Inside an Irish MedTech startup: A Notre Dame student's perspective

March 19, 2024

by Oscar Gleeson

MedTech insights

Meet Oscar Gleeson.

Oscar recently graduated from University College Dublin with a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacology. In the summer of 2023, he headed to the United States to pursue the ESTEEM Graduate Program at the University of Notre Dame. 

ESTEEM was founded in 2009 as the first multi-disciplinary graduate program at the University of Notre Dame. “ESTEEM enables students to discover, define, develop, and launch a lifelong engagement with the intersection of innovation, entrepreneurship, and their own personal "why".”

We asked Oscar to share a short blog series to provide some insight into the programme and his work to date with CergenX. 

How the Notre Dame ESTEEM graduate program led me to work with an Irish MedTech start-up

The ESTEEM program is an 11-month Master of Science in Engineering, Science, and Technology Entrepreneurship. It’s not your typical Master of Science program. It breaks away from the conventional approach by immersing participants in the entrepreneurial sandbox, focusing on the practical aspects of entrepreneurship rather than just theoretical study. Catering to individuals with STEM backgrounds at various career stages, ESTEEM equips us with the skills and experiences necessary to launch new businesses and become innovators. It's often likened to a mini-MBA. 

Irish students of the ESTEEM Class of 2024:

The cornerstone of the ESTEEM program is the capstone project. Every student collaborates with an industry partner throughout the year to build out a commercialisation roadmap for a new product or service. Numerous companies enter partnerships with ESTEEM each year, ranging from emerging MedTech startups like CergenX to established biotech companies like Amicus Therapeutics and tech companies like SpaceX and Lenovo, allowing students to lead impactful commercialisation projects.

At the beginning of the program, we went through the Capstone matching process—a series of interviews and rankings to find the right fit. Among the various biotech and MedTech options, CergenX caught my attention early on. CergenX is a Neonatal Neurotechnology start-up aiming to change the standard of care in neonatal health. The team is currently developing a medical device that leverages AI to identify newborn infants who are most at risk of brain injury.

I interviewed with five companies and then ranked the companies based on my preferences. Additionally, the companies told ESTEEM which students they’d ideally like to work with. I was delighted to be matched with the CergenX team and have the opportunity to contribute to a project that can significantly improve newborn healthcare. There was also something quite unique about working with an Irish startup from the U.S. and playing a role in their entry into the American market. 

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with CergenX so far; it’s been an incredible learning experience, having the opportunity to gain insight into all aspects of what’s involved in bringing innovative research to life. I look forward to sharing some of the work I’ve been doing over the past few months in my next couple of blog posts. 

A snapshot of my experience so far 

The ESTEEM program revolves around the capstone projects, with all the coursework geared toward helping us succeed in these projects. One of the key aspects of crafting a robust commercialisation and go-to-market (GTM) strategy is getting out of the building and grounding it in real-life experiences. Therefore, a core requirement of the program is to conduct 50+ stakeholder interviews to gain an in-depth understanding of the U.S. maternity and infant landscape. This has led me to connect with an array of healthcare professionals, from neonatologists to pediatric neurologists, paediatricians, OBGYNs, and neonatal intensive care staff, to understand their challenges fully. 

Access to the Notre Dame network has been crucial in facilitating this process. The Notre Dame Alumni Network is widely regarded as one of the top alumni networks in the U.S., and its power is truly remarkable. To date, I’ve spoken with over 45 healthcare professionals from some of the leading U.S. hospitals, and it has been instrumental in our progress over the past months. The consistent willingness of alumni to offer me their time has been frankly quite surprising, often including follow-up sessions to answer any questions I may have. These exceptionally busy people often open their networks to me and connect me with their colleagues. 

Engaging with these healthcare professionals has been a fascinating experience, not only in understanding clinical problems but also in unravelling the challenges faced by those on the front lines. It’s been eye-opening, to say the least. Noting down statements such as, “There’s probably a whole population… being missed around the United States” or “My reality is that I’m seeing kinds of kids that have been missed”  from Neonatologists at level IV hospitals shows the need for a quick, straightforward assessment of brain function at birth. 

The tools available in the lower tier hospitals are often basic, relying almost entirely on clinical judgment, and many lack the capability to conduct an EEG within the crucial 6-hour timeframe for initiating cooling. As one Neonatolgist put it, “ If you have some sort of device that does not need specialist interpretation, it’s going to be extremely important.”

This initial phase of the project was primarily focused on conducting interviews to understand the clinical problem central to CergenX's mission. However, my days aren’t solely filled with interviews. I've also been exploring other areas, such as reimbursement and distribution, and have been involved in conducting a market analysis of the U.S. maternity and infant landscape. 

It’s safe to say the last few months have involved a steep learning curve, but I’m looking forward to bringing everything I’ve learned into this next phase of the project over the coming months. 

Key lessons learned

1. The power of networking

In my seven months in the program, I’ve realised the pivotal role a network plays in achieving success. I’ve often heard that nothing in the U.S. is achieved without a network- this is an understatement. Building connections, especially through the Notre Dame network, has been invaluable in my work with CergenX. Access to this network has facilitated engagements with leading health professionals and hospital executives, offering crucial insights into the U.S. maternity and infant landscape. On a personal level, it has opened doors to great mentors who have significantly assisted me in my professional development. 

2. Embracing uncertainty

From day one of the ESTEEM program, embracing uncertainty became a mantra. The programme's focus on pushing us outside our comfort zones was evident from the get-go. On our first day, we were thrown into a startup sprint and given 48 hours to create and pitch a new business idea. Navigating the shift from a scientific background to the world of a start-up presented a challenge, as clear-cut answers were seldom readily available. Embracing ambiguity and making decisions based on the best judgment became key. The unique fail-fast culture encouraged by U.S. startups contrasts significantly with the somewhat risk-averse mindset we often adopt back home. People here are very accustomed to seizing opportunities without fear of failure. I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty - and the possibilities - that come with launching a business.

3. Addressing the urgency: Innovating newborn brain health

“Right now, if you see a baby having any movement, you have no idea if it’s a seizure or not. It’s basically a 50% chance of being right” –Neonatologist, level IV, Children’s Hospital.

It's one thing to grasp a scientific problem; it's another to comprehend doctors' daily challenges. The biggest revelation from the stakeholder interviews has been hearing firsthand the difficulties that clinicians often face in accurately identifying newborns with neonatal encephalopathy. It’s become clear that there is often uncertainty around whether a baby needs to undergo therapeutic hypothermia, making it a 50/50 decision in many cases. This brings extra meaning to the work CergenX is doing to advance neonatal neurological technology. 

4. Continuous learning: The startup mindset

The past few months underscored the importance of continuous learning, especially in the dynamic startup landscape. Recognising that you are rarely the ultimate expert fosters an environment where learning from others is essential. This mindset is particularly crucial in a startup setting, where the opportunity to delve into various aspects of a company presents a constant learning curve.