In 2015, Dr Liesbeth van Oeffelen founded BiosenSource, a spin-off company of VUB and imec, with the aim of further developing a measurement device that would allow researchers to very quickly and easily characterise biomolecular interactions, using nanopore technology. This did not happen overnight, from seed to founding, a years-long growth period preceded this.
When did the idea of starting your own company begin to mature?
Only during my PhD. A whole process preceded this first. As a civil engineer, I wanted to do 'something' in biology with possible medical applications. During my search for a master's thesis subject, I ended up in microbiology. That did give a bit of a culture shock as a civil engineer among bio engineers! The measurement processes, e.g. to study interactions between proteins and DNA, are much less precise and require much more time than typical measurement processes I was familiar with as an engineer.
After my master's thesis, I spent a year doing research in bioinformatics, after which I refocused my research on nanopore technology, which was then in its infancy. I continued working on this for 2 years. During that period, I had gotten the idea of using nanopores to study interactions between proteins and DNA faster and more accurately, and applied for an FWO grant to conduct further research.
And so that idea of creating my own company started to mature. Before that, I never thought entrepreneurship would be for me. Companies didn't really interest me, that was just about the money. Until the moment you think beyond that. If you want to develop a device to contribute to scientific research worldwide, you automatically end up with your own company. Developing the device in collaboration with an existing company didn't really seem like an option. I also wanted to keep the reins in my own hands and I managed to do that by starting my own company. I ended up doing doctoral research for eight years, which also gave me time to let the idea mature.
You then took the decision to start a company. How did you approach that?
From the beginning, my intention was not to set up a company and sell it eventually. I thought a lot about that. It is almost taken for granted that you raise venture capital and have an exit strategy. I didn't take that for granted. I wanted to build something and make sure it became profitable, and that the proceeds would be used to develop something new again. Because my measurement device needed further development, I needed funding. However, I wanted to remain independent, so I started consulting first and also developed a software for quality control in medical laboratories, which I marketed together with Roche Diagnostics. However, research & development remains an unpredictable business. The question is also how far do you go with this? Do I continue to invest? A question normally asked by an investor, but now you have to answer it yourself. The limit is much further than with an external investor because there is a different kind of motivation behind it, of course.
You didn't follow the usual route, you didn't go looking for venture capital, for example. What about patenting your technology, did you deviate from the usual path here too?
My device is indeed not patented. Not everyone finds it obvious to go into solid-state nanopore technology. There is a high risk involved and it is not easily invested in. At one point there was a hype around solid-state, but then it turned out to be much more complicated than expected. It just takes a huge amount of time and energy. A lot of the know-how is also just kept secret, though with the idea of patenting at some point.
The R&D I am doing now, I couldn't possibly have done at university either, because you are stuck with publications. Before you patent, you also have to see that you are far enough along, that you can make something reproducible. At BiosenSource, we have therefore invested a lot of time in our own production line. Once you patent, you are faced with the fact that your protected period of 20 years starts running, but also that you can be novelty destroying for yourself if you make modifications afterwards. Once you have a prototype that is fully functional and you see that you have potential customers for it, it is a good idea to patent. Then you also know it will pay off.
Are you currently still working with the VUB?
Certainly, I am currently working with Eveline Peeters, from the Microbiology research group, where I also did my PhD. My idea to develop a device also arose from my experience as a master's thesis student there. So I wanted to develop a device that would allow them to work much faster than with current technology. We are currently working hard on the reproducibility of measurements with the device.
As a PhD student, you had no business management experience. How did you overcome this?
At the VUB I attended the starter seminars where I gained some basic knowledge. I also participated in the business plan competitions Battle of the Talents and Bizidee. After my PhD at the VUB, I knew I wanted to become self-employed and - to start with - generate income through consultancy to continue my research, but I didn't quite know how I would go about it. That's why I started looking for possible mentoring programmes. That's how I ended up at the Starters Lab and Start-it KBC. I also received support from VOKA. You want to start up as an entrepreneur, but you have no capital, no intellectual property and on top of that no income. I followed several pathways and found it very useful. Through consultancy, I was able to gain basic experience and provide income. Moreover, I had already saved up for several years in order to bring in my own capital. The next step was then software development together with Roche Diagnostics. But the ultimate goal is the further development of my measurement device.
What drives you as an entrepreneur?
Surely the fact that you can contribute something to society.
What good advice can you give start-up entrepreneurs?
I think one of the most important things is not to lose sight of yourself. Realise beforehand that if you want to put something on the market, you will have to be able to persevere for a very long time. It's not about getting the product into the market at any cost, but mainly about how you can do it your way. Stay true to yourself! In the end, it's your idea, your business!
Liesbeth van Oeffelen, BiosenSource
Entrepreneur in Bioinformatics and Device Engineering