OPERANDO – DIGI 24 Iasi Interview with English Transcript

Recently, Dorin Cristea, RomSoft manager and Lucian Nita, RomSoft head of R&D department were invited at DIGI 24 Iasi to speak about our newly approved research and development project OPERANDO, and other research projects we develop. Other themes: innovation in the Romanian ITC sector, main considerations when applying for EU/national funding, and last but not least, challenges in finding valuable ITC specialists. For those of our friends who don’t speak Romanian, we added the English transcript.

Creating a Research Consortium

Host: We are talking today about research and development in the ITC industry, because we have this entire ITC infrastructure, highly performant, we have very well prepared engineers, but there aren’t a lot of companies that innovate or invest in scientific research. Today we are talking about one of the companies that do all these things and develop in Iasi several innovative software projects. About innovation in the ITC sector we are talking today with my guests, Dorin Cristea – RomSoft Iasi manager and Lucian Nita, head of R&D department at RomSoft. Thank you very much for your presence today at DIGI24 Iasi – Recrutat in Iasi, we’ll be talking about your research projects, all in the context of a communicate issued a few days ago, about an innovative programme that you’ll be working on, OPERANDO, financed through the Horizon 2020 framework, in a research consortium of how many states?

Dorin Cristea: The consortium includes entities from eight states.

Host: I find it very interesting that many European countries have chosen to get involved in an ample research initiative spanning over three years.

The OPERANDO Team at the Kick-Off Meeting in Oxford, UK

The OPERANDO Team at the Kick-Off Meeting in Oxford, UK

Dorin Cristea: Besides some European countries like Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Greece, Romania, there’s also a partner from Israel. There are also universities, private companies and institutions. In the EU funded projects it’s mandatory for universities to partner private companies when creating a research consortium. A few years ago you could still do research for the sake of research, even with no practical solution implemented. But this sort of investment became unproductive, if we want to compete for example with the US that are more results oriented.

Host: How are these entities selected? Is it portfolio based?

Dorin Cristea: In our case, we developed our first research projects in 2002, in the medical software field. Being involved for many years in this domain, we are listed in many databases in Brussels and not only. Sometimes we are invited in consortia, and sometimes we write an application.

Lucian Nita: A consortium is built based on an idea. Anybody who has an idea for a research theme may publish it on the call website and start looking for partners who can contribute to developing that idea. The consortium must be well balanced, it must have universities – who sell research, as well as entities who can apply the research, for example, in the medical field – there are hospitals and clinics that will test the end results, and you need private companies who can develop a product, a system that can be marketed. Thus, a consortium is more performant if it’s well balanced from this point of view.

Host: Depending, as you mentioned, on the project objectives. Our discussion today is meant to show exactly this, that there are Iasi based companies that have their own research departments, like the one you’ve been managing, for how long?

Lucian Nita:I’ve been working at RomSoft for six years. At first, the research department was smaller and in time it grew bigger within the company.

Funding Opportunities in Research Projects

Host: In our programme we had several guests who pleaded for innovation in the ITC sector. Today we can see also the opportunities and projects that Iasi companies can get involved in, at Iasi. I want to ask you, are there many companies in Iasi who maintain their own research and development departments? And how solid are these?

Dorin Cristea: It’s hard to tell, we haven’t made a market research in this sense, but I believe there are. Maybe not so many Romanian capital companies.

Host: What could be the reason?

Lucian Nita: Research is expensive. That is one reason. You can invest a large amount of money in a research idea and find out, after 3 or 4 years, you didn’t get the expected results, and this can affect your company, financially. You need to access non-refundable funds from the European or Romanian institutions, who can help you in this effort. But, along with the funding, there’s an effort from the company itself, many projects involve a co-funding percent, and this investment must be later recovered from a viable, marketable product.

Host: But to a great extent, the projects you’ve been developing over the last years have been with non-refundable funds? What’s the case with OPERANDO?

Dorin Cristea: 70% is the contribution of the European Union and 30% the co-financed amount.

Host: Who pays these 30%? All entities involved?

Lucian Nita: It depends on the project. For example, if we are in a consortium with Romanian universities sustained from the public budget, they don’t participate to the co-funding, they only receive the corresponding non-refundable share. It’s normal this way, because they do pure research, with no commercial end purpose. The private companies on the other hand, they take over the entire co-financing part.

Host: Anyway, at this level, to work together with eight European and non-EU entities, at least in Iasi, it’s the first time I hear of such an endeavour. How many people do you have in your research \ department? I see that as a company you have around 60 employees.

Lucian Nita: The number of people involved in the research activity vary with the number of projects developed at a certain moment in time. In the last years our department grew a lot. At first we had five or six people, and today we have with approximation 15 people involved in research.

Host: Let’s talk for a moment about the profile of a person working in the research and development department of your company. Is there a difference from an engineer working in a commercial project?

Lucian Nita: In research you need a broader background, you have to be passionate about a lot of domains. You need to understand the problem you want to solve, whether it’s medical or social or of any other nature. If you don’t like the domain, it will be harder to adapt, because tasks are not always punctual like in a commercial project, where almost anything you can think of has been done before, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Data Privacy for the End User

Host: Back to the research project recently announced – OPERANDO, what’s it about?

Dorin Cristea: In a few words, the goal of the OPERANDO project is to implement, field-test, validate and exploit an innovative privacy enforcement platform that will enable the Privacy as a Service business paradigm and the market for online privacy services. We will be able to ensure data privacy for each entity that owns them: institution, private company or individual.

Host: What type of data do you want to protect?

Dorin Cristea: The software will be first implemented for the medical and public administration areas that we also know better. We came with a proposal within the consortium for the global solution to be implemented in this project. We’ll see if it’s going to be accepted, but I think our partners found it very interesting. The application can be of use to great corporations that are interested to invest a lot in security and data privacy solutions.

Host: Isn’t this subject – data privacy – sort of a trend? We’ve recently had some guests in our programme from a smaller company, a start-up, and they were also offering this type of solutions. Or is it more and more a necessity?

Lucian Nita: The problem is relatively new, because a few years ago, the problem was just about transporting the data, and not losing information between two different storage entities for example, whereas now, due to the fact that everybody is connected online, and an immense quantity of data is exchanged on a permanent basis, personal data, medical data, a new problem arises: who controls this transfer? Who protects these data? You never know, at the other end of the line, who has access to the data and what they can do with it. We need to find some methods to encrypt this information, and only with explicit accept of the rightful owner of the data, to be possible to access and process it further by the database owner.

Until today, the person who owns a database can have access to everything that’s in it. We want to introduce an instrument that protects the end user from the database owner. Not all database owners have bad intentions, of course, but we should have this right, to have a saying in how our personal information is being used. So my data is stored on your server, but it’s encrypted through a third party entity. When there are more parties involved in the encrypting process, you need more permissions to use the data – therefore you have more security levels. One level may be faulty, but you are protected by the other levels.

Dorin Cristea: What we’ll be doing in the end will be a mix of more solutions, based on each industry and its needs. There are a lot of ethical problems arising. A state may have the right, in some given circumstances, to read those data. But they should have a mandate. If the rightful owner of the data is doing something highly dangerous or illegal, like it is the case with terrorist activities, they too, might abuse this high level of data security, if nobody can have access to the data. This project has potential to reduce discretionary use of data by companies and authorities, but we also have to think about inherent risks. The legislation of every country will be, in the end, the decisive element in how the OPERANDO platform will be used.

Host: Why eight states? Why these specific entities? Is it based on prior relations established in earlier projects?

Lucian Nita: The structure of the consortium is a selection criterion for any project. When you come up with an idea, there’s an extensive process in selecting the consortium members – the partners you want to work with. The initiators look into databases, receive applications, it’s similar to hiring an employee. You want to know what they’ve been working beforehand, with what results. Because the experts who evaluate a project idea have a very long list of selection criteria. How many countries are participating? How is the consortium structured? Does it involve research entities like universities? Does it have private companies to co-finance and implement the solution? Does it imply field-testing and validating institutions, like hospitals or clinics if it’s a medical application? The number of proposals is immense, and only a small part of 10-15 % are approved, the ones that perform better. The better structured the consortium, the chances to have your project approved are higher.

Host: 4.5 million EUR of the Horizon 2020 budget, from what I understand, this is not a very high amount.

Lucian Nita: It’s a medium sized project.

Host: And still, if it will be successfully implemented, it could mean a lot for your company.

Dorin Cristea: Yes, it will open more interesting perspectives for us.

Helping Patients to Better Manage Diabetes

DIAdvisor – Solving the Diabetes Puzzle

The DIAdvisor Research, as Seen on Euronews

Host: Many times we ask ourselves how modern medicine can benefit from the ITC industry. RomSoft has been working on several projects dedicated to this sector. Tell us a few words about the software dedicated to diabetes patients.

Lucian Nita: DIAdvisor is a software meant to help you better manage this disease. The biggest problem for patients struggling with diabetes is that they never know with precision when and how much insulin to inject, in order to maintain a normal blood glucose level. If they inject too much insulin, they can end up with hypoglycaemia, which can even lead to the patient’s death. If they don’t inject enough insulin, they can remain for too long in a state of hyperglycaemia. In time, this can lead to secondary effects that can be devastating for the body: blindness, gangrene, amputations. This is why, the problem is to help the patient know exactly how much insulin to inject and when.

We can make these predictions based on previous measuring performed on the patients, by taking into account their physical activity, diet, and blood glucose level at a certain moment. Based on an algorithm that we already tested in the hospitals that were part of the consortium, we can now make a prediction that is very accurate for the next 20 to 60 minutes into the future. The system will also offer a recommendation on what the patient needs to do, in order to avoid an extreme BG level. Based on the preliminary clinical trials, these recommendations perfectly matched those of real doctors 88% of the time, and out of almost 1500 recommendations during testing, the system never provided any harmful advice.

Host: And how does this system work? Is there a device that you must carry with you?

Lucian Nita: We have a body sensor that comes fixed on the patient’s body and measures the BG level. Then, it sends the BG values via wireless connection to our software system. All patient activities, food intake and BG level are received in the system, we process them and based on those readings we generate that prediction of future BG level.

Dorin Cristea:The software system is installed on a mobile phone, actually.

Lucian Nita: The software was initially developed in MATLAB, a very complex framework for desktop. Afterwards, we converted it in the Android framework, for patients to be able to use it on their mobile phone, and carry it around.

Host: But, from the patient you need some input of data. Isn’t it hard to convince them to make this input?

Dorin Cristea: Blood glycaemia is measured invasively. At this moment there is no other method other than using a needle.

Lucian Nita: What we are using to our system are the so called semi-invasive sensors that come with a very thin, subcutaneous needle. The sensor is attached to the patient and has a lifespan of one or two weeks, depending on the manufacturer. So the patient carries it on a permanent basis. It is very small, it doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t inconvenience the patient.

Host: How long did this project last?

Dorin Cristea: Four years.

Host: What was the consortium structure in the DIAdvisor project?

Dorin Cristea: The project coordinator was a company from Denmark – Novo Nordisk – the world’s largest producer of insulin-related equipment. Other two companies from UK came with the body sensors and device integration, and there were some other companies from France and Denmark, hospitals from France and the Czech Republic, universities of Sweden, Austria and Italy.

Lucian Nita: The universities developed each its own prediction algorithm. We had to put it all together, figure out what was the best prediction method and create an optimum prediction system.

Host: This was your company’s contribution to the project?

Lucian Nita: Yes. We developed the software, we integrated the algorithms we received from the other partners, and we integrated and optimized them and created the prediction system.

Host: 8 million EURO was the amount granted for this project and from what I understand, there’s still no product available on the market that can be used by the patients…

Dorin Cristea: We have the product. We applied for a new Horizon 2020 grant, in Brussels, in order to finalize this research. This system should be used with an insulin pump. The patient will not need to inject the insulin anymore. So based on this algorithm, we want to make the entire process completely automated.

Lucian Nita: Practically, it will simulate an artificial pancreas. This will close the circle. The system will be attached to the patient, and the injections will be made automatically, based on the readings, the way a normal pancreas will do.

Host: What’s the most difficult thing in research projects?

Lucian Nita: Writing the proposal is the most difficult part. It’s like learning a new language. You need people with skills and experience in this area, a great idea is not enough, if you don’t know how to present it. The evaluators have lots of guidelines and rules, and you have to respect them all. They are not only interested in the research opportunity, or the scientific value.

Host: Maybe this answers us the next question: why aren’t there more Romanian companies accessing European funds?

Dorin Cristea: They don’t know how, or they lack courage.

Host: So you say anybody can do it.

Lucian Nita: A lot of companies give up after being rejected once. They become discouraged.

Dorin Cristea: The procedure to apply directly in Brussels is simpler, everything is done online. We want to encourage Romanian and Iasi companies to consider this opportunity.

Lucian Nita: And moreover, once you’ve been selected in a consortium, and you have a successful experience, things start to work on their own.

Host: OK, and if you’ve done this entire research, does at least one of these projects have potential to become a standalone product that will bring you long term revenues?

Lucian Nita: This is the purpose for all projects. To make a product available on the market. But it’s a more complicated process in the medical field, because any system, software, device has to be homologated.

Host: Is this a long process?

Dorin Cristea: Not so much a long process, but very expensive. You need to test it in hospitals and on ambulatory patients.

Lucian Nita: The medical software has the same regulations like any drug. The procedures to market a product are the same.

Dorin Cristea: So we have the product but we can’t release it just yet, because we have a responsibility for everything that might happen during its use. When it’s homologated, we are released from this responsibility.

Host: And the homologation will be obtained if the new project is approved…

Dorin Cristea: Yes.

Bidirectional Communication System for Immobilized Patients

Host: From what I understand, you’re also involved in another project set to develop an innovative technology. A system to help patients who are immobilised from serious neurological accidents to communicate with doctors and caregivers. For example, if the patient can only move the eyes, he/she will be able to communicate by focusing some icons or messages on the screen, through what we call intelligent eyeglasses.

SIACT – Making phrases through sensor eyeglasses

SIACT – Making phrases through sensor eyeglasses

Lucian Nita: This is a local project still in progress, financed with national funds that we’re developing in collaboration with the Technical University of Iasi.

Host: So this is a project financed from the national budget. What is the project value?

Lucian Nita: Our company has around 100,000 EURO, with a 50% co-financing share.

Host: What’s the current stage of the project?

Lucian Nita: It’s a three years project and we started it one year ago. The idea is to help those who cannot communicate due to neurological accidents that left them immobilized. The target subject of this research is perfectly conscious, but cannot move and cannot communicate through conventional methods (voice, sign language). But if they can move their eye globes, and they often can, we can build some intelligent eyeglasses, in order to help the patients focus various words or icons and formulate phrases. In this way, we facilitate a bidirectional communication between the patients and their physicians or caregivers.

Host: It sounds a bit Sci-Fi, I have to let you know.

Lucian Nita: Technology evolves so rapidly, that we can afford to implement ideas that we had a long time ago.

Dorin Cristea: The future of medicine is in technology. It’s almost certain that one day all surgery will be made by robots.

The Future of Research in ITC and Finding Specialists

Host: Do you think that research is something to look up to in the future for Romanian companies? Is it an opportunity?

Dorin Cristea: Research is our chance. As ITC companies, we started working for clients who needed to outsource their software developing services. And that’s OK. But we cannot stop at this level. We have to create new products, to come up with innovative solutions – and we have all it takes to do that.

Host: Why do you think this is?

Lucian Nita: I think it’s the actual context. In order to have a successful career, in Romania, you don’t have so many options, other than being very good at what you do. If you’re good in software development you can find a good job faster. It doesn’t matter where you are, the computer and the operating systems are the same, not to mention the programming languages.

Host: Do you think that the Romanian technical school keeps up the rhythm with what you need in your company?

Lucian Nita: Yes and no.

Dorin Cristea: More likely not. This is the reality. The universities don’t keep up with the latest technologies.

Lucian Nita: State learning has a longer response time to what the market needs. In software development, there’s huge dynamics. You can be very good today, and in two years, if you don’t learn anything new, you can realize there’s no work for you. Every year new technologies arise, new frameworks, programming languages, new concepts. You always have to stay alert, to learn continuously.

Host: How hard is it to hire a software engineer?

Lucian Nita: It depends on the project, and the context.

Host: Anyway, 60 employees does not mean a very large company. In the last few years we’ve had companies coming to Iasi that are hiring hundreds of people. Are you growing?

Lucian Nita: For a company with only Romanian capital, we’re not so small.

Dorin Cristea: We’re a medium sized company, and growing.

Lucian Nita: The request for software is very big, not only in medicine, in any domain, you cannot perform without having a strong informational system to back you up. So the request for good engineers is very high. Any device, any instrument, is based on a software.

Host: So it’s an opportunity.

Dorin Cristea: My advice to all young people looking for a career, if they don’t know what to choose, is to consider the ITC sector. Whether they choose to go to the university or another form of study. There are one or two informal ITC schools that were established recently and aim to educate people in the middle area of technical skills. They won’t be software engineers but will still be able to work in the domain.

Lucian Nita: In a project team you don’t only need peaks. You need two or three people with experience, to create the concept, the product, but along with them you have beginners, juniors, who can learn the easier tasks.

Host: What openings do you have now?

Lucian Nita: We are generally hiring in Microsoft technologies, but also in mobile (Microsoft, Android si iOS), because today any software has to come with a mobile version.

Host: What type of specialists are more difficult to find?

Lucian Nita: People with many years of experience, who can take over a project from beginning to end, with solid project management expertise.

Host: Thank you very much! It’s been a very interesting discussion, those who are interested to get involved in research projects are welcome to apply at the RomSoft Company in Iasi. Dorin Cristea, company manager, and Lucian Nita, head of the research and development department, thank you very much for your presence.