SyCap: from project to company

As from 1 January 2022, the SyCap project will carry on as a company under the name Avalanche Medical. Initiators and aspiring entrepreneurs Pieter Emans and Alex Roth see the transition of the InSciTe project into a company as an essential step: 'Our product is best served by a company that is willing to take responsibility for introducing it to the market.'

At the moment, their product – a synthetic implant for treating damaged cartilage in the knee – is not quite fully developed. Pieter and Alex think it will take another five to six years before the product can actually be launched on the market. Alex: 'We have a solid foundation. The intensive collaboration between Maastricht UMC+, Eindhoven University of Technology, and DSM within the framework of of InSciTe has proved very fruitful, but it has not always been easy. The biggest challenge is that the doctors, technicians, and chemists involved in the project all come from different cultures and speak different languages.' Pieter completely agrees: 'Alex speaks the language of technicians, having studied at TU/e. In the last few years, he has also learned my language as an orthopaedic surgeon.'

From guild to business

Pieter: 'For many years, we have been operating in a kind of guild structure. And that’s been the secret behind it, really: different groups of professionals and specialists looking at the same problem from a different background, a different ideal, and a different perspective. We shared knowledge and learned from and with each other. This generated mutual respect and trust, and that social capital is incredibly valuable to us. Now that we are stepping away from the guild and starting a company, business and financial agreements need to be made: What is the product worth at this stage? What about IP? We have recruited a new colleague to take on the role of CEO: Bindert Vriesema. He has a lot of corporate experience and will mainly deal with the business side so that we can focus on the product.'

Support from Reuma Nederland

According to Alex, they will need around €10 million to get the product on the market. And they are already off to a good start: Reuma Nederland is supporting the company with a PPP/TKI grant from Health Holland. Alex: 'The fact that Reuma Nederland apparently has a lot of faith in our ideas is a huge compliment. It gives us the opportunity to start up operations in the company immediately; thanks to this grant, we can even hire our first employee right away. Pieter and I will both work part-time for Avalanche Medical: I will devote 40% of my time, Pieter 10% of his.'

The impact of InSciTe

Looking back on the last few years, Pieter and Alex appreciate InSciTe’s added value: 'We felt safe in the collaboration. Everyone has their own clear role and yet you are still working together on the bigger picture. As far as patents are concerned, they are covered by InSciTe’s project agreement. There are still a few differences of interpretation here and there, but we will undoubtedly resolve them. InSciTe also organizes lots of courses and training programmes for start-up companies, which is another bonus. We have learnt a lot from them.'

Looking ahead

Standing on your own two feet, getting the funding in place, initiating clinical trials, perfecting the product, and then launching it on the market. Pieter: 'For the next few years, I want to help make the company a success. But there is a potential conflict of interest between my role as an entrepreneur and as a doctor. So I will probably leave the company in the long run.'

Alex: 'Pieter is already talking about leaving the company before it’s even up and running, but I understand his dilemma. Once we have the CE mark and can market and sell the product, he will probably have to make a choice: do I want to sell our invention or do I want to continue being a doctor who treats patients? And I know Pieter would much rather do the latter. At the end of the day, we are doing all this so that we can help the patient as best we can, and we are taking all the steps necessary to make sure our invention reaches the patient.'

Pieter Emans

Pieter Emans finished his PhD in 2007 focused on Cartilage biology, exploring the possibility to generate cartilage at an ectopical site and repair cartilage defects with this approach. This work received the Goran Bauer grant of the Nordic Orthopaedic Federation (NOF) and a long lasting grant (LLP 14) of the Dutch Arthritis Society (Reumafonds). After completing his medical specialization, he did a Lars Peterson fellowship in knee surgery and cartilage recovery in the US (Boston, Chicago, San Diego and LA). Pieter Emans is also involved in the companies Chondropeptix and Avalanche Medical.

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Alex Roth

Alex Roth is a biomedical engineer and currently employed as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Maastricht University Medical Center. He obtained his PhD thesis from Maastricht University at the beginning of 2017. The work for his PhD thesis focused on the preclinical evaluation of radiopaque UHMWPE sublaminar wires for scoliosis correction as part of the BMM project ‘Spineguide’. As a postdoctoral researcher working on both the PoSTuRE and SyCap InSciTe projects, he continues to strive to bring innovative medical devices and technology to the clinic. Alex Roth is now also involved in the new startup Avalanche Medical, a spin off from the InSciTe project SyCap.

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