Varsha Thakoersing is one of the ten winners of the Academic Startup Competition. The winners were rewarded with a trip to the United States, where they visited the most innovative universities, campuses and other hubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston. The CEO of the medtech startup IMcoMET has just got back. What did Varsha notice and what can we learn from her experiences?
Congratulations with your prize!
What makes IMcoMET one of the ten most promising academic startups in the Netherlands?
First of all, it is due to our microneedle technology. Thanks to our microneedles, a doctor or researcher can remove the liquid around cancer cells up to a depth of one millimetre under the skin without causing the patient any pain. This liquid contains a wide range of essential information – biomarkers –, which says something about the tumour and the immune system. Based on this information, we are developing a tool that will enable doctors and researchers to better understand, diagnose and treat the cancer.
Microneedles are already used in healthcare for administering drugs and vaccines. Removing the liquid around a tumour for diagnosis and therapy is new, so we have requested a patent for it.
The jury was also struck by our team. We are creative and learn quickly. Not only do we carry out the engineering of the prototypes ourselves but we have also learned how to prepare the annual accounts. Our great advantage is that we all have different interests. Paul (cell biologist) likes to work in the lab, Alex (immunologist) is responsible for the technology and I (skin biologist) focus on the business side and the company’s strategy.
What impact do you aim to achieve with IMcoMET?
All three of us are driven by the wish to help people and society further. We will initially be focusing on melanoma. This is the most severe form of skin cancer; worldwide, one person dies from this every 10 minutes. Our ideal is a tailored treatment for each patient that will prevent ineffective treatments, ensure that the cancer no longer returns and that ultimately fewer people will die from skin cancer.
In addition, I have my own dream. I am a female founder of colour. I meet so few women who are doing the same. Women very often think ‘I’m not yet ready for it’, as they try too hard to achieve perfection. It would be fantastic if more women were to take on top positions like this and could serve as role models for others. I’d like to contribute to that by actively sharing my own story and inspiring other women.
What elements are vital for further developing your startup?
The first vital element is capital. Especially in the life sciences and deep tech you need investments running into millions to develop your product and bring it to the market. The Dutch funding system centres on the initial phase. There is enough money available at that stage but it is much more difficult to find funding once your company is ready to take the next step. And that’s what we are experiencing now. At present, we’re making an effort to attract new investments. That will make it possible for us to expand our team and genuinely focus on the strategy instead of the implementation.
Furthermore, you also need to be part of a strong ecosystem. As a startup, you do not have all of the knowledge and materials you need. IMcoMET is located in the Science Tower in Rotterdam, where we are surrounded by many other startups. We are also part of the Erasmus MC Incubator and we collaborate intensively with Erasmus MC. We benefit from all the knowledge present, and the labs and other research facilities that these partners bring with them.
The network and mentorship of experienced entrepreneurs are crucial too. I can warmly recommend everybody to take part in an accelerator programme. It is more thorough and has more effect than briefly doing a workshop on entrepreneurship. Further, senior entrepreneurs can help you with specific issues. They know the struggles a startup meets along the way like no other.
And then the US trip. How did you experience the trip and the entrepreneurial climate on the East and West Coast?
Universities in America are very focused on innovation. There, all facilities, innovations and relevant actors are always close at hand. Incubators are often in-house and state-of-the-art equipment is provided. That way, you encourage entrepreneurship among students from an early stage onward. This is something I missed during my study and PhD at Leiden University. As far as the life sciences are concerned, Boston is the place to be. They have incubators specifically for the pharma and life sciences, and the Big Pharma network is located there too.
The trip allowed us to get to know the American ecosystem and discover the helpdesks that can assist in learning more about the American market, culture and regulations.
What is done better in the US than in the Netherlands?
In particular, the ecosystem in the US is more lively. And there is such a big willingness to help each other! Startup founders automatically connect with a network that may be of interest to them. Everybody does that. It also happens in the Netherlands but you always need to actively ask for it.
When it comes to providing capital, American venture capitalists take more risks. “Think Big” and “the land of opportunities” are definitely not clichés. American investors think in terms of possibilities and are willing to take a higher risk knowing that this will also yield higher returns. They assess the team in terms of ambition and then go for it. We Dutch could learn a lot from that mindset!
And what can the US improve?
The Netherlands is good at grants. There are many schemes to start a company and investigate whether your idea is feasible. We also have a good social security system, which means that you have more financial security to fall back on as a starting entrepreneur. In the US, venture capital is something you need to go for straightaway. Every startup we spoke to during our trip was immensely focused on venture capital funding.
Are there any Science to Impact lessons that you would like to share?
Yes, there are! For the entrepreneurial researcher, my tip is to test your technology or idea in the market first to check whether your assumptions are correct. Market research is really important for determining where your technology could add the most value.
Further, Dutch universities should focus far more on valorisation. They currently still pay too much attention to publications and other output related to research. In my opinion, a researcher generates knowledge for a reason. Universities should create relevant key performance indicators to utilise this knowledge or come up with another smart way to realise more valorisation from research.
Finally, my advice to politicians and policymakers is to make the many grants, workshops and helpdesks that now exist for startups more transparent. There is still no, complete overview of these instruments available. That is not what you would expect in a small country like the Netherlands, where the innovation hubs are located so close to each other. It is a shame that these fantastic schemes in which we excel as a country, are not all fully utilised yet.
Varsha is CEO of IMcoMET, a medtech startup that is developing a unique technology to better understand, diagnose and treat skin cancer. She likes her work because it is the perfect way of translating scientific knowledge into a successful business that will greatly influence the health and wellbeing of people.
Varsha has 15 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, fast-moving consumer goods and the academic world. She has led various project teams that have contributed to the preclinical and clinical validation of active ingredients and drugs. She has a PhD in skin biology and an MSc in biopharmaceutical sciences (cum laude), both from Leiden University.