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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August, 2003, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Curing cancer with computers

By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter

Stefan Vilsmeier
Chief executive of BrainLAB
Ernst & Young "World Entrepreneur of the Year 2002"
World Economic Forum 2003 "Global Leaders of Tomorrow "

University drop-out and computer geek Stefan Vilsmeier has never had a job - yet many of the world's leading neurosurgeons seem to be in awe of his creations.

In fact, global business executives have come to view him as a great leader too - not bad for someone who left university after just 20 days on campus.

"I was probably too impatient to go through any formal education," Mr Vilsmeier smiles, looking relaxed in his elegant, discreet business suit.

Despite this, he has become:

An international businessman.

A chief executive of a global company.

A leader of a multilingual, multicultural and multinational workforce.

Young author

It all began in 1983 when a 15-year-old Stefan Vilsmeier got his first computer, a Commodore 64.

He soon became a competent computer programmer, and by the time he had turned 17, he had written a textbook about 3D software.

The book sold 50,000 copies and sent 150,000 German marks (50,000) tumbling into his bank account within months.

Curing cancer

Three years later, during his last year at high school, Mr Vilsmeier's skills led the University of Vienna, Austria, to invite him to write computer programmes for brain surgeons keen to take advantage of the precision offered by 3D imaging.

BrainLAB staff
500 employees
People from 30 countries
More than 20 languages spoken
25% work in R&D
The project itself did not bear fruit.

But it made Mr Vilsmeier realise that "software is a really underdeveloped area of medicine" and that he could help cure cancer with his keyboard.

"What really turns me on is having an impact," Mr Vilsmeier says.

And with this in mind he soon ditched his plans to go to university and instead he set out on his own way with the help of the money he had made from his book.

Defensive action

Like many entrepreneurs, Mr Vilsmeier initially tried to link up with an established operator offering equipment for neurosurgeons.

But when his partner tried to take off with his idea, Mr Vilsmeier took a step back to develop the idea on his own.

Back, that is, to his parent's garage in Munich, Germany.

Here, he ended up building an exhibit booth which would enable him to show off his idea to a large audience.

This he did in October 1992, at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons in Washington, DC, having described the exhibit booth as a "student project" when leaving Munich, thereby avoiding the airline's excess baggage charges.

The trip changed his life.

From then on, he would no longer have to disconnect the mileage cables on rental cars or stay in $20 hotels.

"We had exposure to all key neurosurgeons around the world," he says, noting that many of them have subsequently become his clients.

"We have been very global from the very beginning," he says.

Precision surgery

Mr Vilsmeier's BrainLAB has become a leading player in the world of neurosurgery.

Novalis body
Millimetre accuracy during surgery removes side effects
Five hundred people work for his company, developing software and products that remove or dramatically reduce the failure rates during for example surgery to the spine or to remove brain tumours.

BrainLAB's 3D computer software makes precision surgery more accurate, and this makes operation times shorter, enables hospitals to release patients quicker and reduces the cost of healthcare, Mr Vilsmeier insists.

The initial cost of buying BrainLAB's services can therefore be justified, even by hospitals in quite poor countries, he believes.

Take BrainLAB's Novalis product, which enables surgeons to fire radio therapy beams directly at a brain tumour from hundreds of different angles during one treatment.

The advantages over ordinary radio therapy - which Mr Vilsmeier compares with a shotgun aimed roughly at a cancer tumour in the hope that it will be wiped out - is that surrounding tissue remains unaffected by the treatment.

Consequently, there is a remarkable absence of the common side effects of radio therapy, such as hair loss or sickness, and patients can return to work very soon after an operation, Mr Vilsmeier explains, pointing out that this brings obvious socio-economic benefits.

Running a firm

Mr Vilsmeier found it easy to take the step from inventive entrepreneur to running a firm.

Mr Vilsmeyer owns 50%
Employees own 30%
Venture capitalists own 20%
Revenue: 100m euros 2002
Annual revenue growth: Average 30% last five years
May float on stock market
The key to success, he insists, was the people he brought on board to help.

"Quite a few entrepreneurs like to surround themselves with clones of themselves," he says.

Instead, Mr Vilsmeier hired people with different skills to his own, determined to learn from them.

However, when hiring he did set down some criteria. He wanted talented people with international mindsets and with plenty of charisma.

"I try to hire people who have a good smile," Mr Vilsmeier says, insisting that often talent is more important than experience since "it can take a long time to unlearn what they've been taught previously".

Running a business




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