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Accelerator Programme Driving Forward Kidney Cancer Diagnostic Development

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In April 2017, ZCube, Research Venture of the pharmaceutical group Zambon, launched the second edition of Open Accelerator, a fast track acceleration program for life science start-up projects. With the aim of promoting scientific and digital innovation, Open Accelerator is a 12-step program providing training to international researchers, scientists and aspiring entrepreneurs. The programme was devised by Zcube in partnership with Deloitte’s Officine Innovazione, to provide winning entrepreneurs with the opportunity to work on their idea or prototype, and develop a sustainable and profitable development strategy for their start-up’s business model.

On closing, in early July, 124 proposals had been submitted from across the globe, from which 5 of the most deserving projects were selected as winners. One prizewinner was Biorek, from the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, a start-up whose research focuses on new diagnostic biomarkers and predictors of kidney cancer.  Biorek was awarded a 50,000 euro seed investment and access to Zambon’s campus, OpenZone, as well as consultancy services worth 5,000 euros provided by Deloitte Italy, and 3 legal advisory consultations by the international firm Bird&Bird.

We spoke to Dr Francesco Trevisani, Biorek, Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, and Giovanni Rizzo, PhD MBA, Chief of Innovation Division, ZCube S.r.l. to learn more about Biorek and how the ZCube accelerator programme is helping to drive the project forward.

Anna MacDonald (AM): What are some of the current challenges of diagnosing kidney cancer?

Dr Francesco Trevisani (FT): There are currently no biomarkers to detect the presence of kidney cancer. A CT scan or MRI can be carried out to examine a mass on the kidney but this does not indicate whether the lesions are benign or malignant. There are no instruments in day to day clinical practice which enable diagnosis, which means kidney cancer is difficult to diagnose, and sometimes it is diagnosed too late; generally, for people diagnosed with kidney cancer in England and Wales, the survival rate over 5 years or more after diagnosis is less than 60%. This is why it is vital to make the right diagnosis at the right time.

AM: Can you tell us a little about Biorek and its aims?

The aim of Biorek is to enable the detection of biomarkers for diagnosing kidney cancer, after a scan has been carried out. These biomarkers also help to determine whether the cancer is benign or malignant, and how aggressive it is.  This eliminates the need for any unnecessary treatment or surgery, which can cause harm to the patient; in some cases, patient death is a result of the side effects of unnecessary treatment, rather than cancer itself. Once it is possible to distinguish between benign and malignant tissue, surgeons can ensure that only the malignant tissue is removed, rather than the entire kidney. It is important to note that Biorek is not a screening test but a predictive one; a mass must be detected first.

AM: How is ZCube’s accelerator programme helping the project?

: As well as providing a great course, the Open Accelerator programme helped me with the business aspects of the Biorek project, and helped to clarify my ideas. I am a clinician and doctor by profession, so it was beneficial to receive assistance in a wide range of areas, such as how to showcase the importance of my work within the Italian and wider European markets. In particular, communication is a vital area for us, and we wanted this new project to be understood by everyone, not just experts, as our research is related to a very real need in hospitals. For instance, as surgery is costly, it was important to communicate that these new diagnostic biomarkers can prevent unnecessary operations.

Giovanni Rizzo (GR): At ZCube, it is our objective to provide innovative projects such as Biorek’s with a springboard into the world of business and ultimately to help them gain traction in the right markets. Excellent research that can make a real impact for healthcare professionals and patients alike falls by the wayside without a long-term business strategy incorporating all the right elements for sustainable market success. Through Open Accelerator, we are able to provide Biorek with practical support, as well as access to experienced specialists who already know the pitfalls of starting out as an entrepreneur in the life sciences sector. Biorek’s research is hugely valuable for kidney cancer diagnosis, and the support of ZCube’s programme will help Biorek to make further strides towards improved patient health.

AM: What difference has this made?

Through the programme, we have been able to build relationships with many experts, and open the eyes of professionals, particularly in the UK, France and Germany. The programme also facilitated contact with business angels and venture capital funds, by introducing us to a range of people. It is crucial to build the right network to be able to get a great idea off the ground, and we were able to do so through Open Accelerator.

AM: What advice would you offer fellow scientists looking to begin a start-up?

Though it is often a struggle at the beginning, as it was for us, I would advise fellow start-ups not to give up and to remain ambitious. Of course, hard work is key as well as humility and teamwork. Don’t forget that improvements are always possible. Lastly, make sure you to speak to the right people and ask them for advice. 

Francesco Trevisani and Giovanni Rizzo were speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.