We talked to Keren Leshem of OCON Healthcare on improving women’s health & quality of life around the globe.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Keren Leshem: I have been diagnosed with COVID-19 very recently and recovering at home with very light symptoms. I feel lucky to have an amazing support system within my family that helps me tremendously so that I can get back to my normal self swiftly.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined OCON Healthcare.
Keren Leshem: I am a seasoned biotech executive with over 20 years’ experience in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries, specializing in the management of innovative start-ups. I’m formerly VP at the Dutch pharmaceutical company VISUfarma, and CEO at ViSci, a Biolight Group company.
I joined OCON Healthcare for over a year; at a time, the company was facing future defining decisions in its direction. That’s when COVID hit.
How does OCON Healthcare innovate?
Keren Leshem: Israeli femtech start-up OCON Healthcare has developed the IUB, a groundbreaking intrauterine platform that recently won the Seal of Excellence from the European Commission for research and innovation.
This is because the IUB is truly revolutionary. Our first commercial product, IUB Ballerine – the next generation of hormone-free contraceptive devices. The SEAD, our second product, based on the IUB platform, is currently undergoing phase II clinical trials to be used to non-invasively treat abnormal uterine bleeding (AUB).
IUB Ballerine is the intra-uterine device (IUD) contraceptive reinvented. Unlike the traditional T-shaped IUDs, the nitinol based Ballerine is ball-shaped and forms a 3D sphere once inserted into the uterus. As a result, it is also 30%-50% smaller than and 40% safer than the traditional 2D T-shaped plastic IUDs that can cause injuries and discomfort when inserted and afterward. The Ballerine has CE, AMAR, and NHS approvals and is already being used by 100,000 women in 30 countries.
The SEAD product, which is now in phase II clinical trials, aims to treat AUB (abnormal uterine bleeding) non-invasively with no need for surgery and can prevent a woman suffering from AUB from undergoing a painful hysterectomy. It is a pain-free and cost-effective treatment for a problem which 25% of women in the fertility age range suffer from.
These solutions actively increase every day’s quality of life for many women, not having to use hormones or painful procedures to treat various conditions.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Keren Leshem: In much Western Europe, people have been asked to forgo seeking medical attention except for emergencies, and getting an IUD device doesn’t count as one. In Eastern, Europe life continues more as usual, though the pace of IUD sales there has slowed. In Israel, too, women can still get an IUD insertion despite the coronavirus constraints, though the pace of insertions has slowed, especially when COVID first hit in March 2020.
On the upside, COVID taught us a great lesson about reducing the cash burn rate, and we managed to turn this challenge into our advantage. We cut travel costs and started to land new territories and deals much quicker than usual after taking our business development meetings online.
Also, the economic challenges that other companies were facing freed talented people for us to “grab” to our team.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Keren Leshem: We were facing difficult choices before COVID hit on how to steer the company out of its dire situation. Thankfully our board and new investors believed in our innovation, and with a change in management and team, we were able to quickly reduce cost, get new investments, and keep pushing forward.
It is still challenging, but we had to learn to be more flexible, not only with travel restrictions but also with working hours and places. When you have a strong, competent, and motivated team, give them the freedom to adjust to current situations and think creatively, you can achieve a lot.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Keren Leshem: My recommendation is taking things step by step – concentrate on the immediate things, count your blessings, and know why. We can not win it all! Forgive yourself and others quickly and keep looking forward (not back).
At the end of the day, we are not saving lives (so relax), but we can improve women’s lives, so I have good reasons to smile and enjoy every day of this journey. The one thing that is the most difficult for me to see during these times is that while everyone is facing unprecedented challenges, it has become evident that women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Keren Leshem: We try to make our competitors allies. One of our policies that have proven most successful to us is to take experienced distributors who also sell other IUDs (which would theoretically be considered our competitors) to complement their portfolio and offer a safer, more comfortable option.
Since there has been such a lack of innovation in this field for more than 30 years, we are in the lucky position to be one of the only (or very few) innovators bringing a completely new way of intrauterine contraception or treatment to the market.
Your final thoughts?
Keren Leshem: COVID has taught us once more that “the only constant in life is change,” and this is something I embrace daily. Knowing my “WHY” – this is what guides me through any uncertain times.