Bioherent was founded a year ago to advance the development of its laboratory prototype that uses ultra-sensitive photonic biosensors for the rapid and accurate detection of drug allergies, such as beta-lactam antibiotics. After developing a rapid, reliable, in vitro and inexpensive diagnostic device that could successfully solve these problems, the nine founders of BIONAND and the University of Malaga decided to co-found Bioherent as a spin-off to commercialize the technology, with the help of Bullnet Capital a VC. A major advantage of their technology was that, unlike other integrative photonic biosensor systems, it did not require demanding components and would therefore be relatively cheap to manufacture and easy to apply.
The problem with identifying people who are allergic to beta-lactam antibiotics like penicillin is that the allergy is extremely difficult to verify with modern in vitro diagnostic techniques because these drugs are so small that they require a molecule suitable carrier so that the corresponding antibodies can recognize them. Additionally, allergy-triggering antibodies are typically present at ultra-low concentrations. As a result, an estimated 70-90% of people identified as allergic to beta-lactams are in fact not allergic at all, creating a huge waste of time and money for hospitals and the healthcare system.
Antonio Raspa, EPIC’s Senior Photonics Technology Manager, spoke with Jonas Leuermann, Engineering Manager of Spain-based start-up Bioherent, to learn more about his career and the development of the solution fast plug-n-play to revolutionize drug allergy testing.
In 2010 Jonas went to RWTH Aachen University to study a BSc in Electrical Engineering, Information Technology and Computer Engineering. This was followed by an MSc, during which he developed an interest in photonics, worked as an intern at ADVA Optical Networking in Meiningen, and later designed integrated photonic devices for biophotonic applications under the European project PIXS4LIFE at the Institute for Integrated Photonics. (IPH) in Aachen.
Then, in 2017, he started a doctorate in telecommunications, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie program, at the University of Malaga, which involved research at BIONAND, a multidisciplinary research center co-founded by the university to develop new nanosystems to diagnose, prevent and treat disease. Working in the Photonics and Radio Frequency Laboratory, Jonas spent the next four years collaborating with scientific chemists, mechanical and photonic engineers, and experts in the treatment of allergic diseases to develop a wearable silicon-based PIC device at use as a breakthrough drug allergy test.
Over the past 12 months, the focus has been on increasing investment to cover the costs of six full-time staff comprising one administrator, three engineers including Jonas and two scientific chemists. The other objective was to develop a first prototype for testing in a real clinical environment. As Jonas confirms, securing the initial investment wasn’t particularly difficult because their investors weren’t just convinced by the technology, but by the fact that they were aiming to solve a real problem and answer to a real demand for reliable and low-cost detection. device for beta-lactam allergies.
Once the company has developed a more sophisticated prototype suitable for extensive clinical trials, it will need to expand the R&D team to design a manufacturable product. Over the next two to three years, this will require increasing the workforce to around 40 people and securing new investment from VCs and European projects.
But Jonas is well aware of the challenges that will need to be overcome to make this a reality. As he points out, although the COVID pandemic has shown the importance of medical diagnostics for society and Bioherent has a fast, reliable and cost-effective solution to detect drug allergies, they are entering a field where only a few people know how to manage due to the complexity of the technology and the task, in addition to complying with the demanding regulations for medical devices. As he now knows, the regulatory framework in Europe for medical devices makes development a very difficult task. There are so many regulations and documents that he sometimes had to stop working on the design to check whether it complied with a particular regulation or to determine the risks involved under the mandatory risk management. The need to engage in these new areas has been a challenge for the whole team, as most have a university education.
However, despite being a small company where everything is new, they have already learned a lot and Jonas is confident that Bioherent has the know-how and determination and will acquire the expertise needed to meet these challenges and compete. with success. As he says, over the past decade, photonic biosensing structures have demonstrated their enormous potential, and as their sensor offers significant advantages over other existing technologies, Bioherent is in an excellent position to become a market leader in detection of drug allergies.
If you were doing it again, what would you do differently?
“If I had known that I was going to co-found a start-up in Spain, I would certainly have put more emphasis on improving my Spanish. In the first years of my thesis, I almost always used English in my work, and I didn’t have much motivation to learn Spanish. But now that has completely changed and I am at a great disadvantage because often when I attend a meeting in Spanish I spend more time following the conversation and understanding than participating.
I would also take additional business management courses to prepare myself to work as an entrepreneur. When I started I was kind of lost with all the new things I had to do like making a business plan, checking out what our competitors were doing and how our technology was better than theirs, what as as an academic, I didn’t know much about. Fortunately, our investors put us in contact with people who had created their own company, acted as mentors and gave us valuable advice on how to move the business forward and what mistakes to avoid.
What is your advice for the next generation of photonics entrepreneurs?
“First of all, there’s a huge demand for photonics engineers, so you’re pretty much guaranteed a good salary. As for specific areas, one thing that I particularly like about biophotonics and also the reason why I started Bioherent is that the work is very multidisciplinary, and I like the idea that it there are chemists, engineers, biologists who must work together 100% to achieve very ambitious goals. objectives such as better detection of allergies to beta-lactams. Besides biophotonics, LiDAR for automotive applications is increasingly popular and there is also telecommunications, which remains the largest user of photonics.
Second, if you have the opportunity and the passion to start your own business, you should definitely give it a try. Otherwise, you will most likely regret it later as it can be an amazing and intensive experience where you can learn a lot both professionally and personally, for example, how to manage stress and how to maintain a healthy work/life balance, which is very difficult, especially in the first months and years of a new business.
Third, be prepared to seek help – you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. Many people have already gone through the process and are generally willing to share their experience and offer advice.
Finally, it’s important to have a team you can rely on with people who are as ambitious as you are and willing to sacrifice some of their time to make the business a success.
Photo: from left to right: Jonas Leuermann, Violeta Isabel Gil Ocaña, Carlos Fernández Gallardo, Diego Mauricio Guzmán Giraldo, Anjara Morgado Benítez and Adrián Whale Obrero.
Written by Antonio Raspa, EPIC’s Senior Photonics Technology Manager,