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COVID Crises – A great Opportunity for Organizations to Learn to React Fast and Perform under Ambiguity

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Bastian Rüther breathe ilo

We talked to Bastian Rüther, CEO at breathe ilo about fertility tracking and here is what he said about it.

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?

Bastian Rüther: Luckily, nobody in my family got COVID so far. However, my grandmother was hospitalized for several weeks over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It was very sad not to be able to see her while she was in a very critical state.

Tell us about you, your career, how you founded breathe ilo.

Bastian Rüther: I consider myself an entrepreneurial person. I started my first business at the age of 20, besides studying at the Vienna University of Economics. It was an upscale restaurant in Vienna’s 1st district and the first restaurant in Austria where guests could order their food via tablets. The software called “smartmenu” was self-developed and further distributed later on.

 After selling the restaurant in 2014, I worked as an entrepreneur in residence for the fast-growing fintech company N26 in Berlin and gained experience in the consulting industry. I was always very excited for the MedTech industry because I loved the thought of dedicating my effort to products that support the wellbeing of humans. As a result, I took a business opportunity together with my father, and we built up MEON Medical Solutions, a dedicated in-vitro diagnostic company. With Roche Diagnostics moving their site from Graz to Switzerland, we had access to the great talent of experienced R&D employees in the healthcare industry. Today MEON Medical became part of a group of innovative MedTech companies and employs 70 people.

In parallel, I was involved in starting and supporting an amazing R&D project in the space of fertility tracking, which later on became the innovative fertility tracker breathe ilo. In the early years, we only employed a very small R&D team backed by R&D grants to achieve proof of concept that homecare breath monitoring could be actually done with an affordable consumer product. After proof of the technology concept, I had the vision to make the technology a mass product available for every couple with the desire to have children. I took over as CEO at the end of 2017. It was a very exciting time, to finalize the product, set up the manufacturing process, build up a team for the commercialization and raise funds for internationalization.

How does breathe ilo innovate? 

Bastian Rüther: Our organizational structure is made by design in an atmosphere that allows innovation from the inside. We try to keep a very low level of the hierarchy and always make the most informed person speak to a topic, independent of age, rank or time with the company. We are very aware that for the price of moving fast and being an innovator, we might do wrong decisions that have to be corrected later on. For that reason, we have a great failure culture always seeing the positive learning in each mistake and absolutely avoid to blame anybody. With having such a culture in place, everybody becomes part of the innovation process and feels confident to bring their idea to the table.

How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?

Bastian Rüther: I think there is almost no company that is not affected by the pandemic. With having a tough time schedule for our growth and further product development, we had to get very productive in remote working quite fast to keep up the speed. In the meantime, remote workshops and development meetings seem to be the new normal, which works quite well.

In our company, especially the B2B channels are affected, and new market entries without physical presence seem quite challenging. As a coping strategy, we decided to heavily focus on digital sales via our own webshop and invested in strengthening our digital presence and brand. This strategy worked quite well so far and helped us to continue our growth despite the crises. Another challenging area is in the field of clinical trials. We continuously develop our product by gathering new knowledge via clinical studies. This was very complex in the last couple of months. We really hope the access to test persons via our research partners will be easier again soon.

Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?

Bastian Rüther: Yes, there were quite some difficult choices during the crises. We did just start the fundraising process at the beginning of last year, when suddenly several investors stopped negotiations when the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. At this point, future development was still pretty unclear to us. Of course, we thought about whether we should reduce our activities and try to extend our runway through the crises. However, we decided that despite being in a risky funding situation, we will continue speeding up our business activities and stick to our plans which also meant bringing new employees on board. Afterwards, everything turned out well, and we could achieve our goals as well as a funding round at the end of Q3 2020.

What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

Bastian Rüther: On the tooling side, all the remote working tools like MS-Teams, Jira, Miro… are part of our DNA by now. This works quite well.

However, besides working efficiently via online tools, also keeping the team spirit on a high level is very important. This is more challenging when there are less informal coffee meetings which is very normal during office work. For that reason, we actively try to keep the spirit up, e.g. by offering some remote team events or starting a team meeting with a little personal challenge at the beginning.

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

Bastian Rüther: There are several competitors out there in the space of fertility tracking. A few well-known names are Clearblue, AVA Women or Daysy. In general, we think any kind of fertility tracking is valuable for women because knowing about the cycle is also a good indicator of wellbeing and general health. Therefore, we are delighted that the industry and awareness are growing. We think we are in a good position to stay in the game even in this competitive market because compared to most competitors our product is unique, and we do have the patents for our technology in Europe and US. Detecting the most fertile days via breath analysis is not only the most hygienic and user-friendly method but also a very relevant method. For example, while temperature-based methods can only do a forecast and confirm the fertile days after ovulation, the CO2-levels in breath already decrease before ovulation correlating with the fertility hormone estradiol.

Your final thoughts?

Bastian Rüther: From a business perspective, I don’t see the COVID crises as negative as the overall impression looks like. In my opinion, there is a special skill that makes a lot of young ventures very successful or not. It is the ability to quickly react to changed circumstances and implement recent learnings into your organization. The COVID crises showed many of us that nothing in life can be taken for granted, and that willingness to adapt quickly is needed everywhere. The speed that was necessary for many enterprises to react to the crises was much faster than some organizations might have expected about their own capabilities to change. Implementing this learning into the daily business will most probably decide about the future success of many businesses.

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