Francesco Gatto is one of those bright young talents that most are not fortunate enough to come around every day. By the age of only 27, he finished his Ph.D. studies at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and his numerous years of research lay the foundation for the company Elypta. A Swedish molecular diagnostics company that was established to tackle the complexity of detecting personalized signatures of cancer and ensure early detection of the disease by measuring a system of metabolic biomarkers in both blood and urine.
However, the Italian scientist who is today a CSO of Elypta never expected to take an entrepreneurial path, and it was only half a year before finishing the Ph.D. studies that he realized together with Ph.D. advisor Professor Jens Nielsen that his research could have commercial potential.
“We were really fishing for patterns, which eventually led us to discover that a panel of 17 metabolites – glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) – are specifically deregulated across several cancer types and are essential for the process of cancer progression. It was when we first observed that this deregulation correlated with different levels of GAGs in patients’ samples that we realized the potential of our research,” says Francesco Gatto.
Great help to find in academia
After the gran scientific discovery, a huge work started to collect clinical data and validate that a specific set of metabolites could serve as a systems biomarker for cancer.
But to get the clinical data, funding for scientific research was required. Operating in cancer research provided a big pool of public funds to apply for, and according to the CSO of Elypta, it should not be underestimated how much of a difference public funding can make in the early stages of building a company.
“There is some prestige related to venture capital, but be aware that it comes with significantly higher expectations when receiving VC money early on. When you have an investor, you must ensure that the company’s value is not decreasing. It puts a lot of pressure since they want a fast return of investment. This is at odds with the need to conduct research that always come with surprises difficult to predict and navigate, especially in the early stages. On the other hand, public funding provides you with a great opportunity to pursue application-oriented research and produce key scientific and clinical data. The science is really how you get the unique IP position, which makes it more likely for you to succeed when reaching the commercial stage, simply because you will know more about the pitfalls and limitations of your future product,” says Francesco Gatto.
The value of data
The focus on collaborating with academia as much as possible before raising venture capital might be unconventional. Still, being a data scientist himself, it might not come as a huge surprise that Francesco Gatto stresses how data has been key for Elypta.
“The value for an early-stage company is really on the data side, specifically in clinical data and that’s the hardest one to obtain when you are at a company stage. If you want to develop a product in the life science industry, you cannot just develop one of these MVPs as you see in tech. If you fail the specifications of your product, whether that is a drug or a diagnostic test, or a prosthesis, then you are done. So, this should be kept in mind already from day one. The more product-oriented research one can perform upfront, the more data can be used to inform those specifications,” emphasizes Francesco Gatto.
This approach definitely goes slower, but Elypta already has a research-use-only product on the market and expects to launch more products within the next one to one and a half years.
“It’s a long journey, but remember that going into entrepreneurship doesn’t mean that one is committing his whole life to it. But I would have definitely regretted more not to test our ideas and try to bring them to market than continuing on the career path I was on,” he ends.
Francesco Gatto, who is on MIT Technology Review’s list of top 35 Innovators under 35, was at BioInnovation Institute as a part of our ‘Talks at the Square series’.