‘We’re definitely part of the game thanks to all the support from Rotterdam’
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Imcomet is making rapid progress with creating a revolutionary method of fighting (skin) cancer from the Erasmus Incubator in the Rotterdam Science Tower. The start-up is receiving very welcome support from both the government and the business community. ‘It’s quite unbelievable what you can achieve via network sessions.’
It’s hard not to get drawn into Alexandre Motta’s enthusiasm when you hear him speak. The Imcomet’s founder quickly tells his story. His Dutch is certainly very acceptable, but it does betray his French nationality, as does the English he occasionally reverts to when things get a little too technical for him. Paul Oranje and Varsha Thakoersing fell for his enthusiasm too. They worked together in the Unilever R&D lab in Vlaardingen for many years – in fact, Oranje and Motta for more than ten years – and definitely didn’t need long to think when Motta asked them to join his Imcomet start-up in 2019.
‘I know Alex’s capabilities and know he will be fully committed once he’s had an idea,’ Oranje states, Imcomet’s Technology Officer, who graduated in Drug Innovation. ‘We often used to philosophise about what it would be like to have our own company during our time at Unilever. It’s amazing that we have managed to realise this now.’
Thakoersing – a graduated biopharmacist with a doctoral degree in skin biology – soon followed Oranje as a Business Developer. ‘I was on maternity leave when Alex called me with a question about his research. He explained what he was working on and I instantly felt so enthusiastic that I decided to resign two weeks after my maternity leave ended. I thought this simply had to work.’
Immunotherapy via the tumour’s microenvironment
Immunologist Motta’s idea is fundamentally based on immunotherapy, a revolution in cancer treatment. Cancer cells can escape the immune system by sending signals which act as a camouflage. These signals are molecules, mainly proteins, which produce the cancer cells and release them into the fluid surrounding the cells. This fluid is referred to as the microenvironment. The aim of immunotherapy is to turn off the camouflage signals in a tumour’s microenvironment, to open the immune system’s eyes and to subsequently have it destroy the tumour as it normally would.
Immunotherapy is very effective, but some of the negative aspects are naturally that it can have a multitude of (serious) side effects, it’s expensive (up to 100,000 euro per year per patient) and it only works in thirty to forty percent of cases. ‘This is because the classic pharmaceutical approach can only reach one or two of these camouflage signals,’ Motta explains. ‘Whilst there are actually hundreds – plus all the other signals we’re not yet familiar with. In addition, they can vary greatly from one tumour to another – even within different zones of the same tumour – and they change over time. It’s therefore certainly not efficient to merely target one or two. The ideal scenario would be to eliminate all the camouflage signals simultaneously. That’s what we’re trying to do.’
Imcomet has developed a technology, based on microfluidics and microneedles, which allows the microenvironment of the tumour and all of its components to be physically removed, in order for this to then be replaced with the microenvironment of the adjacent healthy tissue. Motta: ‘We’re hoping to thereby stop the tumour’s growth, reduce metastasis and reactivate the immune system to destroy the tumour. This can be done very cheaply and with few to no side effects.’
‘A method of extracting this fluid from the skin is already unique,’ Oranje adds. ‘We therefore decided to patent this technique. Our aim is to first effectively treat skin cancer and then hopefully other types of cancers too.’
‘The Science Tower, an inspiring place’
Imcomet is conducting its activities from the Rotterdam Science Tower. Motta had often already dreamed of one day having his own office in this impressive building during his daily train journeys from Rotterdam to Vlaardingen. ‘It looked like a super fun and inspiring place. And that has now certainly been proven too.’ He first became acquainted with Carola Immerzeel-Goosens from the Erasmus MC Incubator, which is located in the Science Tower and offers start-ups affordable office space, during a LSH010 breakfast session. ‘That’s how things started moving. I also came across someone there who told me about the subsidy on offer from the province of Zuid-Holland. This money allowed me to complete my feasibility study. Rotterdam provided us with all sorts of different support. The LSH010 network also introduced us to Willem Mees van der Bijl from the IDE Group, with whom we are now doing business. This means we are now definitely part of the game. I still find what you can achieve via network sessions absolutely unbelievable.’
The Innovation for Health exhibition in February of this year certainly also opened up many doors for us. ‘The municipality gave us the opportunity to have a presence with a stand at this exhibition,’ says Thakoersing. ‘This proved to be excellent exposure. I literally talked the entire day, I had completely lost my voice by the evening. We talked to a number of interesting potential collaboration partners, companies which are ordinarily very difficult to approach for start-ups like ours. We have also found partners in the Science Tower. There’s a technology company on our floor which helps us with the prototype we’re developing. This place is a true playground for adults!’
Knowledge sharing with doctors and researchers
Imcomet’s short-term objective is the development of tools for doctors and researchers, in order to improve the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of cancer based on their technology. This can partly be realised thanks to Eurostars, a subsidy for international market-focussed R&D. Motta: ‘Our technology is the only one which allows for continuous sampling of the skin and the tumour’s microenvironment over a long period of time. This can be very interesting where detecting a tumour is concerned, to subsequently learn more about it, to choose the best possible treatment strategy and to safeguard the efficiency of a particular treatment. As we’re already developing these tools to test our therapeutic strategy, it actually requires minimal effort to make these tools available to other people to work with too. As you Dutch people say: little effort, huge pleasure.’
Would you like to find out more, become acquainted or work together with Imcomet? Then visit www.imcomet.com.
Datum: 9 juli 2020