Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Mauro Gandolfo

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Mauro Gandolfo has more than 10 years of experience in industry and business management. During his master studies he founded his first start-up in import and export of products originating from South America and destined to the European market.

He then completed his studies with a PhD in neuroengineering at the University of Genova where he focused on data science applied to the analysis of neuronal signals from neuro-electronic interfaces.

Mauro spent another two years as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Informatics, Bioengineering and Robotics of the University and at the Italian Institute of Technology. He was consulting engineer at two other companies before eventually co-founding 3Brain AG where he serves as CEO since 2015.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Mauro Gandolfo

Tell us more about 3Brain.

We make instruments and tools for people to analyse cells. Our customers are typically laboratories, biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies, and CRO’s – who uses our instruments to do preclinical screening.

These are screenings that are done on the cell-based assays in order to identify, for instance, a potential drug candidate that then get into clinical phases. The aim is to improve the way we can find new treatments with a focus on brain diseases.

With our technology, our customers can improve their technical screening and aim at reducing the attrition rate when translating the findings or results from preclinical to clinical. Thus, improving their efficiency and reducing their cost in developing new drugs.

How has 3Brain developed over the last 10 years?

3Brain was founded in 2011 when we secured the IP while we were still at the University doing intensive research. We then worked till we had MVP versions of our product that we gave to early adopters who tested it. We then collected feedback, improved it and came to a stable version of the technology.

In 2015, we moved from research to commercial, and started hiring people. From there we focused on selling our products and to scale up our technology.

We did a pre-seed and a seed round of fundraising and are now undergoing a Series A financing round of CHF 4 million to support our growth to enter the US market.

Tell us more about your product.

At the beginning, we were working with a single-well device which are smaller devices, where you can do only one single test at a time. There is a microchip at the bottom of the well and you can measure your cells with this.

In 2016 we started to sell these devices, which turned to be very well appreciated by the market and generated a steady growth of our revenues. In 2020 we started to work on a scale up of the technology to produce 6-well plates giving a faster and higher throughput. In the future, we will work on 24- and 96-well devices.

How does your product work?

The main concept and the core of our technology is the microchip. Normally, when you take and analyse cells in vitro, you put the cells in a plastic dish and you then use a microscope to analyse the cells.

To simplify, we remove the microscope, we keep the cells, and we place a sophisticated microchip in contact with the cells. This microchip does the recording from the cells, acquires and pre-processes information from the cells. We are the first in the world to integrate a sophisticated silicon microchip into wells to record and analyse cells.

Imagine a sort of CPU or like the microchip you have in your camera phone. We took that, modified it and placed it in contact with the cells to record and pre-process cell information . The resulting devices are called CorePlate multiwells, since there is a processing core in each well .

Have you always known that you would become an entrepreneur?

I never planned on becoming one but there is a history of entrepreneurship in my family, which made everything natural. I believe I’ve been inspired by the many activities my parents and my grandfather started during their life. During my Master’s studies, I started a small company in import and export which was a very formative and great experience. I went back to my studies, did my PhD and eventually met my co-founders.

What drives you?

With a background in engineering, I am passionate about creating and building something. As I am a computational guy, the early years of the company were mainly focused on building the software. Now it’s more on growing the company, which is still a “building” activity where you set high goals and expectations and then you work on delivering. I’m rarely satisfied on the achievements, and once a goal is achieved, I need a new one to keep myself going. Creating something that is working, that is of high quality and that others find useful is what really motivates me.

Another motivation is the field we work in, which is brain disorders. There are more than 600 conditions and the WHO estimates that 2 billion people will get affected by brain disorders at least once in their life. In addition to severe diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinsons and epilepsy, there are also depression, addiction, sleep disorders, attention-deficit disorders and many more.

It is something that affects all of us, and if not ourselves, the people close to us. This is another strong motivation for our entire team, the fact that we work on a technology that can have a positive impact on our society by helping find new cures for brain disorders.

Best and worst part of being a CEO.

Best part of being a CEO is connected to responsibility. On one side, it is great to see the entire picture of the company despite not seeing everything in detail as we are now 23 people. On the other side, being able to achieve something together with the team, keeping the team together, contributing to all that, and hopefully giving a bright future to our people, gives me a positive feeling.

The worst part is that I am unable to dedicate adequate time for those in the company that come to me with a problem or an inquiry. Although I compensate by delegating as I have fantastic teammates whom I trust, if one has a need, I would still very much like to help and dedicate enough time for them. However, as time is a luxury, I have to pick and choose where I spend my time and what I give attention to.

Any lessons learned that you could share?

Having the right team is extremely important. At the beginning it is easier to remain coordinated. As you start growing, you may miss the connection with your people and have everyone pulling in the same direction. This has been even worse in the last year because of Covid.  

It is not only about selecting the right people but also trying to communicate with them, to keep them updated on the goals of the company and to continue moving in the same direction, an area where I have room for improvement.

Another thing is related to the right timing. For instance, we might come up with a new technology or development, and the market is not ready for it. Other examples on timing also include when is the best time to start a marketing action , which priority to give in hiring for the different departments needing recruits, etc. We still have to learn, but we have improved a lot in the last few years.

What are your hopes for 3Brain?

My hope is that our excellent team continues to grow and that 3Brain becomes recognised worldwide for brain-on-chip applications and for bringing new hope in the fight against brain disorders.

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