Dispertech is the company I co-founded together with Sanli Faez. He developed the original technique of nanoparticle tracking in a hollow optical fiber. I joined Sanli's lab in Utrecht University as a part-time postdoc in order to develop the business plan while also participating in UtrechtInc, an incubator associated with the University.
We were joined by Nascent Ventures in early 2019. Steven Tan and Hans Brouwer brought in capital and management, an took the majority of the ownership. At the same time we got a small grant from NWO (Take-OFF phase 1), and a year later a follow-up loan (take-off Phase 2).
With the capital in place, we set to develop the NanoCET, our first product to characterize the size of nano-particles in a fluid. In 2022 we started developing our second product, the NanoQNT, with the intention to release it to market during 2023.
The company was built following a very traditional technolgy transfer process, signing a licensing deal with Leiden University for the exclusive rights on the patent submitted by Sanli.
Extracellular Vesicles as the target market
Extracellular Vesicles are an interesting field of research, that grew enough the be defined as its own market. The field is ripe for disruption, since there is not a single technique that satisfies all the jobs that people need to do (see, for example: 202303251644 Jobs to be done framework).
However, some companies were quick at seizing a large portion of the market (NanoSight is the prime example).
Dispertech focussed on delivering higher accuracy results in the measurements of size (and scattering cross section) by using hollow core fibers, at the expense of studying smaller volumes (and hence with limited statistical power).
Failure to find Product-Market Fit
It was a lengthy and tortuous path, but after years of development and effort, it was clear that the NanoCET was not triggering enough interest in the extracellular vesicle community.
The value proposition of doing things more accurately was definitely weak, especially when other techniques started to become available.
More importantly, in the community, the value of the physical characterization of particles is somewhat limited. Perfect accuracy will not yield better insights, since the biological processes associated are very heterogeneous.
Looking at other markets
The first approach to overcome the challenges was to look for other markets, such as nanomedicine. In this case, the relevance of the size measurement accuracy is clearly stated, since it is part of regulatory requirements. The challenge is to find the spot at which the nanoCET delivers value, and whether a single-particle technique is robust enough.
Myriade, for example, positioned a product with little innovation compared to a traditional NTA, as an easy-to-use tool that can be added next to any production process. The fact that it shortens the turn-around time of other instruments was exactly what people in the formulation space needed.
Again, Dispertech failed at finding a value proposition that would position the NanoCET in a distinctive space.
Bottlenecks in the approach
The NanoCET relies on the use of a hollow optical fiber, that currently can be supplied by a single company in Germany. This was a risky move, since the entire success of the company was reliant on the good will of that company.
For someone used to making kilometers of optical fibers, a startup that uses few meters per year is definitely not an enticing partner.
Moreover, the geometry of the fibers make them hard to store, manipulate, and extremely sensitive to differences in sample-preparation approaches. Often we failed at detecting particles just because the concentration was not correct, or the medium in which the particles were suspended was creating issues.
We definitely failed at leveraging the scientific network to develop appropriate protocols for different samples. This made the discussions and the demonstrations even harder, since the chances of failure were very large.
Developing another product
At some point it was clear that if the NanoCET had a future, it would be by replacing the fibers with something under our control and that would address the actual problems of our target users. There was a clear shot at pursuing a microfluidic approach, but that would have required some time and effort.
Since we were already working on a different project for measuring concentration, the management of the company decided to put the NanoCET on hold, and to pursue the NanoQNT, a light sheet microscope (based on the OpenSPIM), that can be used to quantify the number of fluorescently labeled particles in a hydrogel.
The process formally started in February 2022, when a student joined us for 6 months to build the first version of the system. We delivered to a group of researchers in Erasmus MC by the end of 2022, and started developing a multi-color version at the beginning of 2023.
Although it is early, the dialogue with potential customers is much smoother. The value proposition is much simpler: "quickly" measure different markers on the surface of a particle, with an easy to operate and reliable system. We don't need to stress the "more accurate", nor "more sensitive", but we do stress the reliable, since that's the bottleneck of our competitors.
Only time will tell whether there's a path to product-market fit with yet another analytical instrument for extracellular vesicles.
Leaving my own Company
In 2023 I decided it was time to move forward. The way the company was setup was not satisfying my vision of the future I want to build, and the culture of the company had diverged from my own values. My last formal day at Dispertech was June 16th 2023. I am still a minority shareholder.
I have tried to reflect about the process on: How it feels quitting your own startup.
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