TOMMI LEHTONEN

Co-Founder & CEO, Blueprint Genetics

 

Tommi is the CEO and co-founder of Blueprint Genetics, a clinical genetics company based in Helsinki, San Francisco, and Dubai. He has been running Blueprint Genetics since the beginning, grown the team from zero to 130+ and is responsible for sales management, business development and financing. Tommi spends time in Bay Area regularly and attends a number of life science and tech conferences in both US and Europe. Prior to Blueprint Genetics, Tommi founded a data analytics company called Whitevector and grew it to the Nordics and UK. Tommi holds a M.Sc. (Tech) from the Helsinki University of Technology where he studied business strategy and applied mathematics.

 

We caught up with Tommi to get his view on the digital health space, entrepreneurship and growth

Seeing many startups in the digital health space, we feel one of the main challenges they face today is managing the transition from initial pilot customers to a working business model. Most start scaling too aggressively right after closing a seed round (with no business model in place), and run out of time to actually find a payer for the product. What was your experience? How did you transition from initial pilots to a stable business?

I think the big difference here is whether you are trying to change an existing market or creating a new one. In healthcare a market can be characterized as an “existing payment mechanism”, unless the idea is to pursue self-pay. When Blueprint Genetics launched, clinical genetic testing was an existing market, about to be hit by a wave of new technology. I would say that we got the basic product concept right already from the start, and then along the years we have needed to work quite a lot on offering details to fit it into different geographical markets. It is easy to see that for us this played out well because 1) in addition to customer interviews, we had physicians in the founding team that really understand what the customers think and 2) we took a new product concept into an existing payment mechanism, we didn’t try to create a new budget for the hospital or a new reimbursement category.

Looking at a digital health startup, how much value would you assign to scientific research and clinical validation? How much time would you spend on validation vs. getting the numbers up?

I think the efforts on validation should be prioritized because getting-numbers-up run can turn out to be a short one, if clinicial proof is missing. There is nothing like having study showing clear results that can be cited all the time in sales. It is hard today to cut through the noise in digital health space without showing analytically and clinically credible results. Despite the overlap, I think regulatory efforts are a different thing. Even if there are no regulatory requirements, the sales and marketing need for proper validation studies remains.

Now when you a running a team of more than 130 people, how do you make sure you keep up with the growth pace of the company (and are still on top of things several years after starting)?

I guess we don’t, always! But we have very independent teams who make quite independent decisions. The whole organization is built on freedom and trust and everybody have both independence and responsibility. Not that we don’t have controls in place but I think high growth is very hard to facilitate with top-down mentality. And needless to say, all of the teams work together and help each other out openly and in an unselfish way. Also planning plays a role. Both R&D and hiring are similar in the sense that both take a lot of time and when delayed, cause a lot of pain. High growth only multiplies that pain so I think it is a necessity to have a very active forecasting and R&D roadmap process.

Talking about teams, how do you go around building the winning team? What are you tips?

I think the ambition level of the company needs to be high, and the overall field needs to be interesting and challenging. When you are genuinely aiming to solve something meaningful, it is likely that really great people will hear from it and join the momentum. Also, we have always had a very open culture and I believe that has helped us to build a certain atmosphere and way of working, which attracts great people. It has been very helpful that genetics overall is quite an interesting field and I think we all feel very motivated by the fact that we help a 5-digit amount of patients and families each year. Blueprint has also gotten some positive visibility, which of course helps.

During the past years, you got to meet and work with many investors. What are the questions you would ask from a potential investor today? (or should have asked in the past)

We have not needed to regret that something was left undiscussed, but I think it makes sense to openly ask about examples of how the investor has been successful with existing portfolio companies. It is very useful to hear stories of what kind of a role the investor has played in a good run. I also think it is important to identify a good peer company that is close to the investor. I would also try to understand the network overly well. Quite often the network of the investor is just discussed broadly (“we know a lot of people”), but actually the exact people that are close to your investor make all the difference.

Looking back at your journey so far, what would you have done differently?

I would have spent more time on internal communications and focused more on making sure that teams have everything they need. When we started to hire a lot of people, it became clear that we should have had more systematic hiring and onboarding processes. Also, even though we never had problems with product-market fit, I think we should have interviewed a lot more people in the very beginning. We spent a good amount of time arranging expert workshops and flying around, but I think that in the beginning the whole management should spend a lot of time and money by going out there to meet peer entrepreneurs, investors, corporate folks, everybody. This should be rather an overkill than by-the-book customer development feat.

What have been the most difficult periods of your entrepreneurial journey so far?

We have luckily not had those “extreme lows”, probably thanks to good revenue development. I think that building a company is a continuous stream of stress, risk tolerance and things that feel negative. I sort of feel that it’s just part of the job, not a difficult period.

What kept you going through the worst times?

Our founder team has a good sense of humor! But really, we have pretty much always been able to look at each other, say that I guess this is what we wanted and laugh. I also think it is very important to have solid things going on outside the office, whether it is a relationship, family, friends or sports. Overall things shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

What keeps you up at night these days?

There are huge amounts of corporate R&D and VC money being poured into genetics, and we have been saying since the beginning that only the paranoid survive. I believe in being a little paranoid, I don’t think about these things during nighttime but we do spend a lot of time over the phone or over beers thinking about how the industry develops, what competitors are doing, how product portfolios or pricing is changing.

What are the books or blogs you are reading now?

This is cliché zone, but Ray Dalio’s Principles gave a lot of food for thought with the concept of radical transparency. I also just downloaded A Sunday at the pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche, but haven’t read it yet. I am also a big fan of CB Insights newletters, Tomasz Tunguz blog posts and many others.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

There are so many things, but I was told a long time ago that at the early stage, you should look a lot bigger than you are, as a company. Just the other day we discussed how important it is for a 20-30 person strong company to put enough money into marketing and branding so that the company looks and feels like at least 100-150 strong, literally. I believe Blueprint was able to do something like that in the early years, and I believe it proved to be very valuable.

If you’d like to reach out to Tommi, you can do so at tommi.lehtonen@blueprintgenetics.com or @tommi_lehtonen on Twitter.

@tommi_lehtonen

The most VC investments / GDP in Europe: Finland (1.) & Sweden (2.)! https://t.co/LcoZiu4KJq

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Humans aren’t evolved to worry about everything happening outside of their immediate environment. https://t.co/73GKJtqckW