Innovation Interview: SamanTree on the fight against breast cancer
Breast cancer threatens millions of women globally. Aware of this worrying situation, SamanTree Medical SA has decided to focus its innovation on ameliorating related surgery and procedures, making patients lives better.
To know more about its unique technology funded by European EIC Accelerator’s predecessor, we have met Bastien Rachet, CEO and co-founder of SamanTree Medical SA. Please join us on this virtual journey to Lausanne!
Bastien Rachet, CEO and co-founder of SamanTree Medical SA.
SamanTree Medical SA and Horizon Europe share a vital mission to improve our lives: fighting against cancer. Why did you decide to focus on this important field?
I guess because we are a bit idealistic, and coming from the research in Life Science, we saw the large gap between what can be done in research and what is actually available for medical practice. The culture of SamanTree Medical, inspired by the founders, places the motivation of the people involved at the centre of the success of our venture. Innovating requires hard work and persistence. The day to day motivation is notably found in the conviction to propose solutions with a high societal impact. In our case, improving the patient care and quality of life in cancer treatment.
In 2014, SamanTree Medical SA was founded as a spin-off of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). What is the role that EPFL has played in the development of your project? How was the transition from researching to entrepreneurship?
I joined EPFL as a researcher in biophysics in 2009. It was a fantastic environment to innovate with a very specialised community, allowing me to cross paths with inspiring people, including my co-founders. In 2010, I co-invented a new medical imaging modality, which is now the core technology used by our main product at SamanTree Medical, the Histolog® Scanner.
In my experience, EPFL plays a key role as it integrates into a broader ecosystem. I would see it like a coral barrier serving as a support for the development of a very diversified life. So beyond the exceptional scientific environment that EPFL is hosting and nurturing, it is also opening the perspective of researchers on the valorisation of their idea into the real world. There I found important tools, initiatives and advisors to help me transition to entrepreneurship: from IP protection to presenting business plans to investors and financing the first stage of prototyping.
You are developing your disruptive project in Switzerland: the highest scored economy in the 2021 edition of the Global Innovation Index, one year again. What’s your opinion about the innovation ecosystem of your country?
Innovation is a strong driving force in Switzerland with many institutions, such as the EPFL, providing a fertile ground to develop breakthrough technologies. On the other hand, technology is a small part of the innovation process and indeed the entire ecosystem is to be considered.
Other initiatives, such as Venturelab, help founders gain credibility to finance their projects. The topic is pretty vast, but I could cite at least funding and talent as two important parts for being successful innovating. Fundings need to exist for the different stages of maturity of a company with innovative products, investment to start but also to grow. As for talent, the ones from the standard industries may not be the ones for innovation, which means that the start-up that “fails” may contribute enormously to the ecosystem by liberating experienced people into the innovative process in general.
SamanTree Medical SA has developed an innovative technology capable of ensuring tumour removal while reducing re-operation percentages: Histolog® Scanner. Could you please tell us more about your product and its benefits for health and society?
The CE mark Histolog® Scanner is a novel imaging modality that helps surgeons improve their procedure efficiency, notably as they always face this difficult tradeoff between being conserving for the patient while ensuring complete resection of the tumor. The Histolog® Scanner provides higher details to evaluate surgical specimens in real time and detect subtle cancerous patterns that are missed with standard imaging. Healthcare costs have been rising over the years, which is associated with the increasing number of cancers diagnosed each year.
Developing innovative medical procedures to diagnose and treat cancer in a cost-effective manner is of paramount importance to patients and healthcare systems. The Histolog® Scanner is a game-changer holding the promise of significantly improving patient care, while keeping costs down.
Bastien Rachet, CEO and co-founder and Etienne Shaffer, CTO and co-founder of SamanTree Medical SA with the Histolog® Scanner.
Thanks to your technology, SamanTree Medical SA is highly committed to fighting against breast cancer. In your opinion, how do you think the early detection and treatment of this disease have progressed in recent years?
While much work in low- and middle-income countries remains to be done to develop screening programmes, the ones related to mammography have been in place for years in high-income countries and have demonstrated a reduced mortality rate (~30% reduction).
In terms of treatment, breast-conserving surgery (BCS) is the most common surgical treatment for women with early breast cancer. This surgical approach aims to completely remove the tumor while preserving as much of the healthy tissue as possible in order to achieve better cosmetic and psychological outcomes for the patient. The efficiency of a conserving approach heavily relies on the accuracy of the detection between cancerous and non-cancerous tissue. This is where the Histolog® Scanner is bringing an important contribution. Beyond this increased performance, the challenge is to standardise this outcome to be reached by the vast majority at the worldwide level. This is where our AI based guidance software comes into play.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we wanted to share your professional perspective with our readers. Why is it important to raise awareness about this reality and join us to ask for more research and investment in this field?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, with more than 2 millions newly diagnosed patients each year. It is a major health issue that can be treated in most of the cases with the appropriate treatment, however, the patient journey remains long and painful. One major burden in the surgical removal of cancer is the need for a re-operation when cancerous tissues are left behind during surgery, which can happen in 20 to 30% of the cases.
Additional operations are a burden for the patient and come with complication risks, while it creates additional costs for both hospitals and the health care systems. With more practical and accurate intraoperative assessment techniques, millions of savings could be achieved and, more importantly, hundreds of thousands of patients could have cancer completely removed at primary surgery each year.
Your project got EU funds through the SME Instrument, predecessor of today’s EIC Accelerator programme. How has the European Commission helped you in achieving your objectives?
Obtaining this support from the EIC was indeed a great achievement. The EU contributed an amount of €2.3M to support our effort of commercialisation through early adoption. It notably supported the build of an extensive cancer pattern database that is necessary to standardise clinical outcome for hospitals. This was key for the success of the adoption of the new modality we are proposing, however it would have been very difficult to finance it with private investment only. More importantly, as a founder, it meant that the societal impact and economic reality within our proposal has been reviewed by external experts of the field and received a seal of excellence.
SamanTree Medical SA has already several years of experience going through the challenges innovative start-ups should overcome to skip over ‘the Valley of Death’ and grow. What could be your advice to other entrepreneurs starting developing their breakthrough technologies?
There’s no “death valley” to my view, every stage of the company development is risky and therefore difficult to finance. It obviously varies a lot according to your type of product and market. Maybe the proof-of-concept would be the most difficult gap, perhaps the performance demonstration, or gaining your first customers, and so on.
So ultimately the advice I could give on that matter is to diversify your source of funding with respect to the level of risk: private money has a limited tolerance to risk and depending on revenues may just dig your grave as you may not be investing in the right development at the right time. If your start-up has an ambitious mission, it will always require more money to invest in the next stage than what you can earn from your sales. To that extent a start-up CEO is always raising funds.
So ultimately the advice I could give on that matter is to diversify your source of funding with respect to the level of risk: private money has a limited tolerance to risk and depending on revenues may just dig your grave as you may not be investing in the right development at the right time.
From our side, it was a real pleasure to work with SamanTree Medical SA in the development of your funding strategy. How has been, in your opinion, our collaboration in this process?
To connect with my previous comment on the sources of financing, every source has its own costs. In the case of grants of the level we have been awarded, it comes with a high level of work for proposal preparation, positioning and administration. Start-ups may not have the corresponding resources available as their resources are often focused on the product development and customers. Evolution meets this need. Plus, your expertise and the work together really helped us to keep confidence in the fact that the proposal will eventually go through, which is so important to keep a positive dynamic within the group.
There’s just one question left: which will be your next steps?
Our immediate mission aims at setting a new standard for breast margin assessment, and to spread into other cancer surgery applications, such as for the prostate or the neuro-surgery, because the underlying detection method applies to all cancerous pathology.
Moreover, the Histolog® Scanner finds its applications throughout the patient journey, from biopsy to surgical diagnosis. Enhancing the decision making capabilities during surgery is therefore only the beginning, we are also aiming to provide improved diagnostic capabilities to clinicians when performing biopsies or analysing specimens in the laboratory. We have already laid the groundwork for future collaborations, in the United States and Europe, to move in this direction.
Thank you, Bastien, for sharing Samantree’s story with us, and above all, for your relevant work in the fight against cancer. We wish you all the best!