalyst for the company’s growth is vision. You need to execute the vision you set at the outset. Although one also has to be realistic. In our sector another important thing is the technology and product appeal.
At what stage did you engage people to help you execute your ideas?
Knowing one’s strengths and limitations is important. I believe that my greatest strength is that of an entrepreneur. During the initial stages the input of the entrepreneur is idea generation and risk taking. As the company matures the role of the entrepreneur changes to that of a CEO, with more focus on setting up an appropriate structure for the company. I do not believe in starting big, but a company has to grow steadily. However I believe that the right people need to be involved with the adequate expertise starting from the early stages of a company.
Finance for SMEs is challenging. How did you overcome this and obtain investment for your ventures?
One of the crucial points is establishing a good relationship with your bankers and building a relationship of trust. In depth research and preparation is key to obtain other sources of finance. This enabled us to identify potential investors and meet with the prospective investors.
Other sources of finance included obtaining support from EU funding. Although it involves time and resources to apply for the requested funds. However this was vital particularly in the early stages of the start-up.
Considering the fierce competition in today’s business world, how do you highlight your company’s competitive advantage?
What we do is analyse our competitor’s product, study it and make ours better. In the case of our first the product was unique. However this time it is different nonetheless the product is also very innovative and is protected via patent legislation.
How do you promote your business and build a successful customer relation?
At the outset I start by getting an understanding the operating environment within a specific country. This is necessary to determine whether it is viable to enter the market in that country and to identify eligible distributors. We operate using a network of distribution partners. Once the possible distributing partners are identified, they are asked whether they are interested in selling the product and are thereafter requested to submit a three-year marketing plan.
How do you define success and what is the best way to achieve long term success?
It’s all a matter of culture and client loyalty. One of our values is that whatever we do is targeted towards the end user. If you actually build a company based on the wellbeing of your end customer and instil that culture in your employees, it will lead to long-term success.
What do you feel is your greatest entrepreneurial achievement?
In the case of the first company the first important achievement was actually managing to get the necessary certification considering all the challenges we had to face and the lack of experience. The other is when after a lot of hard work we managed to go public on one of the largest stock exchange in the world.
What is your greatest support when facing up hardships in business?
No doubt – family.
What is your greatest fear when it in running an SME?
Relevance. Will my product be relevant to the user?
In your opinion, what do you think are the 5 key skills needed to manage an SMEs in the best possible way and enable its growth and expansion?
The primary skill is to set a clear vision. This needs to be set before the inception of the SME.
Another is to be hands-on and not role specific.
Flexibility is crucial for the success of an SME
Determination and persistence are extremely important, because it’s so easy to give up when all the obstacles start crossing your path, you need to persevere to succeed.
You have to accept criticism and be willing to learn.
Do you believe there is a winning formula for running an SME? And what is yours?
No I do not think so. Everyone has their own way of doing it. The reason why you would succeed is because in the end you did it your way. Although I do believe that being passionate about what you do is essential.