Innovation Interview: Positrigo and Alzheimer’s diagnosis
Living in an ageing society involves severe problems that need urgent solutions. One of the most common syndromes is dementia: there are more than 50 million people affected worldwide and 10 million new cases each year.
Between 60% to 70% of dementia cases may correspond to Alzheimer’s disease. In this context, brain PET scanners are key to detect this condition, but their high cost and size make it difficult to standardize this practice.
Today we invite you to discover a very special initiative that is successfully fighting to change this situation. Positrigo has developed NeuroLF, a PET scanner capable of detecting Alzheimer biomarkers in an affordable and simple way.
Please meet Stefan Bircher, VP of Business Development & Marketing at Positrigo, and feel inspired by their high potential and innovative project.
We know your project has caught the attention of remarkable innovation organisations such as Innosuisse, Venture Kick or Swiss Med Tech, among others. For the benefit of other start-ups/spin-offs in Switzerland who are perhaps starting out, could you please share with them how they can make the most of the support available in Switzerland?
Switzerland has an active start-up and innovation ecosystem. If you are starting out, make use of it! We learned a lot by talking to more experienced founders and entrepreneurs and really acquired the essential knowledge on how to found and run a company hands-on. This would not have been possible without the support of the institutions you mentioned and their programs, in addition to the incubation work done by ETH Zurich. Last but not least, the idea was conceived in an interdisciplinary group of scientists and doctors from ETH Zurich, University Hospital Zurich, University of Zurich. This made it possible to really come up with a product idea that is useful for society.
Positrigo founders: Max Ahnen and Jannis Fischer.
Can you share with our readers the main benefits of NeuroLF, the ultra-small brain PET scanner Positrigo has designed? What impact will this new scanner have on Alzheimer patients?
As you mentioned, one of NeuroLF’s benefits is its ultra-small and compact design. In addition, patients appreciate the comfort and clinicians like the ease of use of NeuroLF. Thanks to the small footprint, NeuroLF doesn’t take up a lot of space and is supposed to be significantly less expensive compared to full body PET scanners.
With all these benefits in mind, we hope that brain PET will become much more accessible and allow the early detection and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The earlier it can be diagnosed, the higher are the chances to benefit from targeted treatment options and allows affected individuals to consider a comprehensive care plan.
Considering all these advantages, the European Innovation Council decided to support Positrigo’s innovation with a €2.25 million grant. Why did you decide to apply for the EIC Accelerator funding programme? What role has the EIC played in achieving your objectives?
We came across this unique grant opportunity in one of the coaching sessions in ETH’s ieLab. Back then it was called SME instrument and had an additional phase 1 with a EUR 50’000 lump sum payment for a feasibility study. We immediately applied and followed it through also with the second phase. It really helped to accelerate our development efforts and de-risk the project financially, which in turn also made our company more attractive for more funding in the form of venture capital.
Additionally, the EIC Fund has made an initial contribution of €1.5 million to co-fund your Series A. When weighing up your options, why did you decide to apply for Blended Finance from the European Commission?
To be honest, we were hesitant at first because it was a new instrument. In the end, as a start-up, you try to raise as much as possible to develop your vision faster. The initial hesitation was overcome quickly and we decided to apply for it along with our application for the grant. We are now very proud and happy to have the EIC Fund on board because it shows an even bigger commitment to our company by the European Commission which we believe to be very valuable for the future success of Positrigo and its impact on society.
We are now very proud and happy to have the EIC Fund on board because it shows an even bigger commitment to our company by the European Commission.
Let’s talk about one of the main milestones to secure the EIC Accelerator: the Brussels’ pitch. For start-ups facing this challenge, what advice would you give based on your own experience?
Prepare it very well and rehearse with colleagues and experts in the field. Be sure to find the right balance between technology and business aspects. Do not lose yourself in tech details. Bring your A-team. In the Q&A round, route the questions to specific experts in your team. Overall, the Brussels pitch is very similar to other VC pitches.
Over the past years, the competitiveness of the EIC Accelerator programme has become fierce. What would you say are the biggest challenges for an R&D intensive start-up like Positrigo when applying and how did you overcome them?
Let me start with what is not a problem: usually, start-up founders like us know their technology very well and thus this is the easy part. However, you should have a clear business plan and a good strategy on how to enter the market once the product is ready.
There is no one way to apply to the EIC Accelerator: some startups decide to submit alone, some with lightweight assistance, and some, with the full support of a consultancy. Based on your experience of working with a consultancy like Evolution, in what ways did this decision impact your application and the process?
If you are a first-time applicant I would recommend using a consultancy firm because they know how the technology is presented best in such an application. In the end, there are a lot of technical and formal requirements during the submission and evaluation process but also during grant management in case of success, which is hard to grasp without experience. Having that said, in our experience also the project and financial officers at the EISMEA are very helpful and can answer specifics during grant management.
One last question: where do you see Positrigo in 5 years?
In 5 years we will be a successful global company selling our brain PET systems worldwide to customers in need of early, precise, and affordable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and beyond.
Thank you, Stefan, for sharing the story behind NeuroLF and Positrigo. We wish you the best of luck in the future of your start-up combating Alzheimer’s disease.