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Subspecialties Professional Development, Retina

Turning Dreams into Reality

What is the goal of Retina Implant AG?

WW:  We exist to develop a retinal implant (hence the name). We performed the basic research. We applied for and were awarded the patents. It is a big idea and we believe that our company that can turn it into reality, and bring a device to market.

How big is the problem that you’re tackling? What is your market?

WW: Approximately one person in every four thousand carries the gene for retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and they will all experience vision loss over their lifetime. Not all of them will become functionally blind, but we estimate that about 15 percent of people with RP will, eventually. That’s our market: the inclusion criterion for our device is no functional vision.

RR: For people in this position, it’s a very large problem, because they can become blind.  With our chip they can see again, and can recognize objects.

Several German research institutes came together to form Retina Implant. How important was that the breadth of input?

WW: It has been crucial. The animal model data from the research institutes were convincing; without them, neither Reinhard nor I would have joined the company, nor would any investors. The clinical results from the patients in the pilot study have turned out to be almost identical to the results from the animal experiments so the basic data from the turn of the millennium formed a very solid platform for what we do today.

How easy has it been to get venture capital (VC) to development the company?

WW: That’s an interesting story. Reinhard and I joined the company in 2004 and spent the first year visiting VC companies across Europe. They all listened to our business plans, and they all decided it was too risky. In 2006, by which time we had already implanted a device into a patient, we were approached by a New York-based VC group. They were ready to invest, but couldn’t arrange the funds quickly enough – we were very close to bankruptcy. By chance, a wealthy German entrepreneur (who wishes to remain anonymous) happened to visit Professor Eberhard Zrenner – our medical advisor and founder of the company. The entrepreneur had a good friend with RP, and he asked Zrenner what he could do with his money. Zrenner told him, “Well, there’s a nice German technology just about to be sold to the US because there is no German investor.” Immediately, the entrepreneur said “I’m going to invest into that!”

And you received the money on the same day?

WW: More or less; within four days, we had €7.5 million in the bank. We signed a contract with the entrepreneur that was one-and-a-half pages long; the New York VC company’s contract ran to several hundred pages.

That individual remains our major shareholder – although we do have other shareholders with smaller investments. He has continued to fund us through several further rounds, and he is prepared to continue funding until the break-even point is reached.

Could you do it again today?

RR: Looking back to 2006, we were very lucky; however, if we started again today and met the same investors, they would invest in us again. This is an “ethical” investment – the old dream of making blind people see. If you are very wealthy and can help make this dream a reality, what could be better than that?

WW: Yes, I agree. Also, some of the VC companies that were afraid of the risk in 2005 are now ready to invest in the company. But today, we have to say, “No thank you, it’s too late.”

RR:  We recently achieved the CE mark and celebrated our 10th year as a company. When we met with the very first investors, business angels who put up money in 2003 and 2004, they said, “We have not seen a return on our money, but if you want more money, please ask. This work is valuable and important to us, we are happy that we invested and would do it again.”

How would each of you characterize your management styles?

RR: Our staff enjoy a lot of freedom. We manage by objectives. Everyone has written objectives, which are reviewed yearly, and all employees know the objectives of everyone else, including Walter and myself. This openness ensures that we all know what each other is working on, and we can find ways to help one another and cooperate.

WW: I’d describe it as something similar to a sheepdog – generally letting people do what they are best at doing, but if they take a wrong turn I run around and bark a little bit.

RR: What’s also very important is that we have no hierarchies. All of the staff report to either Walter or myself. We sit down together every week for a company meeting, but we’re not there to solve problems, we’re just updating one another on progress in development, in clinical engineering, and so on. Everybody is informed, everybody knows where we are; I think that’s crucial.

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