16 May 2022 StemSight develops cell therapies for corneal blindness using human stem cells We interviewed Laura Koivusalo, the CEO of StemSight. They are one of the award winners of Tech Tour Nordic Innovation Fair 2021 and European Healthtech Investment Forum 2022. Our company, StemSight, develops cell therapies for corneal blindness using human stem cells. The technology behind StemSight had been brewing within Tampere University, in Heli Skottman’s research group since 2014, but academic funding can only take a project like this so far. Three years ago, we realized the best way to help blind patients with our technology was through a dedicated spin-out company, but it was only last year that we finally took the final step to entrepreneurship. The road to getting new stem cell-based therapies to the market is risky, and there really aren’t any well-established paths to follow. That’s why it took a certain level of courage - and belief in our product - to take that leap. Our original founder team is composed of four scientists, all women, and in the beginning, we were looking for some sort of “commercial champion” – a professional CEO – to lead our team. I was finishing my PhD thesis in the research group, when I started pitching our company in all sorts of pitching events and competitions. At one such event, one of the judges came to me afterwards, encouraging us to stop looking for the CEO from the outside. “Anyone of you can do it,” he said. And that was a turning point for us. The team chose me to lead them, which I considered a great vote of confidence. We knew that we would need an investment right after starting the company, as we were facing significant patent fees quite early on. So, we started talking with different investors already in 2020, a year-and-a-half before we finally spun out the company. The biggest challenge was not to land investor meetings; the Covid pandemic had just hit the world, and we even got a few big international investors to take a call with us. The challenge was to get to the second meeting, probably because we were at such an early stage back then that it was not easy to take us seriously. But slowly we were able to build ourselves a credible business plan, and some good relationships with a few early-stage investors. At the beginning of 2021, I went on parental leave as my son was born, while we were still actively engaged in negotiations with investors and the university. This gave my co-founders a great chance to step up and show the investors how committed our entire team was to the company. We completed the registration of the company in May 2021, and we got the 500 k € seed funding with the Finnish deep-tech VC Voima Ventures finalized by September. The entire process of starting the company put us on a steep learning curve. Now we are much better equipped for fundraising in the future, understanding what the investors really want to see and how the whole investment process technically works. Now we are working full steam to get to our next milestones before opening the next funding round. For us, that means we need to gather the necessary animal data for our first product to show it can work in humans as well and apply for the orphan drug designation. That would put us on a fast track towards helping patients suffering from corneal blindness.