Finnadvance’s platform can speed up drug and vaccine development, and reduce the need for animal studies.
The idea of founding a company evolved during Prateek Singh’s past 15 years of studies in biotechnology, biochemistry and protein science. He holds a Btech in Biotechnology and MSc in Biochemistry and Protein science.
“I have been fortunate to gain multidisciplinary experience in Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, India, and Finland, and assimilate the required technical know-how for the development of the idea into an innovation. I had the rough idea that I wanted to do this, but I didn’t know if it would be a company or a research project. Eventually I saw some gaps in the academic research fields, where the adoption of new technologies take a bit longer compared to the start-up environment, so I shifted to entrepreneurship,” he explains.
This move has proven successful. His company, Finnadvance, based in Oulu, Finland and founded in 2018, has grown from two to 15 co-workers over the past two years, and his platform idea has been scaled up to accelerate the drug development processes. Prateek was also one of the four finalists for the Young Researcher Entrepreneur Award by Kaute Foundation 2020. The company has also attracted the attention of several investors and is a part of the national research consortium funded by Business Finland.
Closing the gap between in vitro and in vivo
The idea of the company is basically to close the gap between in vitro studies and in vivo results. The company develops microfluidic organ-on-chips, where biomechanical stimuli is replicated in vitro, with precise control of flow velocities and 3D extracellular matrix (ECM) stiffness.
A very common method of drug testing is to recreate human diseases in test animals. However, this is an expensive, and slow way of getting the drug out into the market and to the people who need it, says Singh.
“We are making platforms where we can take cells from a healthy or diseased patient and grow them in a way that they would inside the body. Then, because it’s a very small piece of tissue, we can have hundreds of tissues growing and use them as drug testing platforms – a library of tissues.”
With this approach, their platform for recreating human biomechanical forces and microenvironments is critical for keeping the tissue in the original state, as it would be in the human body, he explains.
Reducing the need for animal studies
The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased to the public that drug and vaccine development takes a lot of time, says Singh. “In more traditional cases, it can take more than ten years for a vaccine to get developed,” he explains, using the pandemic as an example of where his platform might help.
“Lets say there’s a COVID-19 outbreak. We would take the virus, put it in the library and understand how the virus would behave in different people from different demographics beforehand.”
“Lets say there’s a COVID-19 outbreak. We would take the virus, put it in the library and understand how the virus would behave in different people from different demographics beforehand. We envision that the end product will be a machine where you put the drug in and it tells you if it is going to work or not. This way, the need for animal studies can be greatly reduced, and the drugs can be tested directly in a humanized model that allows even personalized drug development.”
Today, Prateek and his colleagues are finishing a few pilots and the next step is going to market, he says. “We have already had exclusivity requests, and are expanding our team to meet these growing needs from our customers.”
For the foreseeable future he sees Finnadvance being a Finnish-based company but he wants it to become a global technology provider for medical and bio companies in their field. “We are currently looking to expand into the south of Finland, the Netherlands and Germany. Japan would be the first market outside Europe we would like to enter,” he specifies.
“We also help academic researchers in these fields to take their research to the next level and commercialize their work. We are already doing grant programs, which we will soon expand to be available for Master’s degree students, PhDs, and senior researchers. We will give out strictly regulated grants without much administrative hurdles or the need to outline a budget, something with which I always had problems when applying.”
A clear vision and early financing
The start-up process has of course taught Prateek Singh a few valuable lessons and he says that the most common issue he has faced in the start-up community is the will to own a start-up – rather than own an innovation and then build a company around it.
“Secondly, it is easy to start a start-up, but challenging to sustain it. Perseverance is your biggest friend here. A clear vision of where you want to be in five years helps in guiding your everyday activity to reach that goal.”
“Be early. You should have secured your funding yesterday. Rather than selling the idea, sell your vision.”
When it comes to financing his advice is short and concise, “Be early. You should have secured your funding yesterday. Rather than selling the idea, sell your vision,” he advises, adding “Early partnerships are also critical in gaining trust from the funders.”
“For example, one of the biggest events, SLUSH is held in Helsinki every year, which has been critical for our success. The high quality of living is also a great asset to attract talent!”
He says Finland has been a great resource for start-up activities. “For example, one of the biggest events, SLUSH is held in Helsinki every year, which has been critical for our success. The high quality of living is also a great asset to attract talent!”
When hiring he advises to look out for personal motivation and values. “Understanding why this position or task is important, and what will be the driving force for the to-be-employee, is critical.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected his and his colleagues’ ability to attend in-person meeting and conferences, where they would have liked to demonstrate their solution.
“But it also offered us the opportunity to provide our solution for the first lung-on-chip platform for the Finnish research community to study COVID-19,” Singh says.