Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Giovanna Dipasquale

Giovanna Dipasquale is the CEO of HeroSupport SA (LTD), a start-up spin-off of Geneva University Hospital (HUG) that produces 3D-printed immobilization devices for medical applications using proprietary tools and software. The first application deals with breast cancer radiotherapy. Giovanna is also a Medical Physicist trained at the University of Pisa (Italy) and holds Swiss certification as a medical physicist and expert in radioprotection. With a good clinical practice certification, she conducted a clinical trial on the medical device developed for breast cancer, Venus Shell™, as the principal investigator.

Giovanna started in radiotherapy in 2001, working first at the University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV). Since 2003, she has worked in radiation therapy at HUG, where she introduced modern treatment radiotherapy and Stereotactic RadioSurgery. With a background in research (CERN, Medipix collaboration), Giovanna likes to investigate new techniques and has helped set up new protocols in her department, such as prone breast radiotherapy, implementation of electromagnetic transponders for real-time tumor tracking (prostate and lung SBRT), radio-biological modeling, and 3D-printing. In her position as a medical physicist, she also teaches at the radiation therapist school (HES). Active in the community, she is a scientific journal referee (Radiation Oncology, Physica Medica, The Journal of Applied Clinical Medical Physics, IEEE, etc) and has been a board member of the Scientific Association of Swiss Radiation Oncology, as well as responsible for the Varian onsite training school in HUG. In her free time, Giovanna enjoys planning for the next adventure with her husband, 2 daughters, and dog.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with Giovanna Dipasquale

 Tell us about yourself and HeroSupport.

I was born in Zambia, Africa, where I lived for my first ten years in a very different environment than Europe. I think this has influenced my perception of life: I appreciate simple things and always look at the bright side of things. I have also always been a very curious person, wanting to know how things work. I enjoy being creative, doing manual activities, and helping people, so becoming a medical physicist combined all of these interests.

After completing a master’s degree in Physics at Pisa University in Italy, I specialized in Medical Physics. I then moved to Switzerland because my now husband and start-up co-founder, Johannes Uiterwijk, was working at CERN. In fact, it was thanks to my medical physics thesis and the Medipix collaboration at CERN that I met my husband. I have two lovely daughters who support HeroSupport, our company. 

HeroSupport Ltd produces next-generation immobilization devices for medical applications using innovative technology. The company was incorporated while attending our first international congress in Milan in June 2022. It was a good start, with traction and friends and colleagues stopping by to learn about our future product!

What is the field of ‘medical physics’? Who/what inspired you?

A medical physicist is a healthcare professional with specialist education and training in the concepts and techniques of applying physics in medicine. They are competent to practice independently in one or more of the subfields of medical physics, such as radiology, nuclear medicine, radiotherapy, and radiation protection.

If you think of an opera production, medical physicists are the ones who coordinate and ensure that all technical equipment is properly working, introduce new special effects, and take care of everyone’s safety behind the scenes. If everything goes well and there are no surprises, you won’t see us. Therefore, patients generally do not know us!

I was fortunate to be part of an excellent Medical Physics group at Pisa University that welcomed me and allowed me to combine my love for physics with my desire to be useful to people. After completing my thesis for my speciality I renounced to a PhD, to practice as a medical physicist and help save patients’ lives.

How did the idea for HeroSupport come about?

One of the things I loved about my work in the hospital was the opportunity to create new tools and processes that were not available in the market. I also enjoyed getting involved in new projects and research. That’s how I was tasked with following a project on treating breast cancer in a prone position and discovered the advantages of this patient positioning. However, I also realized the difficulties in positioning patients. That’s when I decided that we could do better and came up with the idea of creating 3D printed immobilization shells using surface scanners and inventing tools dedicated to image acquisition.

As a non-research clinical medical physicist, the project started slowly until I participated in my first pitch competition (for which I had little idea of what it really meant until the first pitch took place. I had inscribed just to present my research project!) and won the incubator prize at the Bio Innovation Day in 2018. After winning the Innosuisse Science to Market classes, I decided not to leave this project at the research stage and create a company together with my husband who is a physicist, PhD, IT specialist. Our mission is to bring these new devices to women worldwide to improve breast cancer treatment and overall radiotherapy experience.

As for the name of our company, HeroSupport, we wanted it to reflect our mission. One day, I read a story on the BBC about a breast surgeon who developed breast cancer and became a patient. On the last day of her radiotherapy session, she showed up in a superhero suit. It was then that I realized that HeroSupport was the perfect name for our company!

Why has better patient positioning during patient therapy been neglected for so long?

Well, it’s not that the industry has neglected the issue, but it has been focused on improving the same methods and materials that have been used for the past 50 years, without exploring new technologies. The standard method for immobilizing a body part, such as the head, is to use thermoplastic sheets, but they cannot be used on a pendulous breast (in the prone position). These sheets are heated up to become malleable and then need to be molded on the patient’s skin to obtain the desired shape.

However, with a soft body part like the breast, there is a risk of deforming it and giving it a bad shape. By using surface scanning and our tools, we can obtain a model of the patient’s breast without touching them. Our 3D printed devices are shaped to fit the patient’s breast, which does not deform the breast and allows it to be positioned in the same position at each treatment session. This is essential for hitting the target with radiation as planned, and reducing the irradiation of healthy tissues (e.g., heart and lungs).

Is helping patients with breast cancer the sole focus of the team?

No, breast cancer is not the sole focus.  We will apply our technology to other cancer types and medical applications.

How do you track the success of the 3D printed device?

HeroSupport’s tools and VENUS SHELL™, our first breast product for prone position radiotherapy, underwent a proof-of-concept clinical study with ethics committee approval, which was performed on 20 patients at Geneva University Hospital in 2022. During the trial, we were able to measure the effectiveness of our product by asking patients to test the prone table with and without the shell, using surveys, time measurements, and acquiring ultralow dose 3D CT images.

Our product is the only immobilization device where the patient can self-align with millimeter precision in just 2 minutes! We will be presenting the clinical data in the form of a poster at the European Congress of Radiation Oncology in Vienna in May. Additionally, I won the best oral presentation last year presenting preliminary results at the Swiss national radiotherapy congress.

This can result in safer, cheaper treatments that take less time. How do you personalise this service for patients at scale?

Using our device can provide safer treatment for patients due to the prone position technique, where the patient lies on their belly with the to-be-treated breast pendulous through a cut-out in the table, allowing for natural distance from the lung and the heart and reducing radiation-induced side effects such as skin burns and lung toxicity.

Additionally, the increased output can make treatments more affordable for hospitals and insurances. Our shells offer a millimetric positioning accuracy, with 50% of patients able to self-position in just 2 minutes. While we currently model and 3D print our devices, in the future we could scale up to 3D printing point-of-care services in hospitals. We can also have a partner providing 3D-printing services in the future.

What is the business model like at the moment?

The customer purchases an initial equipment package that includes tools for acquiring surface images of the patient and a table for fitting the shells during treatment, as well as some initial shells. After that, they can continue to purchase new shells from us as needed. The modeling and 3D printing of the shells represents a recurring revenue stream for our company.

Did you always have the entrepreneurial gene?

Not at all, but I am a resilient and curious person who does not easily give up if I believe in what I’m doing.

What are the 2 main challenges faced by the team at the moment?

Moving from academia to full-time company work is a significant transition for me. This is currently challenging in terms of time and energy. The other challenge I am facing is how to approach my colleagues at the hospital as potential customers, because I represent a company.

What would you have done differently if given the chance to do it all over again?

Given my belief that it’s important to make decisions without having regrets for the future and to only look back to learn from errors, one thing I would have done differently is participate in Venture Kick earlier. We are currently in the final stages of the competition after having won stages I and II. The reason being that the amount of information, practical documents, advice, and support one receives is truly amazing. Additionally, we should have applied for Innosuisse core coaching earlier.

What does the future hold for you?

I believe that no one knows what the future holds, and this is particularly clear to me because I work in a radiotherapy department with cancer patients. As some patients are told, when you cannot add days to your life, you should add more life to your days. I believe we should always strive to add more life to our days, and for me, creating this company was a way to do this and follow my ideas.

Our goal now is to see HeroSupport grow stronger and bring value to patients and hospitals in the near future. We are currently setting up collaboration agreements with some hospitals as pilot centers in Italy, France, and Switzerland, and we aim to get our first certified products on the EU market by the end of 2023.

Any final remark/advice to share? 

For this “start-up” journey more than ever I would cite R. Kipling “IF”. Don’t you agree?

 If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools …

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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