The formula "Shoot for the sun to hit the Moon" has never been fairer than during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. The coronavirus disease, which has made half of the world's population stay at home, not only fails to prevent ExoAtlet from engaging in its core business as part of preparing for launching its medical exoskeletons to the European market, but also gives it a chance to progress under a much more global project related to artificial intelligence.
This information was shared with Sk.ru by Ekaterina Bereziy, the co-founder of ExoAtlet, in her telephone interview from Luxembourg, where the European headquarters of the Skolkovo resident are based. She also shared her observations that remote work increases labor productivity many folds.
Ekaterina Bereziy and her colleagues in the Luxembourg office of ExoAtlet. Photo courtesy: ExoAtlet.
How does the company manage to pay salaries to its nine employees who are locked in their Luxembourg apartments? What happens to the rent for an idle office? What measures does Luxembourg take to support businesses and how can they be leveraged by the startup? As viewed by a Russian high-tech entrepreneur, who finds herself in the middle of Europe during the outbreak of the most serious crisis of the 21st century.
"This is what it looks like: they turned off the lights and said that the night would now last for several weeks, rather than for eight hours," Ekaterina Bereziy says. "Those who don't feel sleepy are welcome to do their homework. We are doing our homework."
ExoAtlet is among the global leaders manufacturing exoskeletons for the rehabilitation and social adaptation of people with lower paraplegia. But the world is now interested in disposable masks and latex gloves, rather than exoskeletons. Access to Europe's clinics is closed; doctors are busy addressing the acute issues of patient care — not the launch of new projects or new techniques. Will ExoAtlet manage to survive this crisis?
Ekaterina Bereziy: Remote work has proven to be many times more productive. Photo courtesy: ExoAtlet.
"Although Europe's lockdown has been extended until the end of April, the whole of Europe in fact works," Ms. Bereziy says. "All ministries, all civil servants, and all banks operate in Luxembourg; delivery services function normally and people work during their usual working hours. A variety of business support tools have been actively implemented.
All 9 employees of our representative office stay at home; we do not go to the office. We call each other on a regular basis. A few large-scale processes have been launched and we call them our "homework." We are preparing materials to work with distributors, training media for presentations at clinics, and gather all our academic collaborations.
We now plan to apply for one of the biggest grants, the Horizon 2020."
This refers to the European Union's largest ever program to support research and innovation, with a total of EUR 80bn allocations for seven years: these funds plus the private investments raised by the program are expected to help breakthrough ideas make their way to the market. Structure-wise, the program consists of a certain set of calls. ExoAtlet has found a call, which is aligned with the company's ideas and plans. The grant application to be prepared should be such that the other party, too, would make sure that this alignment exists, which is not a trivial task due to many reasons.
Only the projects that amalgamate at least ten collaborates from Europe are eligible to apply for grant funding. ExoAtlet has fifteen such partners in different countries of the EU, ranging from Portugal to Germany: these include clinical research centers and personal data handling companies, plus a corporate partner that manufactures measurement devices. Each partner accomplishes its own tasks, which are to be described in as much detail as possible, altogether expected to form an overall pattern of individual tiles, defining not only the ultimate goal of work, but also modeling the entire future process of research, including its financial parameters.
In the first approximation the main idea of the project is to analyze the medical data of patients being recorded with the aim of predicting improvements in the course of rehabilitation; this requires the creation of artificial intelligence that would forecast the effectiveness of rehabilitation. During phase one, the effectiveness of rehabilitation will be measured using exoskeleton. In the future, "this model can be developed for the rehabilitation of anything, anybody, and on anything," Ekaterina Bereziy underlines.
"Working in an incredibly focused manner"
Surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has given an extra chance to the project authors. The deadlines for the submission of applications in the Health section have been postponed by two months due to obvious reasons. "It offers us a stunning opportunity to give medical researchers (they are researchers and not medical practitioners, who work within hospitals) time to write the texts of grant applications," ExoAtlet's co-founder comments. "Which is really great."
Photo courtesy: ExoAtlet.
"Of course, one month when everybody stays at home means working in an incredibly focused manner," the interlocutor of Sk.ru continues. "We have noticed that everybody works harder by several times as compared with office settings. I don't know why. It is possibly due to the fact that people do not have to travel. It is possibly because work from home is the only way to avoid household chores. People feel more comfortable and possibly even more interested amid this reality: you can immure yourself in your study and work."
Ekaterina disagrees with the assumption that the fear of job losses is among the mobilizing factors, at least not in her company. "I have not noticed this fear in my staff," she says. "When you are incarcerated, you have a chance to deliver the tasks you have wanted to do for a long time in order to progress further. It gives you satisfaction."
No matter how morally satisfying, remote "homework" must still be paid just like office work. How does ExoAtlet cope amid the global crisis?
"We have investment budget for this year that was initially planned," Ms. Bereziy explains. "We were lucky to now live within the investments raised as early as 2018 with our South Korean partners and not as part of sales revenue and this year was planned as pre-marketing and market launch for the European office."
Another favorable circumstance for the company is that ExoAtlet was audited as part of European certification (CE marking) before the crisis commenced.
"Once isolation is over, hopefully, it will happen in the next two to three months, we will be able to proceed to market launch," Ekaterina notes. "We are already communicating with the distributors we met in prior years during the exhibitions; interacting with them via email, Zoom, Skype, and Hangouts, as well as through videoconferencing. We are preparing the necessary materials, offers, and contracts. The goal for this month is to generate the entire document package that is necessary to prepare for intense fieldwork."
It all sounds at least odd under the existing circumstances, where hospitals globally face a desperate shortage of essential means to save lives today. What makes the co-founder of ExoAtlet feel confident that money for rehabilitation equipment will be in place in the foreseeable future?
"Exoskeletons are very far from the most expensive equipment, but they are still extremely effective in terms of patient recovery," the interlocutor of Sk.ru insists. "We can see a strong interest shown by distributors, who monitor the market and communicate with their customers and doctors. The need for exoskeletons for rehabilitation is likely to even grow, since in principle health care will see a new flow of money for modernization, improvement, development, and elaboration of new approaches. In this sense, the future potential is greater than until recently.
We talk to different investment foundations and we are expecting a new round of investments this year. Everybody is truly waiting for the end of April. The main question is how long the crisis will last. There are preconditions for countries to open shortly and start injecting money in order to restore the interrupted processes. Medtech-oriented foundations are highly likely to invest in B2B, where we belong. The foundations had and still have the money; it has not gone. In this sense, it is not quite clear what can prevent foundations from investing.
Apparently, all government institutions will spend money on health care development, which means that the startups and companies, who create effective innovative solutions, will be able to integrate them easier in the existing medical practices. As for ourselves, we will achieve CE marking and will be able, from the standpoint of regulation, to use exoskeletons in Europe's medical practices."
How Luxembourg supports businesses
The survival of a high-tech startup in the middle of Europe amid a large-scale crisis also entails the ability to leverage the same support measures, which were announced, in particular, in Luxembourg.
Here you can apply for several programs. The best one is the reimbursement of 80 % of the salary for employees of the companies, who suffered due to business restrictions. In other words, 80 % of salaries will be reimbursed by the government during the months, when employees stay at home. The process is, however, not automated; the relevant application is to be prepared correctly.
The government also provides tax extensions in respect of monthly taxes, such as salary tax, allowing businesses to pay taxes out of the revenue to be generated, when everything reopens and not now.
Despite the crisis, ExoAtlet intends to provide the end consumer with the technologies that the Skolkovo resident has brought to Europe. Photo courtesy: ExoAtlet.
ExoAtlet has been granted a rent deferment. The company's office is located in Technoport, the Luxembourg counterpart of the Skolkovo Technopark. Presumably, the Ministry of the Economy of Luxembourg will reimburse Technoport for lost rental payments from tenants.
There is one more very effective support measure being taken in Luxembourg. "As everyone is staying at home with children, it makes life much harder, so you can apply for child care leave and then the government of Luxembourg will reimburse 100 % of the salary," Ekaterina says. "All Luxembourg children have been staying at home for three weeks as part of remote schooling and they will continue staying at home until late April or early May. Parents still have to work though; the work process has not been suspended. And if you are unable to perform your job responsibilities, you can officially ask for a leave that is payable by the government and not the company."
Finally, previous support programs are still in place, ranging from funding for business development to local Luxembourg grants, one of which ExoAtlet is now applying for. "It helps us to avoid the discontinuation of development and to provide the end consumer with the technologies we have brought to Europe", Ekaterina Bereziy sums it up.