Start-up inveox aiming to improve reliability of cancer diagnoses
Automation in the histopathology lab
“When a layperson hears the word pathology they tend to think of TV crime dramas and autopsies,” says Dominik Sievert, one of the founders of inveox. “But the main function of histopathology is to save lives.” Diseases like cancer can only be optimally treated if they have been correctly identified – which is usually done by analyzing a tissue sample. Sievert and his co-founder Maria Driesel set up inveox to improve the reliability of these diagnostic tests.
The idea that ultimately inspired them to found the company was of a highly personal nature: “My grandfather developed cancer when I was a teenager,” relates Dominik Sievert. “Something must have gone wrong in his diagnosis at the time. The progression of the disease was incorrectly assessed, so he didn’t receive the optimum treatment.”
Everyday processes prone to errors
Over the years, other reports of irregularities in cancer diagnoses came to the attention of Sievert, who studied “Molecular Biotechnology” and „Management and Technology“ at TUM. One common cause of such errors is the fact that much of the work in histopathology labs is done by hand. The tissue sample is prepared, dehydrated, preserved and finally sectioned and examined under the microscope. In the course of this process, the samples have to be repackaged into various containers more than once and relabeled each time. “Sample entry is a particularly critical phase. A lot of things can go wrong, including mix-ups, contamination or even the loss of tissue samples,” explains Maria Driesel, who received her degree 2015 as an industrial engineer at TUM.
The inveox system is designed to prevent mix-ups and contamination. It eliminates the need for frequent repackaging for one thing, because all the different vessels are kept together in a single sample container, which is given a unique identification number. Another component is the automated sample entry system also developed by inveox. This device can handle several dozen containers at a time. It records the sample data, removes the preserving agent and takes photos of the tissue for documentation purposes. After that, the sample container is passed on to the next processing stage.
The data captured by the system is fed into a database. Both the physicians who submitted the samples and the pathology lab staff can access this encrypted web-based data and communication platform at any time to check the current status. “The interplay between our three components greatly improves the reliability of the diagnostic process and thus also patient outcomes, while also boosting the efficiency of process flows,” claims Maria Driesel.
Building a prototype at MakerSpace
Driesel and Sievert first met in the „Manage & More” coaching program run by UnternehmerTUM, the Center for Innovation and Business Creation at TUM. The team built their first prototypes for the containers and the automation platform at MakerSpace, the high-tech workshop run by UnternehmerTUM. Further support came from TUM’s start-up consultation service and an EXIST-start-up grant. This was also how the team got in contact with their mentor, Dr. Markus Eblenkamp from the Chair of Medical and Polymer Engineering.
Since its foundation in February 2017, inveox GmbH has picked up numerous awards, become part of the Roche Diagnostics accelerator program, and been named as German start-up of the year 2017 by “Für-Gründer.de”. The company has long outgrown its office at TUM’s incubator. inveox currently has 20 employees and a number of student research assistants.
inveox recently had an opportunity to present the first pre-series version of its automation system to investors and industry experts. “All of the labs we have spoken to so far have expressed huge enthusiasm, with many of them interested in a concrete purchase,” Dominik Sievert is happy to report. The next investment round for the start of series production and the introduction of the system in the European and US markets has begun.
According to the current “German Startup Monitor”, TUM produces more startup founders than any other German university. Around 70 companies are founded at TUM every year. The outstanding support for founders is recognized by the “Start-Up Radar” of the German business community's innovation agency (Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft), which lists TUM in 1st place among major universities.