Innovator of the Month Interview by Eleonora Borda and Claudia Bigoni
Last month, Innovation Forum Lausanne had the chance to sit and have a chat with Nicolas Vachicouras and Ludovic Serex, founder and co-founder of Neurosoft, winners of last edition’s IMAGINE IF! Accelerator and receiver of the Audience Prize along with Swoxid. Neurosoft develops soft electrode arrays for treating neurological diseases by recording or stimulating the brain, spinal cord or peripheral nerves. The combination of soft materials and stretchable electronics allows higher conformability, contrary to the rigid systems currently used in clinics, and provide better biointegration for long-term applications.
Hello Nicolas, you just finished your PhD, but already last year you pitched your technology at the European Venture Program Pitch Battle; when did you start thinking that you could be a scientist entrepreneur? Was it just an opportunity or a dream?
Nicolas: Since high school, I have always liked the idea of interfacing the human body with technologies, but it was upon my arrival at EPFL ten years ago that everything really started. I began by joining the microengineering program and then pursued various projects in the laboratories of the Center of Neuroprostethics during my Master’s. A key step in my path was a summer internship at Aleva Neurotherapeutics, a startup developing implantable microelectrodes for deep brain stimulation. There, I understood how medical devices are developed at the industry level and I was lucky to get some advice to address my future PhD with a rather entrepreneurship-based vision from the start. Certainly, joining Prof. Lacour’s laboratory, doing pioneering work in the field of neural implants, helped me a lot on the scientific side. Overall, everything I did was part of a strategy to prepare the pathway towards building a startup while learning as much as I could.
How did you build your team? What kind of people are necessary to bring forward such a translational technology?
Nicolas: You need someone you already know you can work with, someone you can trust and that has both the capabilities and the motivation. I met Ludovic during my Bachelor’s and we have worked together on various projects ever since. Florian Fallegger, third co-founder, also joined us early on, as I also had the chance to experiment working together while being involved in the same project during our PhDs in Prof. Lacour’s group. The evolution from colleagues to forming a team was smooth and natural: we did an initial contest together and then the current team was formed.
Neurosoft took part in the IMAGINE IF! Competition, what did this experience mean for you and how does it feel to be chosen as the best startup not only by the jury but also by the audience?
Nicolas: Taking part in IMAGINE IF! gave us the chance to practice explaining our idea in a simple manner even if our topic is extremely specific. Finding an effective way to explain your idea quickly and simply to reach people with different backgrounds is an extremely important exercise.
Ludovic: Winning the first prize as well as the audience prize was motivating: we could see that our project is not only for the niche of our scientific community, but it is also interesting for people in other fields.
What are you expecting from the experience of participating at the global finals of IMAGINE IF!?
Nicolas: Having the possibility to showcase our project in an international conference and competition is a great opportunity. Indeed, we have been in the comfort zone of EPFL for almost ten years now and thus, we have had little exposure to the outside environment. With the global mentorship program and the following pitching competition, we want to gather more feedback from people who base their opinions only on the project, with no strings attached.
In what aspects does your solution distinguish itself from other products on the market?
Nicolas: The key aspect regards the mechanical properties of our implant: softness, conformability and stretchability. Moreover, having all these properties on a micrometer scale electrode is an important added value, thanks to which we can have a better biointegration and access to anatomical regions that could not be reached with a stiff implant. From a technical point of view, the shift from rigid to soft is not trivial and we already have patents protecting our technology. Another critical point lies in the fabrication process: we mainly use techniques from the semiconductor industry and only few manual steps. In this way, batch processes can be exploited to produce many implants for cheaper and more reliably.
How difficult is to go through the regulatory aspects for an implantable device?
Nicolas: It is really challenging, yet a necessary step for our product. Right now, we are putting most of our effort into the translation from research grade to medical grade materials, which are approved for human implantation. Because the required knowledge on regulatory affairs is so large, the best approach is to ask for help to experienced people and consultants. On the side, I also suggest taking some related courses and trainings (EPFL offers many good options).
During the Startup Champions Seed Night at EPFL in April, the secret questions asked to the finalists of the competition was ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ so we are curious to know what your answer would be!
Ludovic: He [Nicolas, ed] is capable of texting me late at night to inform me about any new possible opportunity for the startup. More generally, I think it’s the timeline for production: it can take up to 7 months to have a well-working setup with machines and materials – if something fails along the way, you have to rethink everything.
Nicolas: I would say various worries about the project: building a startup is like a roller-coaster: it is a sequence of ups and downs. It is actually quite similar to a PhD; but in this case, whether you will be able to continue working on the project is defined by your own capabilities and success to bring your product on the market. Moreover, being on time on the different schedules is critical, especially now that the competition in the field of neural implants is growing so fast. My state of mind is to be a ‘realistic optimistic’, but not naive.
Where do you see Neurosoft in 10 years?
Nicolas: At the moment, we are leaving various options open. Certainly, the critical point will be the decision between trying to keep growing to eventually be self-sustainable or making a partnership with other companies. From an optimistic point of view, in ten years we would like to be in the former case. However, growing a big company in Switzerland is quite hard: at the moment you don’t see many huge investments like in the USA, since investors here are generally more conservative. Our plan A is to try to grow while staying local, but we are open to any possibilities that the future might hold. We will do whatever is best for the company.
What is a piece of advice you would like to give to a ‘wanna-be’ entrepreneur?
Ludovic: There are a lot of opportunities in terms of funding, coaching and programs like IMAGINE IF! at EPFL and in Switzerland to grow your idea and develop a business. My advice is: leverage what EPFL (or ETHZ) and the Swiss government provides and look for people who are willing to help.
Nicolas: I have two pieces of advice: a rather cliché one is not to get demotivated from other people’s opinions. For me, my number one rule is that “if you really want to do something, you will find a way to make it work”. My second piece of advice is rather personal because this is what I did, although it differs from what people usually tell you: if you are lucky enough to know what you want to do early on, focus all your actions towards that goal from the beginning. In my opinion, this will allow you to grasp many more opportunities; this is how one can make his own luck.