06 February 2012

Miguel Holgado: “You need to advance a lot in your technology to negotiate with investors”

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Thanks to the EU support to technology transfer, a label-free immunoassay system utilizing advanced optical and micro-nano technology is reaching the market.

The new label-free detection kit  has been developed by the Spanish BIOD (Bio-Optical Detection) company, recently established. The kit can be applied in several fields including clinics (disease detection), pharmaceutics (development of new drugs), agrifood (detection of pesticides, toxins etc), environment (i.e. virus detection), food traceability and doping, We talked to Miguel Holgado, BIOD’s promoter, to know a bit more about his experience in finding a way to the market.

How was the idea of BIOD born?
BIOD is a technology based company born from our university (UPM, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid) and from the experience of various sectors and experts in optical metrology and micro and nano fabrication, optoelectronics, microelectronics, biochemistry, in vitro detection and nanobiotechonology. I myself come from the microelectronics industry and after being Spanish representative and leader of several Framework Programme projects for four years and after seeing that there are many ideas that are never commercialized, I decided to take the plunge into business. We received support from our University and in 2010 we won a UPM programme as best innovative idea. From there we put the means to gain support especially from the industry (there would be a lot to say on this, because we did not want capital nor risk groups but only industrials partners who would support the idea).
BIOD aims to develop high quality, cheap point of care diagnostic and High Throughput Screening (process through which one can rapidly identify active compounds, antibodies or genes which modulate a particular biomolecular pathway)based on a technology not yet developed in today's market that allows for multiple diagnoses in a square inch without the need for classical detection systems such as markings fluorescent, magnetic ink, chromatography etc, which involve chemicals our label-free detection system does not.

How do you do it?
We have developed and patented (patent approved in Spain and underway in Europe), a technology based on what we call BICELLs, Biophotonic sensing cells, that is the design of biophotonic biosensitive cells that change in their optical properties.
If for example you want to make a detector of prostate cancer, as there is an antibody (bioreceptor) that selectively recognizes if you have a prostate specific antigen, what you do is immobilize, i.e. put on your biosensor the bioreceptor that only recognizes the antigen. When some kind of molecule is recognized in these cells the optical properties change. Therefore when we ‘optically interrogate’ these cells we know thanks to the optical response if certain types of biomolecules have actually been recognized. In other words, when your throw a drop for instance of urine on your detection chip, if there is that antigen, the biodetector will capture it. This antigen antibody affinity reaction is what the sensitive biocells developed within BIOD detect.

Where does the nano part come into play?
The main part of the biophotonic cells are nanostructures, nanopillars. Each nanopillar is a sensor, therefore what we do is put a lot of them together and examine the contribution of all of them.

Is there a chance that these devices might be toxic either for the people or the environment?
Our devices are much less toxic than any microelectronic device. For instance any mobile phone could have multiple devices and each one of them would be much more toxic than the detection kits we are going to commercialize in 18 to 24 months.

What does the detection kit look like?
It's like a tablet about the size of a sample holder (1x5 cm) with several wells each of whom has multiple BICELLs with the capability of analysing multiple diagnostics per well. In each well you put a drop of serum, urine, saliva, tears of the eye for example and after around 10 minutes put it in a machine that tells you what the concentration of what you are measuring is; with one drop you can measure various markers at once. This kit will have an approximate cost of 14 euro and might be sold in drugstores for instance. We aim to give quantitative information (concentration of the correspondent substance) and to do it we also need a diagnostic platform. The business model we think of would be similar to Nespresso’s. The kit would be disposable and the platform would be the coffee machine that would be universal for all the bioapplications.

Besides drugstores where else could the kit be available?
For a long time the industry has been seeing that it would be very interesting to have what is called ‘point of care devices’; for example, imagine that an ophthalmologist could have an equipment where he/she could perform analysis immediately when he/she has determined that it is urgent (for instance in the case of cardiac markers) or so to prevent the patient to come several times to the consultation.
What we hope is that, ultimately, the decision of making a diagnosis could come from the end-user, as it happens with pregnancy tests. However it is not easy because there are many people working on it and doctors do not seem to be very supportive of this happening ...

What about labs?
Our technology could be useful for labs since it would allow for the High Throughput Screening. On the other side, big labs tend to have kind of points of care in order to avoid having diagnostic equipments on all the time and at the same time to be able to attend eventual urgencies. In that sense it would be useful for them to have smaller and more compact devices to perform that kind of analysis.

What other specific areas can benefit the most from this invention?
Besides clinics (disease detection), pharmaceutics (development of new drugs), agri-food (detection of pesticides, toxines etc), environment (virus detection for instance). Other applications include food traceability and doping.
Our label-free technology is of easy infiltration and requires very little amount of original sample (on the order of one microliter) and it is sensitive enough for the majority of the bio-applications.

What is the most important thing that you have learned about taking an innovation to the market?
That if you want to create a company based on technology and innovation that is lasting, you need to advance a lot in your technology as to be able to negotiate with investors interested in developing long-term technology. The risk is that if you generate a technology and directly develop a business, as investors put harsh conditions, there comes a time when you lose share in the participation of the company, have to sell it and therefore lose your chance to further develop the technology you created. Therefore it is very important to protect your technology either by transferring it, or, if seeking outside capital, you have to be really careful and always keep a sufficient percentage of the company so that dilution does not lead to lose control of something you've generated.


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