Pepijn Beekman and Dilu Mathew, founders of start-up ECsens, a spin-off of the University of Twente, are planning no less than a revolution in healthcare. In late 2019, they won the 4TU Impact Challenge with their sensors to diagnose cancer faster. Their prize? Among other things, participation in a trade mission to Dubai. Because of the corona pandemic, that trip was postponed from fall 2020 to the end of January. From their suite in the towering hotel where they were staying last week, they reported, looked back and ahead.
The days are tightly scheduled with mostly meetings at the Expo and the Arab Health Conference, Beekman says. “It’s very busy, but it’s really useful to be here. We are exploring a whole new market, seeing what the demand is here and how we can approach this market. The people here are very ambitious and interested in innovation.”
Beekman is visibly impressed with the city. “It’s extraordinary, like Las Vegas. Everything seems possible here.” It is Beekman’s first visit to Dubai, for Dilu Mathew it is his eighth. Mathew: “The more I come here, the more the city fascinates me.” Sitting at the kitchen table of their suite, the two talk about how important it is to be friends. Beekman: “During a trip like this, you’re constantly very close to each other. You have to be able to handle that. Just last month we were together in Helsinki. I see Dilu more than I see my own family.”
They complement each other, says Beekman. “I am pretty direct in negotiations, Dilu remains the polite gentleman at all times.” Mathew: “Except when it comes to financing; then I am more strict again.” When it comes to strategy, Beekman is more the dreamer and Mathew the realist, Beekman continues. “Our strength is not just how we complement each other. It’s more than the sum of all the parts. The magic happens in our daily discussions. Neither of us could do this alone.”
Simplify the diagnosis of cancer
They met in 2012, through the Nanotechnology program at the University of Twente. There they became friends. During the last part of their PhD research, they decided to start working together. They investigated ultra-sensitive sensors to detect cancer-related nanoparticles, tumor-derived extracellular particles. By doing so, they wanted to speed up and simplify the diagnosis of cancer.
Those sensors to detect cancer cells are not yet ready. Corona not only made it necessary to postpone the trip to Dubai, but the pandemic also caused the two to shift their research focus during the initial lockdown. Because it is a versatile sensor technology, the researchers could also use their sensors for corona detection.
This allowed them to continue using the university’s laboratories. At the time, the University of Twente research building was only open for Covid-19 related research. So Beekman and Mathew wrote a research proposal to start testing for the coronavirus with their sensors. The proposal received a grant of 250,000 euros from Health Holland and later received 200,000 euros from the RVO (Dutch government agency for enterprise).
This step and winning the 4TU Impact Challenge proved to be a springboard for the two. They continue to develop their product. Beekman: “Cancer diagnostics is extremely complex. With a virus it’s like this: you either have it or you don’t. In contrast, everyone always has a few cancer particles in their body. You have to compare a lot with each other and you have to follow patients for a long time. In a weird way, we are glad we could start with covid. It makes more sense to start in a simpler way and later move up to cancer diagnostics. We’ll keep working on that.”
At the moment, the two are not marketing their sensors to detect only a coronavirus. Mathew: “Those tests won’t be needed forever. That’s why we are expanding the tests to quickly detect other viruses and bacteria. For example, doctors can do a test just before surgery to see if a possible bacteria could lead to a complication.”
“With our ultra-small sensors, we can detect every single particle in the blood,” says Beekman. “If you look at your thumbnail for two minutes, the nail has grown a hundred nanometers.” Those particles can be anything: bacteria, cancer particles, and viruses. “Because the sensors are so sensitive, they detect them very quickly,” Mathew explains. “Because each particle can be detected separately, the sensor selects only those particles that matter. That takes a few minutes.”
During their visit to Dubai, both researchers spoke with doctors. They asked them how long it takes to test for certain bacteria and viruses. Mathew: “They said, ‘We can do that really quickly, in a couple of days.’ Those doctors fell off their chairs when we said we can do it in a few minutes.”
The focus on corona testing didn’t just produce a spurt in sensor development. Just like winning the 4TU Impact Challenge, it yielded a huge number of interviews and publications in national newspapers, Mathew says. “Partly because of this we are now in the final phase with a private investor. He came to us because of all the publicity.”
As a result of winning the challenge, they are also discovering a whole new market. Beekman: “A market that was not on our roadmap. But the Middle East turns out to be a very interesting and relatively easy market to approach.” For example, the healthcare system in the United Arab Emirates is different than in Europe or the United States. “Here you don’t do business directly with a hospital. There are so-called distributors in between. They actually arrange everything for you. The certification, purchasing, sales. They do that in the name of your company; they know the way.” Beekman: “In the Netherlands, we have to figure everything out ourselves.”
Still, the start-up does receive some necessary support from Novel-T, which helps start-ups and scale-ups with the business side of their company. For example, the two researchers received guidance in preparing for the 4TU Impact Challenge and they receive legal support in applying for patents. After winning the challenge, the researchers decided to start a company. Novel-T helped with that as well. Mathew: “They think along in the development of our business model and our financial plans. But we are learning fast and becoming more and more independent.”
The researchers were also employed by the University of Twente until last summer. Now they are completely on their own. Beekman: “But in all honesty, we still use the university’s labs. We are very grateful to Professors Ter Stappen, Van der Wiel, Lemay, and Le Gac for that. We are no longer formally employed, but we have strong ties to the university.” The duo also uses the cleanroom facilities of MESA+, a nanotechnology research center at the University of Twente.
Beekman: “Our dream is to make healthcare more efficient. We see all sorts of inefficiencies that can be solved from an academic side. We want a healthcare future that is going to save lives.” Mathew: “And provide a revolution in healthcare.”
ECsens represented the Netherlands during the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ trade mission to the Arab Health Expo in Dubai. This mission was from January 23 to 27.