We talked to G. Fertram Sigurjonsson on how Kerecis uses omega3 fish skin for tissue regeneration, and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: I am a family man with five children. My family relocated from Iceland to Arlington, Virginia, in 2016, and we have spent every summer in Iceland since then. When COVID hit, the kids finished out the school year remotely here, and we went back to Iceland for the summer. Because Iceland’s infection rate is so low, schools have stayed open there, and we decided to keep our children in Icelandic schools this year. I occasionally travel between Iceland and the U.S. and conduct most meetings remotely.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Kerecis?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: As a college student in my native Iceland, I worked on fishing boats and a fish-processing plant. Later, I worked at a company that makes artificial limbs for amputees and realized that most amputations resulted from wounds that did not heal. In New Zealand, I worked at a biotechnology company that was creating new biomaterials from natural substances. I “married” those three experiences and got the idea that a natural substance could prevent amputations. I experimented with many materials and then, surrounded by a large fishing industry in Iceland, got the idea that fish skin could help people with chronic and hard-to-heal wounds.
Kerecis started as a research project in Iceland in 2009 and, in 2014, became more of a formal company allowing me to focus 100% on the business. We found that fish skin is an ideal match for human skin. Fish skin is similar to human skin and contains Omega3 fatty acids, which enhance healing. This led to the company’s patented, FDA-approved technology, which uses fish skin to regenerate human tissue. When grafted onto damaged human tissue, such as a diabetic wound or a burn, the material recruits the body’s cells and ultimately is converted into living tissue. Clinical studies show that our flagship product, Kerecis Omega3 Wound, heals wounds and burns faster, with fewer infections, than competitive products.
How does Kerecis innovate?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: Our focus is on chronic and hard-to-heal wounds. Our overall goal is to extend life by harnessing the body’s own ability to regenerate. To achieve this goal, we continuously gather market feedback and partner with universities, hospitals, and physicians to expand the scientific knowledge base of fish skin and its positive impacts on the body. We’ve also received several Department of Defense (DoD) grants over the years. Our most recent grant is to develop battlefield-ready products to help injured soldiers get the immediate treatment they need in the field.
And sometimes, inspiration comes from unexpected sources. For example, the pandemic inspired an unusual use for our sprayable wound product. Italian doctors knew that it was a powerful bacterial and viral barrier. When the pandemic hit, these doctors used the product on patients showing symptoms of COVID. The results were positive. We’ve now launched the Viruxal product line in Iceland and Europe to share this resource with people looking for another tool to fight the virus. And we’re involved in clinical trials testing the efficacy of this treatment.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: The pandemic has had a significant impact on the patients and providers we serve every day. Diabetic amputations are on the rise, probably because many people with diabetes avoided care for fear of getting the virus. Many of these patients now need advanced treatment with fish skin to jumpstart the healing process and preserve their limbs. Providers are also shifting their treatment regimens. We’re seeing doctors proactively use fish skin to help patients who seldom come to the office. Surgeons are also applying fish skin to help reduce the “time to graft” from about four weeks to about ten days. It is becoming more important that patients heal quickly to reduce the chances of infection and other complications.
Another point is that the treatment of more extensive wounds is moving from the OR to the doctor’s office. This is probably because the operating rooms are so busy and want to shift more hospitals’ procedures into outpatient and doctors’ offices. On the business side, we’ve shifted marketing from large gatherings to virtual meetings and webinars. To enhance our digital presence, we created an in-office studio called the “Fish Bowl.” This studio provides exceptional video quality and sound, way beyond ordinary video calls.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: COVID has taught us many lessons. We froze hiring, furloughed employees, took pay cuts, and reduced spending to weather the initial financial storm. We saw a quick turnaround and lots of adaptation as patients started searching out care and providers reopened their practices. Because we acted quickly and responsibly, we also secured US$21 million in new funding to expand our business. We’re now hiring and training our team remotely. We’re finding healthcare professionals are eager for the extraordinary results that the Kerecis fish skin provides.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: I find strength in my family and, like most Kerecis employees, consider the company my extended family. If any employees get sick, we support them just as we would our own families. We are in this together. Compassion is one of our core values and has reduced our stress and anxiety.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: Our direct competitors are companies like MiMedx, Organogenesis, and Vericel, which have great products that have been in the market for years. Kerecis competes successfully against them because our innovative products provide faster healing and reliable clinical outcomes at a competitive price point. These advantages are getting the attention of healthcare providers across the nation and, indeed, around the world. We have doubled in size every year and expect that, as we expand our salesforce, we will be an industry leader within five years. I say this confidently because our product line is unique and meets a significant market need.
Your final thoughts?
G. Fertram Sigurjonsson: One area that often gets overlooked is sustainability. Kerecis has committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We take pride in doing our part for the environment. Our fish skin comes from cod that is sustainably caught in pristine Arctic waters. The Kerecis manufacturing factories are powered by geothermal energy. Our product is based on the principle of turning waste into value, and we’ve shown that a byproduct of the fishing industry can improve the lives of thousands.
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