Interview with 3Brain – Top Innovators Series

Adele Fanelli Written by Adele Fanelli
Published on 03 May 2022
8 min. read

Interview by Franklin Leong

3Brain is a Swiss startup focused on producing state-of-the-art CMOS-based live-cell analysis systems for drug discovery. Their success had led them to improve their technology for over 15 years and they are now in their third generation of device. They aim to change the standard way cell data acquisition is conducted by improving the resolution and the amount of collected data, essentially transforming a standard plastic dish for cells into an intelligent device integrating multiple processing cores. We will understand more about the company from the CEO, Mauro Gandolfo himself. 

What is the origin of the name of the company?

This is what we get asked often. In the beginning, there were three founders and we were focusing on brain applications. Additionally, the arborizations of the neurons forming the brain resemble a tree, which rhymes with ‘three’, and as you might realize, our logo also incorporates the design of a “neuronal tree”. This was the main reason why we went for ‘3Brain’.

Could you tell us more about the core technology used by the company?

Of course, as you already know, we are working with CMOS-based microarrays. Our company is the first in the world to use microchips in direct contact with cells to acquire data from biological samples. What we did was to use a microchip, the same technology that powers our computers, mobile phones and cameras, and modify it in such a way that it could sense and measure cells. The microchip is therefore integrated inside a culture well. Currently, we are taking the technology a step further: our chips are now also able to perform data pre-processing. We call this the BioSignal Processing Unit (BioSPU).

What are the advantages of having the processing unit within the well where cells are cultured?

To give you an idea, I will compare it with the standard technologies. Typically when you have the cells inside a well and you extract data (via microscopes or electrodes), the information from the cells travels along cables until it reaches a processor on a workstation. This is where the data gets processed, an essential step to obtain results. There are a series of bottlenecks in data acquisition and data transmission that limit the amount of data that can be eventually processed.

In our case, by essentially taking the processing unit and placing it in direct contact with the cells, we can utilize the full power of the microchip technology to process much more data compared to other technologies. And data is the key nowadays.

For instance, more data means better artificial intelligence since AI needs to crunch big data in order to become “smart”, i.e. more effective.

Now, think about drug screening where multiwell plates are used to measure cellular activity. When you use a microscope to scan a 96-well plate, it is done sequentially. You read information from one well and then you move on to the next. If you have 96 wells to scan, this can take tens of minutes. In our case, we read out in parallel all the wells at the same time. So it takes 100 times less time than what the standard technology requires. 

What were the challenges associated with a technology-centered startup? 

In fact, the founders also have, in addition to their business background,  bio-engineering expertise that enables them to tackle the challenges inevitably associated with a deeptech. To answer your question, one of the main difficulties during the development of these chips that need to stay in contact with cells, themselves submerged in liquid, was to accomodate both the chip and the cells. Imagine submerging the CPU of your computer in saline solution, it will stop working in the blink of an eye. On the other side, the cells need a proper environment (e.g., right temperature) to stay alive and we also need to take this into consideration.

Could you tell us more about how you improve your devices from one generation to another?

There are two main paths that we follow. The first is for sure talking with our customers, and understanding their needs. Their needs are concrete and based on their experiences. Over here, it is basically a data-driven analysis of what to develop next, when, and where to go. The second path is more about looking for trends. For these, we don’t ask the customers directly, we do some analysis and we also have to use a bit of  intuition. It is about understanding what will be the trend in three or four years from now. For instance, a few years ago, we realized that in the future there will be more and more people working on organoids, small 3D cell ensambles that hold much hope to help finding new medicines. Thus, we started the development of a technology that can address this market. In fact, this technology will be officially in the market this year. It is a 3D microchip array that helps to penetrate inside the 3D structure of the organoid and read out information from the inside. We have started the development of this technology more than four years ago, and we think that it was the right decision.

What’s the biggest difference between when you first started in a small team and now?

We did not change much as we are still 23 at the moment. Of course, you will start spending more time doing meetings and managing other people as you progress, to keep everyone on the same page and to push in the same direction. In the past, when we were only the co-founders, we sometimes didn’t even need to communicate because we knew each other well and we knew what had to be done. With a bigger team, there is a need for more communication and coordination.

Would you like to say something to your team?

Of course, thanks for the opportunity. I would like to thank the great team that, with a bit of luck and a bit of wisdom, we have managed to put together. I think it is really the “super-intellect” of the company that is making this adventure and our success unfolding.

So yes, I think that the most important thing is the value of our team, even more than the value of our technology.

Advice in general for someone wanting to do a startup. Whether is it in technology or not?

As I also mentioned previously, it is important to be perseverant and also be motivated in the things that you are doing. You have to really have a passion for it or feel that it can really solve something that you felt needed to be solved. Then, you deliver something which hopefully will help others and not only you.

Do you have any advice for any, like a new engineer, that would like to come up with a startup?

I am not sure if I can give any advice. The one thing I would tell them is to get into something that they are passionate about. You have to really have a passion for it or feel that it can really solve something that you felt needed to be solved. This is because they will need to put all of themselves into this startup and they’ll really need to strive to achieve their goals.

There is no such thing as an easy startup, all the startups are complex.

So the fact that you like what you do can really help to boost and motivate you, and that is something that can solve an issue more efficiently. It is also important to have perseverance because sometimes, there are cases in which everything simply does not seem to be working, but then light can be seen again and everything goes on.  

On the technological side, the one thing that I learned is that you need to go out as soon as you have something. It is important to collect feedback from others, from partners, and future customer. Personally, I was not like this when I was younger as in my mind everything had to be really perfect before having others to try it. But that is not the case, you should go out as soon as you can because there are things that you just cannot plan or predict. I still love precision and accuracy, which can be achieved at the next iteration of the development. And that is why I love working at 3Brain where our great team strive for perfection.

And here we come to another important thing of course, the team. Everything is made by the people you join hands with. It is first about having the right co-founders, with the right fit with your personality, as you will need them beside you on this long adventure. Then when you start to have more companions, you will need to pay attention to that. Sometimes the people you hire might not fit perfectly but it is okay because people come and leave. But you do need to find a strong team that buys into your vision and what you believe in and that constitutes your stronghold. You need that to go to the next level.

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