Healthcare can be expensive, but then it should at least be effective. In order to be effective we need to be able to distinguish treatment responders from non-responders. Since the decoding of the human genome in 2003, genetic profiling seemed like the solution everyone had been waiting for. But as we hardly understand 5% of the entire human DNA we need additional methods and technologies to realize the goal of precision/personalized medicine. That’s the only way to ensure that prescribed medications will actually work.
SUN bioscience launches novel technologies that enable faster and more efficient growth of three-dimensional cell structures. This allows for optimized medication decisions prior to the prescription. That novel process can save billions in healthcare costs – money that is currently wasted on inefficient treatments.
Organoids, stem-cell derived patient tissues that can be grown in the lab, are considered a breakthrough for precision medicine. Patient-specific organoids allow to test for the final efficacy of treatments rather than to rely on predictions based on incomplete biomarker sets. However, organoids are still a research tool, produced manually, with high variability and high associated costs. To overcome these limitations, SUN
bioscience has developed Gri3D®, a universal organoid culture platform, allowing standardization of organoids for time- and cost- effective use in pharmaceutical screenings and clinical diagnostics.
The Vaud startup is based in Lausanne. The team consists of Sylke Hoehnel (CEO), Nathalie Brandenberg (COO) and Jeroen van den Oever (CFO). Sun bioscience sees itself as a startup at the interface of engineering, materials science and biology.
What inspired you to start your company?
In short: Feedback from customers and demand of the prototype technology.
In more depth: We developed the idea for our technology during our PhDs based on the needs of a collaborator working on retinal organoids at the Eye Hospital in Lausanne. Once we had a working prototype, we tried it on all possible cell applications available to us (and saw that it worked better than expected) and we also gave the prototype to a handful of collaborators in our network working on various different stem cell organoid models (brain, pancreas, etc…). It was their feedback, that they considered it a valuable technology, and that they would like to use it regularly, that made us decide to create a company.
What entrepreneur(s) do you admire and why?
In general, I admire entrepreneurs who believe in using their creations and innovation to change how the world operates. And I admire entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily come from a privileged background to build a company with values from the ground up through hard work and a strong conviction who stay humble throughout their life.
Examples: Ingvar Kamprad, Bill Gates, Sibongile Sambo (I saw her speak at the GES Summit 2017 and she is so inspiring).
Can you tell us a short story about a customer using your product?
I can speak from my perspective, because from my background as a scientist, I embody my customers in a way. Stem cell organoids have been hyped since their discovery as a breakthrough for science with envisioned applications from personalized medicine to transplantation. It is true that this can be the future, but neither scientific publications nor news articles ever mention reproducibility and standardization and organoids are far from standardized due limitations of existing technologies for growing them. Also, adoption of organoids across new laboratories is hardly taking place because the protocols are extremely difficult, manual and finicky.
So we set ourselves the goal to make an organoid technology that is easy-to-use, scalable and that would allow anyone to be able to create organoids even without much prior knowledge. And this has been the feedback so far, our Gri3D technology is for example in use by a group at Roche and they highlight how Gri3D improves the handling and throughput. It allows them, in a single step, to perform the work that would usually take them more than 50 steps and it is compatible with their screening and analysis processes.
We are also using our technology internally to grow organoids from Cystic Fibrosis patients to test available medications for efficacy. The reason why this is important is that new Cystic Fibrosis medications are extremely expensive and while, when they work, they enable patients to lead near normal lives, they don’t work in most of the cases. As a result, there is a lot of hassle with access to these medicines and reimbursement from health insurers. Being able to quickly identify a working treatment would not only improve patients’ care by avoiding useless medications for the patient but also unnecessary financial costs for the health insurance companies.
What do you love about your own leadership role in your company?
What I love the most is waking up every morning knowing I am working for something that I believe in. To be able to create new technologies that solve existing problems and that users love is extremely motivating. Also, scientists are very insulated in their academic environment, so being able to step out of it opens up your horizons to real-world challenges of for example “How do you set up a production?” – “What does your customer really want?” – “How can you improve processes?” and “How do you inspire others to follow you?” and also very important “What is VAT?”. The moment that you start understanding how society is interlinked with companies is very eye opening because you never really think about it unless you are forced to.
Why did you apply for the W.A. de Vigier Award?
I heard about it through a good friend of mine, Sabrina Badir from Pregnolia, who I had the pleasure of spending a week in Boston with during Venture Leaders in 2016. I’ve seen pictures around the EPFL Innovation Park, but when I started reading the history of William A. de Vigier and his path to founding and growing his scaffolding company, I felt like this is something I can relate to. He seems to have had a lot of the traits that I find inspiring in entrepreneurs.
What are your impressions so far about the W.A. de Vigier Award?
So far, the award application has been extremely smooth and not only focused on explaining every single detail of your innovation. I like the fact that it is very much centered about the personality and you get the immediate impression of a very warm and friendly environment. I very much enjoyed the discussions with the managing director Regula Buob, and I hope to be able to continue our interactions far past this year’s award session. The presentation in front of the Foundation Board members was also very open and welcoming. From the questions that were asked, I was pleasantly surprised that they not only listened to me “as another project in line to present” but that I received very high level questions about the future of our business and our vision.