From Class to Business

WISE: the advantages of flexibility in medical devices

Perseverance, serendipity and a transformative experience at SDA Bocconi are the forces behind the growth of WISE. This Italian medical device manufacturer is developing latest generation implantable electrodes for neuromonitoring, neuromodulation and brain-machine interface systems that allow direct communication between the brain and an external device. 

 

Let’s take a closer look at what WISE does. When neurosurgeons perform open skull base surgery, they must ensure that there is no interruption in the impulses between the cortex and the rest of the body. Maintaining this functional integrity is what a neuromonitoring electrode does when placed on brain tissue. It’s standard technology which is currently becoming commoditized (in other words, the only competition in this market is on the price). But the downside is that this device doesn’t adapt seamlessly to the cortical surface.  

 

WISE has managed to inject innovation into this mature market by inventing a flexible, highly conformable electrode, available in Europe since 2023. By adhering perfectly to neural tissue, this new device makes it possible to monitor brain activity more effectively. What’s more, with its super thin, biocompatible silicone strips, WISE’s electrode is less invasive and more reliable. So with this new development, the company has carved out a premium segment in a long-stagnant market. 

WISE is also making headway in getting the green light to market a second minimally invasive medical electrode in the US, used to relieve chronic back and leg pain through electrical stimuli (neuromodulation). Again, there are products out there that perform the same function, but they require invasive surgery to be implanted on the spine. Instead, thanks to its flexibility, WISE’s device is inserted on the spine via a minimally invasive, outpatient procedure using a percutaneous needle. 

 

WISE would not be what it is today without perseverance, and lots of it. Just think, the company’s story began in 2006 in a Physics Department lab at the University of Milan where Sara Rebasti, an undergrad studying nanotechnology, is running a routine experiment.  But she gets an unexpected result: by depositing metallic nanoparticles on the surface of a hard plastic material, she watches in surprise as its ability to conduct electricity evolves. To explain the reason for this evolution, Rebasti and doctoral student Luca Ravagnan realize that the particles penetrated the plastic and merged into a new material: a nanocomposite capable of conducting electricity. 

 

The discovery remained in the physics lab until 2009, when Ravagnan went to a conference of the Materials Research Society and discovered that interest was growing in elastic electronics (i.e. integrated onto silicone strips). “There were so many possible uses,” he says, “and I remember, for example, that there was talk of implanting tactile sensors in the artificial skin of a humanoid robot.” Back in Milan, Ravagnan and his working group, headed by Professor Paolo Milani, repeat Sara Rebasti's experiment, using silicone instead of plastic. And they hit the jackpot: a new nanocomposite material capable of conducting electricity - and with the added advantage of elasticity. 

 

How could this new material be used? This is where serendipity comes into play. The Physics Department is a close neighbor of the Besta Neurological Institute, and halfway between the two buildings is a café. Here, from casual conversations between physicists and neurosurgeons, ideas begin to take shape, some possible applications for the new technology. “Together with Cristian Ghisleri, Gabriele Corbelli and Professor Paolo Milani, we decided to patent the discovery. We opened the company and started looking for funding,” recalls Ravagnan. But the business looked very precarious and Ravagnan and Rebasti, who would soon get married, decided to diversify the risk: Luca took over the helm of the company, while Sara went to work in the laboratories of a big microchip manufacturer. 

 

From 2011 to 2023, WISE developed a research stream which was eventually awarded as much as €8 million in Italian and European grants. In addition to that were several rounds of investments which raised €26 million for the company. Today, the headquarters in Cologno Monzese (Milan) employs 40 people, mostly university grads, and WISE is still growing. 

 

The managerial turning point came in 2016 – and this is where SDA Bocconi comes into the picture. “I was CEO of the company,” recalls Ravagnan, “but I'm a physicist by training. One of our first financial backers, Mario Zanone Poma, was also president for a long time. He mentored me, but I needed more structured training. A friend of mine, Gero Bongiorno, did the Executive MBA at SDA Bocconi and he had great things to say about it. I was able to participate thanks in part to the fact that we won a competition for startups, the Bocconi Startup Day Award 2015, which offered the course as a prize. For me it meant a change of pace, a greater awareness.  And just to show how much I valued the experience, I also recommended it to my wife. So, after a year and a half of being forced to spend time away from the family, it rightfully fell to me to look after our three little ones for quite a few weekends.” 

 

“The Executive MBA was a pivotal experience for me too,” says Sara. “It enabled me to transition from a technical role to a financial one in the company I work for.”  

 

“I’m pleased to see the transformative effect of our Executive MBAs,” says Professor Enzo Baglieri, now Director of the Masters Division of SDA Bocconi School of Management and back then Director of the Executive MBA. “Luca had an atypical attitude compared to many of the entrepreneurs who participate in our program,” Baglieri remembers. “He wasn't looking for specific advice, but he was very attentive, absorbing every detail of what we were teaching and acquiring new skills to put into practice independently. Luca's subsequent decisions, the investment projects he started with Sara (who attended the same master's program and earned a EMBA herself two years later), and even the lean approach to business processes are visibly influenced by what they learned in our classrooms and from interacting our faculty and with the professional network they developed at SDA Bocconi.” 

WISE, medical devices made flexible

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