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Research and support – The USZ Innovation Hub and its Start-Ups

Department News

19. August 2022

With its incubation program, the “Health Innovation Hub” at University Hospital Zurich helps bring exceptional research from its own ranks onto the market. Matthias Herrmann, the Head of the Division “Innovation Management” which the Health Innovation Hub is a part of presents the current start-up portfolio and provides insights into the stories behind the young companies.

“Innovation” is defined very differently by companies and therefore also in healthcare facilities. Does this mean the internal development of the company – commonly referred to as Business Development – or the creation of new ideas and solutions? For University Hospital Zurich, the answer is clearly the latter, as Matthias Herrmann, explains: “The USZ Health Innovation Hub is not just about promoting innovation, but also about completely new approaches. We promote the ideas of our globally leading researchers to create completely new treatment concepts,” he says.

It is not just the palpable enthusiasm for new things that makes the Innovation Hub at USZ extraordinary: central to this is a passion for revolutionary research approaches and their translation into applicable products. ”The innovations that we promote here have been developed or co-developed by USZ employees – none of them have been purchased,” Herrmann says with visible pride. In this way, the Innovation Management at USZ makes an essential contribution to the further development of innovation in the field of healthcare, according to Herrmann.

The following interview with Matthias Herrmann presents an insight into the projects of the Health Innovation Hub and their founding stories. More information about the Hub itself and the process that the start-ups go through can be found below.

b-rayZ – contemporary breast cancer treatment

The first project in the Hub’s portfolio to go through the multi-stage qualification process was today’s start-up b-rayZ. The company is developing artificial intelligence (AI) that can be used to analyze mammogram images. The start-up is also building a software suite to support the entire process of breast cancer treatment. Herrmann remembers: “b-rayZ and the Health Innovation Hub benefited a lot from each other in the early stages.” The start-up received the full attention of all experts and coaches at the Hub, as well as financial support. The Hub was also able to continuously gather feedback on processes that had not yet been tried out in practice and improve them directly.

The first project of the Health Innovation Hub was therefore not only the baptism of fire for b-rayZ, but also for the Hub itself. “This start-up field didn’t exist at USZ before,” says Herrmann. “Establishing this in-house has required a lot of discussions, explanations and process work, as well as coordination with other USZ departments.” The lessons learned for b-rayZ, but also for the Hub and thus the entire USZ, continue to resonate to this day. “This is one of the reasons why b-rayZ is a matter close to our hearts – we have grown together,” summarizes Matthias Herrmann. The stars are aligning for b-rayZ and interest in its technology is high – the start-up successfully closed their oversubscribed Series A round of CHF 4 Mio. In July 2022. It is already operating in several hospitals, is part of the FemTech Accelerator Tech4eva, among others, and has even been shortlisted for the Medtech Awards 2022.

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FimmCyte – antibodies against endometriosis

The start-up FimmCyte from the Hub’s portfolio is also supported by the Tech4eva initiative, which focuses on healing opportunities for women. A groundbreaking endometriosis treatment based on a newly discovered antibody is being developed that could significantly reduce the need for surgical procedures or treatment with hormones in the future.

The start-up is still in the pre-clinical stage and is currently very successfully collecting support for its project. “An enormously exciting project. The team has a lot of experience and is currently receiving a lot of support from other innovation funds and initiatives due to the justified public awareness of the disease,” says Herrmann. “The cooperation with the founding team is also fantastic. The range of services offered by the Hub is really being used across the board.”

FimmCyte is a good example of the ubiquitous enthusiasm at the Hub: the topic is a terrifyingly widespread and far-reaching disease that has been criminally neglected in recent decades. Unfortunately, the existing treatment concepts still have very bad side effects for patients today, and treatment success is still unsatisfactory. “We’re all proud to be able to make a contribution here. Sometimes it’s a great feeling to be the first to have believed in it and supported the research team right from the start,” says Matthias Herrmann.

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Oncobit – personalized cancer therapy

The next start-up to join the Hub like b-rayZ in 2019 is Oncobit, which is developing several products for personalized cancer therapy. The project is the result of a collaboration between dermatology and medical informatics. The combination of these two disciplines in a diagnostic test allows for a more accurate molecular characterization of tumors, resulting in a more detailed and practice-oriented recommendation for treatment. Oncobit has also developed two tests for cancer monitoring using blood samples, which, similar to the diagnostic test, are supported by a software solution to analyze and interpret the generated data.

Herrmann mentions the fast development of Oncobit. After CEO Dr. Claudia Scheckel joined the company two years ago, the company has developed rapidly: with a seed round of CHF 2.3 million, Oncobit has to date received the largest seed funding from professional investors of all the Hub’s portfolio start-ups.

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Medical Thinking Systems – consistent disability insurance (IV) reports

Not least thanks to Herrmann’s own background in business psychology, he has also grown very fond of the start-up Medical Thinking Systems (MTS). The team is developing a standardized procedure for systematically assessing the capacity for work in the field of medical assessments for insurance purposes using artificial intelligence.

Medical reports for insurance purposes are regularly critically discussed in the media. According to a recent study by the Federal Social Insurance Office, there is also a need for action as regards the comparability and quality of the reports from disability insurance offices. In particular, there is a lack of transparency and objectivity with regard to the assessment of the capacity for work on the basis of which insurance benefits are determined. “Everyone involved in this process is in complete agreement that something has to happen here,” says Herrmann. The quantitative and comprehensible approach of MTS closes this gap in the assessment of the capacity for work. “This guarantees a certain minimum standard in Switzerland,” says Herrmann. The state is also showing great interest in MTS – parts of the product development was funded by the “Wirtschaftsförderung des Kanton Schaffhausen” and therefore canton of Schaffhausen is a promising future customer of the completed product.

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aiEndoscopic – intubation autopilot

With the support of the Health Innovation Hub, the medtech start-up aiEndoscopic is developing a solution for one of the world’s most performed procedures: intubation. Insertion of the tube into the trachea often leads to injuries or delays in treatment and must be carried out by specially trained medical personnel. “The ideal would be for nursing staff to be able to do this in future,” says Herrmann, comparing it to the defibrillator, which can now even be operated by non-medical people. With aiEndoscopic, intubation can be performed semi-automatically, but staff remain in control and can intervene manually at any time.

The product is the result of collaboration between researchers from ETH Zurich and doctors from USZ and has already won several competitions for funding. The start-up raised CHF 1.3 million so far and shared first place in the IFASInnovation Challenge with another start-up.

In addition, as part of Venture Leaders Medtech 2022, aiEndoscopic was invited, together with b-rayZ and Oncobit, to explore the US ecosystem for medical tech startups at a roadshow in Boston and to interact with investors, industry leaders and experts.

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Celerato – pathology reports at record speed

The youngest founding team of the Health Innovation Hub is responsible for Celerato – A software that generates partially automated pathology reports. The time savings are enormous: instead of eight to ten days, the reports with Celerato are finished in two to three days.

In addition to new treatment methods and therapies, the efficiency of examinations and medical processes also means a great deal for patient well-being. “The impact on the medical process by Celerato is so impressive we simply had to support it,” recalls Matthias Herrmann. It was created as part of the SNSF-funded PathoLink project, a collaboration between several Swiss institutions. At USZ this was under the direction of the renowned chief pathologist Prof. Holger Moch. When the project was completed, none of the institutions involved wanted to give up Celerato. “The development team saw the potential, which led to the spin-off of Celerato which is now being supported by the Hub,” says Herrmann with a smile. As of today, the start-up already has several Swiss customers and the expansion into Germany is underway.

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Stromal Therapeutics – the first treatment for heart muscle inflammation

Stromal Therapeutics is currently working on viral myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), a disease that has become increasingly important as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s no real treatment for viral myocarditis. You just go to bed and hope to fully recover in the coming weeks. Often, however, this takes months and can lead to long-term consequences – such as the end of an athlete’s career or, in rare cases, heart transplants, “ says Herrmann. Stromal Therapeutics has found an antibody that is said to lead to rapid healing.

The project originated at the Cantonal Hospital of St. Gallen, but the professor in charge also works at University Hospital Zurich where he is in charge of translational immunocardiology, which is how the project came to the Health Innovation Hub. The humanization of the antibody has been successfully carried out and the Series A investment round is planned. Herrmann is enthusiastic about the pleasant and exciting collaboration with the young company: “The enthusiastic, contagious nature and ‘drive’ of those involved is extraordinary!”

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Recolony – cancer therapy with bacteria

The eighth start-up of the Health Innovation Hub focuses on the microbiome – the billions of bacteria that are found in the human digestive system. The microbiome is currently experiencing great hype, as research has shown that it can play a role in a wide range of diseases. Recolony, for example, has discovered that a specific bacterial mixture is found in a greatly reduced number in colon cancer. Initial experiments with mice have shown that the oral administration of a special bacterial mixture achieves a similar effect to chemotherapy. A second study shows similar results for breast and testicular cancer. This could ultimately revolutionize cancer therapy and even allow prophylactic treatment, as Herrmann explains.

The bacterial mixture has been patented and Recolony is currently receiving great support, not least from the ETH and UZH accelerator Wyss Zurich, “an accolade,” says Herrmann. And, as he proudly adds: “I’m delighted that the Health Innovation Hub was also involved in this project from the outset and was able to make a contribution even before Wyss Zurich decided to support it.”

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The future of the Innovation Hub

As exciting as the start-ups portrayed here are, it won’t be the last ideas from USZ that could modernize the medical world. Herrmann and his team are looking forward to further innovations and the individual stories that accompany the research and founding of the start-ups at the Hub. The next project “SurgeryAI”, an artificial intelligence software that supports surgeons with the surgical planning for complex jaw- and face-surgeries, has already been approved by the Health Innovation Hub.

Herrmann’s team also has plans to expand the Health Innovation Hub itself. Promoting a culture of innovation at USZ, encouraging start-ups or supporting the search for grants is certainly a key issue. In future, however, the Hub also wants to further expand its range of services for the transfer of external innovations to its own hospitals.

The potential of systemic innovation management at USZ is far from exhausted. Herrmann concludes: “We’re an institution with over 2,000 research associates, interdisciplinary expertise from a wide range of disciplines, and a network of partners that we can rely on – we’re only at the beginning of what’s possible.”

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