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On the development of pacemakers, saving lives and flight safety

Fast confession - Developer Ondřej Šípka: One mistake is enough to cause the death of millions of patients

Karolína Lišková
16.Aug 2020
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7 minutes

The older the men, the more expensive their toys. So would say Ondřej Šípka, Director of the Medical Solutions Division at the technology company CertiCon, which deals with software development. He is in charge of a group of smart people who are developing systems that operate pacemakers. As a result, they help save thousands of patients. In an interview for, the manager told us what his work entails and how much responsibility is placed on him.

V CertiConu se vyvíjí nové systémy nejen do kardiostimulátorů.
Šípka je jako ředitel pod velkým tlakem.
Ondřej relaxuje v letadle.

You make systems for pacemakers, do you have any medical education?

No, I mostly have technical and management training.

But you almost talk like a doctor...

Luxusní byt na prodej, Praha 5 - 232m
Luxusní byt na prodej, Praha 5 - 232m, Praha 5

I really don't think so, because I know how doctors talk. We go to professional conferences where doctors speak. We get it sometimes, but there is a vast difference between us and the doctors. One must be interested in doing this work to do it at all. This is an important prerequisite, if one has no affinity for it, then they cannot be good at it. If you're interested, it happens on its own.

What new things did you learn thanks to testing pacemakers?

We develop software, which we then introduce to the market. I have learned to manage very complex projects, where there is an extreme number of things depending on one another, where 400 people work across three or four time zones, each following a different agenda. And even though there is an awful lot of dependency, we have learned to pursue one common goal and achieve it. Although it sometimes takes time, so far we have always succeeded.

What drives you forward so much? You said it takes several years for such software to be implemented. I can't imagine working on something for seven years, something isn't coming out right, and I know that thousands of patients are waiting for something like that.

The main driving force must be some kind of internal motivation, that is, one must not pursue money or benefits, one must pursue a higher goal. For me, it is important to know that we are ultimately helping millions of patients around the world. We saw stories where patients who were bedridden could suddenly play tennis. When you fall asleep knowing you're ultimately helping people, that's great.

Are you not bummed out that doctors are the ones who get all the fame, praise and gratitude from the patients?

I'm not. You have to find your own thing there. A lot of people would expect to be praised and patted on the back in the end, but that knowledge is enough for me.

Lots of people also need a high paycheck.

Yes. That's the wrong motivation.

After all, it's your job, you also do it for money.

Yes, but not primarily.

How does this whole thing work? Who decides to start producing something like this?

Luxusní vila na prodej, Praha-západ - 255m
Luxusní vila na prodej, Praha-západ - 255m, Okolí Prahy

In the beginning, there is a problem, whether it is heart disease, a group of patients who have some specific symptoms, innovations or the need to be a market leader.

That's what everyone wants, isn't it?

I know. But here in this particular area of medicine it is not so simple. In this field one must bring the technologies that are the best of the best. Thousands of studies are being made in connection to this, really thousands. Doctors present them at various conferences, in various journals. This is the scientifically oriented part with which we do not deal, at least not in the field of healthcare, where the idea of ​​bringing something new arises.

Once the idea is presentable and graspable, more studies begin to emerge that address the conditions so that it is possible to develop a product that can solve the problem that one of the studies focused on.

I will give an example. Today, we are developing a system that will help set up the pacemaker better than doctors do today, by displaying a color temperature map to see if the heart is responding to the electrodes properly the best way that it can. Today it is up to the skill of a doctor, but in the future the doctor should also have some objective criteria, some data that he will be able to evaluate.

By increasing the efficiency of how the pacemaker electrodes are positioned, the heart muscle will function better. The category of patients who were first designated so-called non-responders, who reacted very weakly to the pacemaker's operation, will become responders. This means that the pacemaker helps them return to normal life. We are creating a project that will make this possible, setting it up in real time.

At this time, however, we are in the first fifth of the project's life cycle and are still conceptualizing a system with an uncertain outcome. We know that once it all works, which will be three or four years from now, it will be a wonderful thing, because it will increase the number of patients whose lives we will improve.

Who pays for this?

Investors, the customer. We have a very strong company backing us up that can afford such a large investment. It's not like a bunch of scientists get together and make a breakthrough. On top of that, there is the second fact that in order for such a complex product to be developed, an enormous number of entities need to cooperate. These are scientists, doctors, technicians, developers, managers.

I would liken it to something like rocket research. Like what Elon Musk does, who is putting together a spacecraft that would be able to land on its own. We do the same in healthcare. You have to pour a lot of money into something and force people to work together at the highest level with a clear goal. The goal is to increase the number of people whose lives can be saved by pacemakers. And you're looking for the ways to do that. That is the way we work together.

Is your company unique in some way in the world?

We have direct competitors in Ukraine, Slovakia, America and India. We are unique in that we have very long-term knowledge of the domain. Other competitors bring only technical knowledge, that is, the ability to write a program. But we have a domain background there on top. The ability to understand how and on what basis pacemakers work, how the whole ecosystem works, and we also have history in it. Nobody else has that, we are the only ones. Thanks to that, we are leaders and we stay ahead. We are primary suppliers, we receive the most complex tasks, we have the broadest portfolio of projects.

You said that the target consumer is mainly America. Are they aware that we have skilled people here?

One of the things that sets us apart is what Americans call the extra mile, that we have added value there. That's what moves us forward. By that I mean precision, perfection and quality.

Are you like that in your private life?

Yes. If you were to see my apartment, I have everything lined up perfectly. But I don't have an OCD, just a little bit. (laughs)

How would you handle a situation in which a loved one in your family would need a pacemaker?

I have people who I'm close to, not directly in the family, people with a pacemaker, they are younger. I tried to connect them with the right people. Although we do not have direct contacts to doctors, we try to direct them so that they can look for the best solution.

I mean, you've developed a system here, but doctors may be using something else. Are you able to intervene there yourself?

Unfortunately, we cannot do that. But the advantage is that what we are doing here is the best stuff in the world that exists today. These are premium products in the field of healthcare. There are several competitors, but what we do is really the best. If I had to intervene, it would be a recommendation to look for our customer's pacemakers.

I saw the surgery at the Na Homolce hospital, where the doctors installed the smallest pacemaker in the world for a female patient. Did you make that one too?

Yes. The human body is very specific in that the number of diseases and addictions that exist and how they are treated is huge. And you can't cover everything with one device. Each of those devices, the aforementioned Micra or a defibrillator, serves a different purpose and a different group of patients. For example, they might not be able to give the Micra to someone who suffers from atrial fibrillation or has symptoms, because it would not help them with that. On the other hand, a certain type of implantable defibrillator would help them with that. The difference is that the doctor is always looking for the most suitable solution.

Do you realize that there is quite a lot of pressure put on you? Do you see it that way, or is it just a job to you?

It can't be treated as just a job. Maybe some people treat it that way, but I take it personally, when we fail at something, for example. We work under continuous pressure. There are expectations that are placed on us and they are quite tight. In order to make top products, you need to be one step ahead of the market. To do this, you have to put out the right things at the right time, and this creates. It is often caused by deadlines and resources. This is our daily bread.

How do you relax? Do you have time for that at all?

Sports, that helps a lot. I decided to find another sophisticated field, and that was flying. I combine sports with the mindset to focus on the right thing, which is flying a plane.

But that is dangerous.


Something can go wrong, you will fall and die.

These days, planes and the entire aviation industry are built to make the system truly safe. It's as safe as medicine. This is the area of ​​so-called "mission critical" issues, processes, applications. Aviation operates on similar principles as medicine.

You talk about everything as if you were really thinking of it technically. Do you sometimes act only based on emotions?

Sometimes I do, but I'd rather avoid discussing this. (laugh)

Is it important to you that your life partner also understand technical things?

No. Whenever I had someone who was close to me, it was usually a partner who worked in marketing, therefore artistically oriented.

What are you looking forward to after you have finished this project? Have you already found something else? And will it also be something in the field of healthcare?

When it comes to projects, it's this "never ending story". We are always doing something and it is always something interesting. I can't say I'm looking forward to the coming of that milestone. In general, in my life I try to let go of focusing on milestones. Then you have expectations, and if they are not fulfilled, you end up disappointed. I have been trying to get rid of this for a long time. I am not looking forward to one singular thing, but to continuing to help improve the lives of people around the world.

Thanks for the interview.

Fast confession:

What makes your heart rate go up?

Primarily extreme sports and also landing a plane.

If I gave you a choice, would you rather go see a heart operation or mounting the engine in a new airbus?

I've been to heart surgery before, so even though it's a beautiful medical art, I'd go see the mounting of an engine in a transport plane.

Do you trust technology more, or the judgment of a doctor?

Probably the judgment of a trusted doctor.

What do you think artificial intelligence should be able to do in the next five years?

It should primarily help where it is dangerous to humans or where there is a risk of human error.

What percentage of human labor will be replaced by technology within the next five years?

Technology will probably help where people do some repetitive work, but what percentage I can't dare estimate.

What technical convenience can you not imagine even a week of your life without?

Speaker, bluetooth and my spotify playlist.

Do you believe in the supernatural?

I am a technician, I believe in technological progress.

The nightmare of the director of the medical solutions division?

The feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.

Who would you have dinner with: Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un or Zeman?

Probably Trump, but it's without comment.

What does luxury mean to you?

Having no notes in the planner and managing your time however you like.

Where would you take a girl on a first date?

An evening walk in Prague.

What do you do when your engines fail, whether on a plane or in life?

I would probably start with emergency landing procedures.

What do you think today's society lacks?

Critical thinking.

How do you invest in your health?

I do sports and eat healthy.

Question by the interviewee to the editor

Why do you think people tend to be pessimistic?
Because they are afraid. They are afraid of death and the future.
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