Emerging Europe’s oncology start-ups: Expect unicorns

Cancer is one of the world’s most pressing health problems. With its incidence per million people skyrocketing as the global median age rises, decreasing its fatality rate has become one of the paramount objectives of health-focused innovators.

Although research projects are developing solutions that are making exponential progress in the field, the challenges that oncology start-ups are facing are still numerous.

Limited visibility, lack of resources and connectivity in the industry and misplaced skills create various market failures in terms of securing enough capital for oncology start-ups. It was to address this challenge that Gergo Gulyas and Sara Kochmaros, founded cLAB, a groundbreaking project aimed at reducing the structural issues encountered by investors and researchers.

Overcoming the lack of access to capital for innovators in the cancer diagnostics and treatment sphere is the long-term objective of the project, or, as the founders put it, “cLAB was created to bridge the mindset between the business sector and academia. Scientists, researchers have brilliant minds and are really innovative, but often they struggle with other areas of the business such as sales, marketing, competition.”

This is achieved through an intensive and all-encompassing intensive programme of support for the selected start-ups. As Sara Kochmaros explains, “We created a programme where the selected oncology start-ups receive training from industry experts and one-to-one mentoring sessions to get undivided attention from mentors in addressing their challenges. The four-month programme ends with a Demo day, where the start-ups get the chance to pitch in front of life-science investors, potential clients and pharmaceutical partners.”

In addition, cLAB catalyses international development by combining a unique programme of start-up incubation together with sector-specific gatherings that allow researchers and investors to network and develop professionally.

Dr Peeter Padrik, the CEO and founder of one of the leading-edge start-ups in the programme, Antegenes, highlights the long-term gains of the partnership with cLAB: “the online mentorship programme is remarkable because it isn’t a short, fast-paced programme but takes places over a longer period of time, which enables start-ups to concentrate on different topics in depth and achieve a stronger growth.”

Antegenes is at the forefront of innovation for cancer prevention, having developed sophisticated genetic tests which assess the personalised risk of developing common cancers using polygenic risk score (PRS) technology and include clinical recommendations for further treatment. “As cancer is a genetic disease, developments in basic research have opened new avenues for us to use genetic information in the prevention and early detection of cancer. Polygenic risk scores aggregate the effect of up to thousands single genetic variants across the genome into a single score. It serves as the best prediction for the genetic predisposition to a particular disease,” explains Dr Padrik.

Antegenes is based in Estonia, and is one of three emerging Europe-based start-ups, together with OncoChain and BrachyDOSE, out of the of total 11 selected by cLAB for its current campaign.

Based in Lithuania, BrachyDOSE focuses on improving the cancer treatment quality control which serves hospitals’ systems providers. “First we measure the radiation dose applied to a patient during the procedure and then provide this data in real time to doctors’ computer and treatment planning programmes. This kind of data empowers planning system algorithms to provide up to 100 per cent accurate treatment for cancer patients and avoid treatment errors. In average, hospitals and cancer treatment centres will be able to reduce overall treatment costs by five times per procedure,” says the CEO and co-founder of BrachyDOSE Neringa Šeperienė.

Emerging Europe is indeed displaying results that are increasingly positive in terms of becoming a hub for oncology innovations. On the rise in terms of attracting venture capital investments, in the last decade it has been home to eight unicorns. However, Petar Savic, one of the mentors of the cLAB project and founder of Supreme Factory, stresses that what makes the cLAB programme so effective is “the diversity brought by 11 start-ups coming from all-over the world. This is key in order to innovate properly.”

He also emphasises however that the emerging Europe region has nothing to envy in terms of human capital: “Emerging Europe has been outsourcing its talents for a long time, talent isn’t lacking. A gap that we have to bridge with Western Europe is corporate culture and doing business, but I think we are on the right path.”

This abundance of human capital present in the region is a fundamental parameter for venture capital firms when they decide to invest in a project. As Mr Savic points out, “investors always look at the team and the founders in general. When a project is at its early stages, you can’t have many quantitative indicators for determining the success of the start-up.”

“I think that the region has a competitive advantage for the deep tech sector, and I would say that every country brings something different to the start-up scenario of the region. In the future I expect many unicorns to come out of the region in this field,” he adds.

Although project leaders recognise that there is still a lot of potential for the development of medical solutions hidden in the emerging Europe region and that the market is far from being saturated, many start-ups in the region lack international traction.

“The key is to think global from day one,” explains Sara Kochmarov. “Internationalisation is indispensable for start-ups born in the region and if they build it into the business model from the beginning, they will have a much better chance to succeed on a global scale.”

From this perspective, Estonia leads the way in terms of international appeal and development of pioneering technologies. It is the country with the highest level of venture capital investment in early-stage phase start-ups in the region, as well as the highest number of start-ups per capita. The Estonian Biobank makes the country a crucial hotspot for the development of oncology-related technologies, as it has brought scientific and educational activities in implementing genetic information to life.

“We need to combine genetic biotechnology, computer sciences, clinical medicine and start-up entrepreneurship, and all these components are strong here in Estonia and are the basis for our success,” explains Peeter Padrik.

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