Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Marco Pisano

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Marco is co-founder and CEO of Lymphatica Medtech. Aware of the unsolved problem that Lymphedema represents, since 2014 he worked in the interface between engineering and lymphatic biology, exploring innovative solution for lymphatic-related diseases.

He became very interested in entrepreneurship, collaborating with private and public institutions in promoting innovation and technology transfer. In 2017 he co-founded Lymphatica as a spin-off from EPFL Lausanne and CHUV (University Hospital of Lausanne) to bring concrete solutions to lymphedema patients.

Marco received a B.S. and an M.Sc. in Biomedical Engineering from Politecnico di Milano in 2006 and he was awarded Ph.D. from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2014 for studies on engineered lymphatic-mimicking microdevices. He holds an eMBA from the Quantic Institute of Technology.

 

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Marco Pisano

Tell us more about Lymphatica.

Lymphatica is a medical device company founded in 2017 focusing on providing new, innovative solutions to people affected with lymphatic diseases and particularly, chronic lymphedema. There is a great need in the market for which there is no clear solution.

The lymphatic system is something that was historically overlooked by doctors and the industry. Even in medicine books, there are perhaps just three pages on the topic and classically the research on the lymphatic system was not that extensive. Luckily, the interest in this topic has grown recently and patients’ hope to get new viable solutions is becoming more possible. Lymphatica is one of the results of this growing interest as a pioneer in the field.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the chronic swelling of a limb (normally it can be the arm, legs or other parts of the body) due to an interruption of the lymphatic system. The system normally drains waste fluid from everywhere within our body, and if it doesn’t work in some places, there’s no more drainage. Fluid begins to accumulate in one spot under the skin to cause swelling.

It’s not only an aesthetic problem, but it also brings pain and recurring infections. This causes a big decrease in the quality of life of patients. This is a chronic disease which means there is no cure for it. As of now, it gets treated with a massage. Therapists help patients by giving them compression socks or bandages, which are big, heavy and hard to put on.  

The idea to overcome this problem is by introducing an implant, which substitutes the function of a non-functioning lymphatic system. It is a tube with a pumping system that is implanted under the skin and moves fluid to help with internal drainage.

Why did you decide to found Lymphatica? Why this specific area?

This is linked with Valentina, my co-founder. We were working in a laboratory here in Lausanne while doing our PhD in biomedical engineer when we had the idea. The laboratory (Prof. Swartz Lab) is involved in lymphatic and cancer bioengineering.

At the time, we were both focused on different aspects – I was working with cell migration, and Valentina was involved in protein transport. We both knew that one of the biggest unsolved problems was chronic lymphedema, having known people in our personal lives who suffer from it.

With our experience and knowledge, we decided to focus and look for a solution for this. After a few coffee sessions and brainstorming, the idea was born.

What was the start of the company like?

The idea for the company was actually born in 2014. At that time there was the opportunity to participate in the Venture Challenge at EPFL, a six-month long course in which you could propose innovative projects. If the project was chosen, six people come together, somewhat like a mini-MBA, with the aim of writing a business plan for the idea.

At the end of the six months, we had an embryonic business plan for Lymphatica, which was very different from what we have now, but that was really the seed and the start. We went on with some academic research, supported by Prof. Swartz, to further develop our idea.

We pitched our proposition and ideas to Professor Mazzolai who is a doctor in the Lausanne hospital treating lymphedema. She was very excited and decided to collaborate with us. We worked with her at the Lausanne University Hospital for about two years to develop the science behind the solution. Based on the data we had, we decided that it was worth pursuing further and Lymphatica was born.

How was fundraising?

It was very hard because Life Science is a risky industry where start-up companies may never make it to market. It is very different compared to an industry like tech manufacturing where people can expect a company to go to market in one or two years.

It wasn’t easy to find a niche seed investor that would accept the Medtech implantable business and the timeline that we had. It took longer than what we had planned. But finally, we succeeded.

It’s all about building not just the story, but also how you can demonstrate the solid potential given the limited resources that you have. The prioritisation in order to create value for attracting investors is not easy as investors want to see data, but you need money to have data.

What motivates you?

The first thing is that there is a clear medical need out there and there’s nothing readily available. We are not trying to come up with a new or better version of something, rather we are creating something totally new for patients who need it.

The second is that I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As an Italian, we always complain about high unemployment and lack of jobs. Rather than complaining about the situation, I prefer creating a job by producing something to generate value.

Where is the company at today?

We have recently finished the animal studies for our device and are completing the trainings for doctors etc., for the start of the human clinical trials.

Best and worst part of being a CEO?

The best part is being able to create something and building a team with the values that my co-founder and I have in mind. It is really rewarding to see the idea grow.

The worst part is sometimes the weight of the responsibility, especially when something goes bad. When things go well, it’s amazing, but where things go bad, then it’s completely your fault.

Some other less positive experiences include dealing with investors who pulled out at the last moment when we were about to close the investment rounds.

We are also very upfront with our employees, sharing that there is a chance that we only have money for until six months from now. The risk is always there because we are a pre-revenue company and are unable to offer a life contract for our employees to stay forever.

What are some other challenges that you have faced?

Building a solid core team is a great challenge. Experience and skills are important but so is shared values and the ability to work well together. You may get the best people out there but if you don’t have a compatible character in a small team like ours, it can destroy the company.

The second challenge we face is dealing with suppliers and collaborators as a young company. Given the risk when compared to bigger corporates, we may not be their priority. We really must fight every day to get their commitment.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

The first one is always to ask around before making an important step. Always check with other experienced like peers that have gone through the same process because you can avoid a lot of mistakes just by talking to them. Asking is often for free.

It takes time but most people are happy to share their experience. There are many things that we have tried, and after a week or two, people that we spoke with have already done the same thing in the past. If I would have asked them before starting, I would have avoided the mistakes.

What are your hopes for Lymphatica?

We hope to provide value to patients and have as many patients as possible to have access to our device. I would also like the company to grow, but only if it is creating real value, as opposed to growing just for the sake of growing.

Any advice for new entrepreneurs?

Focus on building relationships. Everything starts with academic relationships. Try to build healthy relationships with your professors from the start in universities. Again, just ask and try to follow the paths of people who have done the same thing before you. Asking is always everything. So, just ask.

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