Alejandra Ortega, Matthias Vanhees and Soha Mahdi

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Specifix: “We’re living the Belgian dream: everything necessary for success is readily available here”

Alejandra from Colombia and Soha from Iran met while studying for their PhDs and carrying out postdoc research in Belgium. Together with Belgian Professor Dr Matthias Vanhees, they founded the health-tech start-up Specifix in 2023. We sat down with Alejandra and Soha at tech hub Dunden to discuss their experiences in starting a high-potential company in Antwerp.

Nice to meet you, Alejandra and Soha. What is Specifix all about?

Alejandra: “Specifix’s main focus is on developing a specialised tool for orthopaedic surgeons to help them make precise decisions regarding wrist fractures. It started with an idea from Matthias, who is a hand surgeon. And in the meantime my husband by the way. He felt the need for this tool in his clinical practice and started a proof-of-concept project with VisionLab at the University of Antwerp and imec. They perfected the technology, showing there was a product-market fit. Then he decided to spin off and start a company, and that’s when Soha and I came into the picture as co-founders. I’m a doctor in biomedical sciences and I worked for several years in the medical device industry.”

Alejandra Ortega
Alejandra Ortega

How did you meet?

Soha: “I met Alejandra at KU Leuven. We worked together, knew the quality of each other’s work, and got along very well. My role as a CTO is to expand the development of our AI algorithms. A surgeon can upload a CT scan of a wrist fracture and run it through our software. The result is a 3D pre-operative surgery plan showing how the surgeon can optimally fixate the fracture. It’s fully automatic and saves a lot of time in the operating theatre. One thing that’s important to know is that it’s a suggestive tool. The surgeon always stays in control.”

Soha Mahdi

What’s the added value of your solution?

Alejandra: “Wrist fractures are one of the most common fractures in the human body. Typically, the bone can break into many small pieces, making it a complex fracture. Our solution makes the surgeon’s life easier by suggesting the best implant for the best fixation. This is based on the patient-specific anatomy and fracture pattern. And that has many positive effects for everyone involved. For the patients, it means a faster and less painful recovery. For the surgeons, it means more efficient surgeries. Hospitals like the fact that surgeries take less time and there is less surgical waste. And let’s not forget the better reputations of everyone involved because happy patients like to share their experiences.”

I understand the City of Antwerp helped you with soft landing services.

Soha: “When asked to co-found Specifix, I was in Belgium on a research visa. To become a company director, you need a professional card as a non-EU citizen. Normally, that’s quite a long, intensive, expensive process. Luckily, the city of Antwerp was very generous in helping us financially and introduced us to Be Welcome, a company that took care of the whole process. When I received the professional card at the business counter, I was informed that this was the quickest processing time they had ever experienced. The guidance was exceptional. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to start Specifix.”

“Luckily, the city of Antwerp was very generous in helping us financially and introduced us to Be Welcome, a company that took care of the whole process.”

Soha Mahdi

We’re at the health tech hub Dunden. Why?

Alejandra: “Dunden is an ideal environment for us. While we don’t have an office yet, we come here for meetings and events. It’s a perfect place to meet like-minded people. Just now, I was talking with another health company in the hall about the certification process because, for health-tech start-ups like Specifix, that’s a major challenge. We ended up exchanging contact details of a consultant.”

What does the Antwerp health ecosystem offer for a start-up like Specifix?

Soha: “Knowing you’re not alone is invaluable. The support we have had until now has been exceptional. The University of Antwerp, the Imec.istart accelerator program, Antwerp Management School, and BlueHealth Innovation Fund have all helped us. Also, the network of hospitals inside and outside the city has been crucial for developing our technology. We will for example have our first pilot sites at AZ Monica and UZA, two hospitals that are internationally renowned for their trauma and orthopaedics units. As two women, it’s worth noting that we haven’t encountered any discrimination. On the contrary, inclusivity is what sets Antwerp apart. I should also mention that it’s easy for everybody to speak English in Belgium. That’s a real asset when doing business with potential international growth opportunities abroad.”

Alejandra: “Everyone talks about the American dream and that if you work for something, you will get it. I didn’t perceive it that way while I lived there. I think we should reframe that expression into ‘the Belgian dream’. Everything necessary for success is readily available here. You will be successful if you want to do things and work hard for something. That’s based on my personal experience. We are eagerly anticipating Specifix’s future and the impact of our innovation.”

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