Meet Mary Franzese – improving the treatment of brain damage as co-founder of NeuronGuard

Mary, who took part in WE Health Module 2 – 2018 in Munich, shares her story and advice as a “stubborn dreamer womenpreneur”.

What motivated and inspired you to start your business?

In 2013, I was attending a Master in Entrepreneurship and Business Strategy at SDA Bocconi (IT). I was pretty sure I would finish my studies and start working within a consulting firm. Then I participated in a Start-up MBA Program, where entrepreneurs had to submit their ideas to speed-up, find team members to shape the entrepreneurial idea and accelerate it. It was there I met Enrico Giuliani, founder of Neuron Guard and creator of the life-saving medical device aimed at early treatment of brain diseases. The program lasted 3 months and in the end we won an entrepreneurial training course in the USA.

These programs allowed me to acquire the necessary skills and helped shape my awareness that I wanted to change my life. In fact, I chose to become the co-founder because I wanted to work on something that makes me proud, passionate and engaged in my job, that allows me to be responsible for a group of people and motivates every one of us to make the best every day to hit our next milestones.

My life has been driven by my family: my father was the first person that convinced me to follow my dream to become an entrepreneur and improve the life of people. I will never forget the day when he told me “Please, follow your dream, be humble, learn from people you will meet in your life and don’t be scared about the risk.” This is why I consider myself a stubborn dreamer womanpreneur.

Tell us about your business.

Neuron Guard has developed a lifesaving medical device that aims to become the new standard of care for the targeted temperature management of brain damage.

Every 7 seconds around the world a person starts losing the ability to speak, communicate and interact due to a brain damage caused by Cardiovascular Diseases (CVD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). They are the most costly and prevalent killers in the last 15 years (15 million deaths by CVD in 2015), and the leading cause of disability (the global incidence rate of TBI is 200 per 100k people per year). WHO estimated a global expenditure of $330 billion in 2015, but it is going to increase sharply: $4 trillion in 2025 – including premature death, disability, and health care costs – only for CVD in low- and middle-income countries.

Managing body and brain temperature, keeping it at a safe, controlled level, is vital for the good outcome of patients in critical care and surgery.

Our product is a targeted temperature management system composed by a therapeutic collar powered by a smart control unit. The collar transforms the neck into a natural heat exchanger exploiting several physiological and anatomical characteristics of the human body. It is quicker to act on brain tissue but can also function as total body temperature adjusting device if required. A disposable protective shield makes cleaning the collar after each use simple while featuring an optimal safety profile both in term of pathogens and allergens. The control unit collects all the data of the treatment.

We aim to reinvent the brain damage care process, and reduce both the average length of stay in hospital and the costs of chronic care by 50%. Our vision is to have a Neuron Guard kit in every public place just like the Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) to empower bystanders to react immediately in case of emergency. We hope our device will become the AED for the brain: that is a connected-intelligent device that takes care of the patient, connects the scene with the Emergency Response System transmitting vital data and improving the readiness and effectiveness of professional intervention.

What we have achieved so far

  • IP: 5 patents (Italy, USA, China, New Zealand, Russia, Australia), 8 patent pending applications.
  • Pre-Industrialization: Prototypes developed and tested – the experimental results have been published on the Neuro Critical Care Journal. We have conducted a GAP Analysis to define the outline of the regulatory workup necessary to bring the product to the market.
  • Clinical Validation: Ongoing tests on human volunteers. We have scientific collaborations with leading hospitals in Italy and United Kingdom: They have considered our project a high potential application for the improvement and optimization of the care provided.
  • Fundraising: €1.4M – €250k founders, €656k A11 Venture and other private investors, €95k Italian government institutional grant, €380k Smart&Start Invitalia, €21k cash prize (Intel Global Challenge, and INNOLABS by EC)
  • Other applications: We have developed a sport-related application and signed a contract with a major player dedicated to delivering the most effective safety solutions in every dynamic sports to develop an active body temperature management for the improvement of cognitive performances.

Next steps

  • Complete the clinical research and validation process, industrialization and regulatory clearance to be able to access the market in 24 months once the funds will be raised.
  • After a new investment round, Neuron Guard can be acquired by an established player of the medical device sector as soon as the regulatory clearance is completed, or can seek a second round of investment for scale up to increase the company value in view of an acquisition or IPO.

What have been your biggest challenges so far with running your business? And how did you overcome these challenges?

Due to my gender, I have faced some discriminations such as being considered as the secretary, perceived as “family-first committed” or “non-ambitious”. What still surprises me the most is that either when I attend an event as speaker or I enter a room to pitch, I am often surrounded by a high percentage of males or – in the worst case – I don’t see any other women.

There are 3 challenges that women entrepreneurs have to overcome in the coming years:

  1. Increase the access to funding, because we struggled to attract the necessary funds for our start-ups.
  2. Build a support network that boosts our role in the business environment and our contribution in the growth of businesses, including working together with men.
  3. Adjust the balance between business and family life, because work-life-balance is one of the main goals to be a successful woman entrepreneur.

What was your biggest success as an entrepreneur so far?

To inspire more women to bring their innovative ideas to the market and become entrepreneurs, the European Commission created a Prize for Women Innovators. The Prize recognizes the success of women in innovation in two categories – the main Women Innovators category and the Rising Innovator category for excellent female entrepreneurs under the age of 30. The last year, I was one of the finalists in this category. This experience taught me a lot. I was shy and scared about it due to the lack of experience, but when I realized the big value at stake connected to me and our innovation, I changed my mind-set and I started to believe in myself more and more.

This year you took part in the WE Health programme. What impact did the workshop have on you?

As shared via social media, in a world that you can be anything, don’t forget to be humble, positive, enthusiastic, passionate, and resilient. I am happy and grateful to be connected with outstanding and great minded women. I am still thankful to EIT Health for choosing me for the program in Munich because I came back to Italy stronger, inspired and ready to tackle every challenge with Neuron Guard, such as the pilot trial in Cambridge.

What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs?

Even though there are more women than men living in Europe, women represent only one third of the EU’s entrepreneurs. Women are also underrepresented in terms of creating innovative enterprises: they still run just 22% of Italian SMEs​. My tips to young women entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs are: -be aware of who you are and the sector you are working in, such as market trends or what is needed to enter the market in the right time; -choose the right people to work with, be passionate about what you are doing and don’t be scared of risk, even though you will fail; -be focused on your company and don’t waste your time in something that is not connected to it; -adjust the balance between business and family life because work-life-balance is one of the main goals to be a successful woman.

If you want to get in contact with Mary, visit her on LinkedInTwitterInstagram or Facebook.