Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Francesco Cecchini

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Francesco Cecchini is a co-Founder and CEO of Gondola Medical Technologies, a Swiss MedTech company offering Gondola AMPS, a clinically-proven, side-effect free and non-invasive therapy to improve walking, empowering neurological patients to move better and live better.

Previously, Mr. Cecchini has been manager, CFO and investor in several companies at international level, including a company listed at the Milan stock exchange.

Mr. Cecchini holds a degree in Business and Economics from Bergamo University, Italy, and has attended post-graduate courses at the University of California at Berkeley, USA.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Francesco Cecchini

Can you tell us more about Gondola MeDICAL Technologies?

We developed a therapeutic device and an innovative treatment approach to reduce walking impairment in neurological disorders, specifically Parkinson’s disease, stroke and several other conditions that are chronic; meaning that when they are diagnosed, the patient will live for a lifetime with those disorders which impact their independence and quality of life, very often with a walking or balance impairments.

Gondola was created by two co-founders, myself with a business background and Stefano Tassin, who is experienced in neurology and rehabilitation: he is the inventor of the treatment approach delivered via our therapeutic device. Before starting Gondola, Stefano had understood how to interact with the central nervous system, starting from the peripheral nervous system, with non-invasive stimulations.

In simple words, by stimulating very specific points in the feet of the patient, Stefano understood that it was possible to interact with the spinal cord and the brain, wherein the mechanisms to manage balance and movements reside. Patients living with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease or stroke, in most cases, do experience walking inability and balancing problems, causing falls. Those problems have a direct impact on their quality of life and their independence.

We have developed the Gondola Therapeutic Device to enable those patients to receive our treatment approach directly at home and to be able to restore a better, improved walking, be more independent and enjoy a better quality of life.

What made you found Gondola medical Technologies?

When I met Stefano, back in 2010, I was working in a totally different field. I have worked across several industries including papermaking, consulting, finance, IT and so on, in listed, non-listed, private companies, etc. 

The spark that made me decide to leave everything and start Gondola were the videos that Stefano showed me where patients who were unable to walk autonomously in the first video, were able to walk independently in the second video, after using our therapeutic device.

It was so touching to me. It gave me a strong motivation to be a part of it. From the beginning until now, it has never been about money. It is not about the market potential. It is mainly about the challenge to make available to patients something new that is badly needed by them.

Tell us more about your journey so far.

I met my co-founder in 2010. We incorporated the company in 2011. We immediately started on one side developing the therapeutic device, and on the other side doing clinical studies and clinical research activities.

In 2012, we received the CE mark, which is the approval to market the device in Europe, and we started placing the device on the market in Switzerland, Italy, France, and now in Germany. Until 2015, the company was fully owned by the two founders.

We then decided to enter into a new challenge, to have financial investors and had two fantastic angel investors join us. We later did other funding rounds with more investors.

In 2019, we won the European Horizon 2020 grant. Despite 2020 being a challenging year due to Covid, we have been able to grow a lot. Our team grew from six people at the beginning of 2020 to sixteen people today. We brought on board a lot of new competencies and talents that were mandatory to structure the company and prepare for growth. Today we have also a very qualified clinical team and are ready to go to the next level.

What are you working on at the moment?

We have recently finished a very large clinical study that was designed together with the FDA where the outcomes were positive. We started a new clinical study in Germany in January 2021 to further validate the usefulness of our device in addressing clinical needs of Parkinson’s patients.

Furthermore, we are starting a collaboration with one of the main U.S. research hospitals to support our entrance into the US market. This collaboration marks an important advancement for our company, since it is the first time we partner with a leading US healthcare player.

This year, we will open a new fundraising round to support our growth mainly in the US. Our therapeutic device is in the breakthrough device program from the FDA, a special program for innovative devices giving an answer to medical unmet needs of patients. This gives us priority access to reviews and interactions with the FDA. We expect that to be on the market in the US before the end of 2021. 

Can you please share some of the biggest challenges you have faced and how you overcame them? 

The biggest challenge we had to cope with was to have physicians and medical doctors accept that it was possible to improve and to reduce symptoms of a neurological disorders starting from a peripheral treatment.

You need to know and to be aware of the fact that the doctors we are interacting with have been trained and have studied to work on the central nervous system, on the brain of the person. They are deeply competent neuroscientists.

One day we came and told them, look, if we start from the feet, you can improve symptoms deriving from problems in the brain. At the beginning, they were not open to this at all. The biggest challenge has been to show them that it works and to explain why and how it works, to share with them the mechanism of action underlying our treatment approach. 

Best and worst parts of being a CEO?

The best part is that you are challenged on a daily basis with problems and that if you have the right attitude and can listen to suggestions, look at what other people did and also use your experience and knowledge, I would say you can very often overcome almost every single problem that you face.

The worst part is that it is a never-ending position. You don’t have a 9 to 5 position. You have a 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year role. But ultimately, this is not the worst part as it is what CEOs are about. I’m responsible for 16 families. You cannot just unplug and say, OK, I’m off now. 

What drives you?

What we do is something that is much needed by patients and we are really rewarded by the feedback of patients and caregivers. The challenge is, “how do we implement this fast and make this available to patients?”

Another very big part of it is having a fantastic team around me and being able to take, coordinate and let every talent express the best that she or he does. She or he can give to the company, contribute to the company. So, it’s also about being a coach at the end. 

What are some early career experiences you’ve had that has been vital for you to be where you are now? 

One competence that was crucial to have was the experience in restructuring companies. When you are in restructuring mode, you have no money. 

When you are in a startup, by definition, you have limited funding. From other roles I have had, I gained the key competences needed to maintain financial balance and to be able to grow, do the right agreements with suppliers, partners and so on in order to avoid a cash shortage of the company in the first years. 

Any advice that you might have for somebody looking to start their own therapeutic device company? 

When you decide to be an entrepreneur or when you are so crazy to decide to be an entrepreneur is first of all, to be sure. Be sure that your solution creates value or gives an answer to a need. Secondly, that there is a business model ensuring someone wants to pay for what you provide. 

I have met many Techies in the IT business – people that are just in love with their innovation. However, no one will pay for an innovation that does not deliver a practical benefit.

What is your view on failure? And if you could share an example of failure? 

I have failed several times in my life and my failures have shaped my personality and in a certain sense, helped me become wiser. I like to take and to manage risks. Sometimes you take a risk and you fail. We must be trained and ready to fail. 

But failure, as long as it’s not a deadly event, teaches us that we can restart. All the failures I had in the past turned out to be positive in the end. I encourage everybody who is facing a failure to see the new opportunities that come after a failure. 

What are your hopes for your company? 

Three to five years down the road, I hope to see this company grow, on one side that our technology is used to address patients’ needs on a large scale, and on the other side, to see the team grow with additional talents and different competencies. If this happens, I hope that I will have more free time as people will be able to manage the company more independently from me.

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