The CEO of an EPFL spin-off finalist of an international prize
Sylke Hoehnel, co-founder and CEO of EPFL spin-off Sun Bioscience, has reached the finals of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. Hoehnel will be pitching her startup, alongside other female entrepreneurs, tomorrow in San Francisco.
Sylke Hoehnel is preparing to make a 15-minute pitch on her startup, Sun Bioscience, at the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards in San Francisco. We’ll know tomorrow evening whether she’s done enough to scoop the top prize. But she’s already enjoying the exposure and personal coaching that comes with being among the 24 finalists – who were selected from a field of over 2,000 female entrepreneurs from around the world. Hoehnel and her co-founder, Nathalie Brandenberg, have developed a simple, reliable, time-saving grid system that allows for the standardized growth of organoids – tiny three-dimensional organ fragments with powerful applications in drug trials and research. Their breakthrough couldn’t have come at a better time. Here, Hoehnel tells us more about her company’s technology, and how she plans to market the product on her terms.
Can you tell us a bit more about your system?
Organoids are being used in an increasing number of applications, such as drug trials, but they need the right structure and a special environment to grow. At the moment, researchers are still doing that work by hand. It’s a time-consuming process that’s difficult to reproduce. Our solution, which we can manufacture at scale, combines a round grid with a microstructured gel that supports organoid growth. Using our technology, researchers can make multiple copies of the same organoid, all exactly the same size. That might seem insignificant to an outsider, but it’s extremely difficult to do when you’re working at a nanoscopic scale.
Award entrants need to demonstrate they have a marketable product. Can you manufacture your product at scale yet, and who are your customers?
We’ve developed a robot that prints the structure onto the gel and assembles the grid. We began selling the system, which we call Gri3D, earlier this year. We’ve had several major pharmaceutical companies buy it, and the feedback’s been very good so far. We’re also using it ourselves as part of a cystic fibrosis clinical trial with Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). The system lets us observe, in three dimensions, how tissues respond to different forms of treatment.
Could you build on your cystic fibrosis research and use the technology to trial drugs for other diseases?
Yes, that’s one of our aims. However, we recognize that it’s important to take things one step at a time. Many people, not least investors, have set their sights on cancer. It’s a vast market. But just understanding cancer in the human body is hard enough. Growing something in the laboratory then claiming “that’s cancer” is a bit of a leap. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic mutation, so it’s relatively straightforward to check whether a given molecule might work.
What do you expect to gain from the week you are spending in San Francisco?
We’ve had invaluable support from people around us so far, and I think spending time there will help us grow our network further. Aside from the competition, there’s a week-long program of workshops for the finalists, including sessions with previous years’ winners. The awards are also an incredible opportunity to gain exposure. The whole thing is run like an ad campaign, with videos and an expansive social media presence. And tomorrow, we’ll be giving a TED Talk-style presentation on our business plan. To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like it (she laughs). Standard startup competitions pale in comparison.
How did the selection process work? Did you have to prepare for it?
Entrants were whittled down to the final 24 based on their applications. Once we’d made it onto the short list, a specialist pharma business coach helped us refine our business plan. The next step was to work on my pitch. The organizers are keen to make it a glitzy, glamorous event, very much in the American showbiz vein – we’re supposed to act like stars (she laughs). Three entrants from eight regions have made it through to the finals in San Francisco. The judges will pick a winner from each region, based on their pitch and business plan.
More and more women are starting their own business these days, but you’re still in the minority. Do you find it hard being a female entrepreneur here in Switzerland?
Not especially, no. I’ve been to quite a few business meetings where almost everyone else has been a man. On the odd occasion, I’ve felt a bit awkward as a woman among them (she laughs). I also remember when we signed the agreement for our Foundation for Technological Innovation (FIT) loan in front of a notary. He remarked that the whole document was written in the masculine gender, when in fact both of us are women. He said that had never come up before.
What’s been the hardest part about setting up your business, and what are you most proud of?
I learned a lot when I was studying for my PhD. But setting up a new business is an entirely different ballgame. It’s a steep learning curve. At first, you feel like you’re cast adrift at sea, doing whatever you can to stay afloat and juggle one problem after another. The fact that there were two of us from the outset was a real bonus. And we’ve since brought in a chief financial officer. All three of us have a great working relationship, we help each other out. And we’re proud of the fact that we’ve brought our product to market without external investment. We developed our system and started mass-producing it using only the money we earned from startup competitions. Very few people thought we’d manage it. But we made a conscious decision to work with our customers on the product development side. If we’d brought in investors, they’d have pushed us to focus more on cancer. We decided we weren’t ready to take that step. We’re now looking to raise two million francs from investors to take our business to the next level.
Are you planning to keep developing your product in Switzerland?
Yes, that’s the idea. But a lot depends on our investors. If they only agree to invest if we move to the United States, that’ll leave us with no option. Ideally, we’re looking for a Swiss investor who wants us to stay put (she smiles).