Innovation & Enterprise


UCL startup transforming brain surgery with the power of AI

Oxford Heartbeat is helping brain surgeons perform delicate procedures more accurately, ultimately improving outcomes for patients.

Katerina Spranger, founder and CEO of Oxford Heartbeat

13 July 2022

The company’s artificial intelligence (AI)-powered software tool is currently being used by surgeons in hospitals in the UK, Germany and Finland. It allows them to simulate and rehearse the placement of a stent inside a patient’s blood vessel.

From computer science to brain surgery 

Oxford Heartbeat was founded by Dr Katerina Spranger, who is now CEO of the company. Katerina trained in computer science with a stint in the robotics industry, before focusing on biomedical engineering at the University of Oxford and then UCL (as Research Associate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering). 

“I was never satisfied with only doing research and having a paper published and leaving it at that. I wanted to see the impact of the work materialised and the vehicle for that is a startup company,” she says. 

During her time at Oxford, Katerina studied the development of brain aneurysms, which are bulges in blood vessels in the brain, that can potentially burst with catastrophic consequences. They can be treated and prevented by placing a device called a stent (essentially a small metallic tube) within the blood vessel. 

Often working from an incision in the femoral artery in the groin, stent placement is a highly intricate procedure, which calls for great accuracy. Indeed, around 20% of brain stent surgeries are unsuccessful and require further surgical intervention due to poorly fitted stents or other complications.

“Brain surgery is absolutely fascinating,” says Katerina “In the brain everything is important and the margin for error is very small. Every little, tiny vessel is important because it might be supplying something vital – eyesight, body movement, bowel function, you name it. During brain surgery, if there is damage the consequences can be irreversible. So, my view is that if there is anything that we can do to contribute to greater accuracy, then it should be done.”

Getting clinicians on board

Katerina realised that she could use her skills and knowledge of techniques such as AI to simulate neurovascular surgical procedures. After consulting with dozens of surgeons in the field about how best to set about this task, she went on to found Oxford Heartbeat. 

“That was one of the most challenging times for me. Imagine as a student approaching these hugely experienced surgeons and saying: ‘maybe I could help you with this.’ It took a while to find clinicians who were open-minded in terms of innovation. Those early-adopters and advocates are still with us now.”

Tailored business support to grow 

The company was incorporated in 2016, residing at BaseKX, UCL’s entrepreneurship hub in King’s Cross, managed by UCL Innovation & Enterprise. Here they received tailored support and dedicated office space which helped fast track the development of their key products. 

“We’ve been part of various accelerator programmes, but with UCL it’s more like you have a base. You have a home, and links to the university and wider UCL community including the hospitals, which is fantastic,” Katerina says. 

In 2021, Oxford Heartbeat won a £1.5 million grant from Innovate UK (the UK government’s innovation agency), bringing the total amount of public and private investment raised to £4 million. The company has also received support from The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and Philips HealthWorks.

Demonstrating clinical impact

Oxford Heartbeat has now gained the essential EU CE mark certification for its software PreSize® Neurovascular, allowing it to be deployed in clinical practice. It’s currently being used by surgeons in hospitals in the UK, Germany and Finland, allowing them to simulate the deployment of a stent ahead of time making surgical procedures more precise. 

The company has started a clinical trial in 2022, to gather concrete evidence on the impact of PreSize® in terms of time taken to perform the surgery, reduced complications and other measures. 

“Only now do I have that professional fulfilment, because we’re doing something so important and meaningful,” says Katerina. “One of the first patients was an extremely complex case, and the surgeon said he wouldn’t have been able to achieve the accuracy he needed in her case without our tool.” 


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