Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Nicolas Durand

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Nicolas Durand

Nicolas Durand is Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Abionic SA, a Swiss company and spin-off from European leading technology school EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, Switzerland). Abionic has developed world’s fastest diagnostic platform, the abioSCOPE, a CE-marked versatile in-vitro solution that provides hospitals and health practitioners with instant quantitative diagnosis for various types of applications such as sepsis, allergy and iron deficiency.

Nicolas is a member of the Board of Directors of the State Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CVCI), and is an Intelligence Officer at the Swiss Army, working directly with three-stars General Daniel Baumgartner for promoting military management skills in the industry.

Nicolas holds a Master of Science in micro-engineering from EPFL with a specialization in production techniques. He was involved in the development of resonating biosensors at Carnegie Mellon University (USA), and is the winner of the 2006 Omega Award (Best Master thesis in micro-engineering). He is the founder of EPFL aeronautics association, and was the president of EPFL robotic association between 2002 and 2005.

With Abionic, Nicolas is the recipient of more than 20 entrepreneurial awards including the Young Entrepreneur Award. Notably, Nicolas was elected Captain of the Swiss Venture Leaders in 2010 who represented Swiss innovation in the USA.

On the private side, Nicolas is married, has 2 kids and owns a pilot license with aerobatic.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Nicolas Durand

Tell us more about Abionic and why you decided to found it?

I always knew that I wanted to become an entrepreneur. At the age of 14, I started my first business in IT which led me to study engineering in EPFL. I was really passionate about integrated systems, where you have to deal with a lot of different technologies. By accident, I came across the nanotechnology space and had the opportunity to do a PhD in EPFL in nanotech.

EPFL has a great ecosystem of entrepreneurs and I decided to start a PhD in the lab with the highest number of startups popping out, giving its students access to very interesting people which is highly needed to start a business. I got the idea of the technology of Abionic at the end of my PhD and co-founded the company together with a colleague of mine that was highly skilled in biomedical optics. Together, we aimed to build the world’s most rapid diagnostic platform.

At Abionic, we manufacture biosensors having channels of nanometric dimensions, and therefore can force molecules in the blood to avoid travelling very long distances compared to their size. We force them to interact with our immobilized capture molecules and therefore, in two minutes, you get the same quality results as the one you will have obtained after three hours in a laboratory.

With the core technology of the company, we aim to be the leader in biomedical diagnostics offering physicians and hospitals very rapid, high-quality testing. Historically, we developed allergy-testing based on the identification of immunoglobulin proteins in the blood. We developed a full panel of respiratory allergies that is currently commercialized.

Although this is a nice test, we really wanted to use the unique selling proposition of the technology, which is the very rapid time to results. In five minutes, getting high-quality results that is far better than what exists today where you have to outsource the diagnostics to the lab.

What is your target indication?

We identified sepsis as an interesting indication as it is the second cause of death worldwide. It kills more people than all cancers together. Sepsis is basically your immune system that is overreacting because of an infection and your immune system is killing your organs. It’s extremely difficult to diagnose because there is no systematical order other than organ failures.

If you were to go to the hospital with a heart problem, physicians would focus on a potential myocardial infarction. If you were to go to the hospital with renal problems, they will focus on the renal disease. Sepsis is still something that is very difficult to identify. Even among the public, nobody knows about sepsis. It’s a word that people do not hear.

With sepsis, one loses eight percent survival rate every hour when one is delayed from receiving treatment. The most common treatment today is antibiotics. The trend today is to wait for an extended time before starting an antibiotherapy as the physicians are afraid of one developing resistance to antibiotics. That explains the explosion in the numbers of cases and why 11 million people die from sepsis every year.

We have identified the new biomarker that is called Pancreatic Stone Protein (PSP). This marker has been developed at the University of Zurich hospital and we managed to get exclusivity to commercially use this biomarker on our point-of-care platform. We have clinically validated that this marker can detect sepsis 24 to 72 hours earlier than the current standard of care.

We are deploying this technology now in different countries. We are commercialized in different countries in Europe, starting from Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Benelux, even Hong Kong, and we are trying to open new markets. COVID-19 travel restrictions are not ideal as physicians are still people that are used to meet medical representatives in person.

Abionic was founded in 2010. What were the first few years like?

We started from just an idea. The first two years were dedicated to creating the first proof of concept. When you are manufacturing biosensors based on nanotechnology, you need to work with cleanrooms and that is very expensive. But we had to go through this process to realize a first technology proof of concept.

Between 2012 and 2014, we developed the first prototype to test the eagerness of the physicians to have such a device, receiving very good feedback. We then created the first pilot series between 2015 and 2018 that we placed on the market to realize the first one to one scale pilot testing.

We had great success among Swiss pharmacies where we have been really pushing for allergy and iron deficiency testing. We then developed a new generation of reading systems, fully industrialized and ready for high production volume, once we have obtained a sufficient amount of money.

In 2020, we received the CE marking for starting the sales of the industrialized version of the system. We had to spend 10 years of development to fulfill all the regulations and the extremely high level of quality that is requested in this field.

How much money has gone into this to take it to where it is today? how have you done that?

So far, approximately 60 million Swiss francs. Although this is a huge number in absolute terms, most competing companies have raised triple of this amount to reach the market. We have managed to do so as we have been very efficient and have not made many mistakes.

Today we are in the commercialisation phase and are looking to raise CHF 20 to 30 million in the next 6 to 12 months. It is not an easy time to raise money as potential investors have difficulties to travel and visit us. It would be ideal to show them our impressive facilities and its fully automated production line, and biological laboratories.

What drives you?

We are trying to disrupt the world of medical diagnostics, which is almost impossible because this is an industry that is extremely regulated and therefore very well protected against technological disruption.

However, what really drives us and makes us wake up every morning with a smile is the potential of saving a lot of people. When you are targeting a problem that is killing 11 million people a year and you are absolutely convinced you have the solution for helping them, this is a fantastic source of energy to drive you all the way.

Best and worst part of being a CEO?

Being a CEO means dealing with a daily emotional roller coaster ride. It is very hard to stay calm, to take the right decisions and to continue to move forward. But at the same time, this is what makes my work extremely exciting.

It would be impossible for me to do the same job all day long. I love what I do as I change hats all the time. From an intellectual perspective, it is extremely interesting and makes my life very dynamic.

What I dislike is sometimes some human resource problem that you have in all companies that drives your energy down. Sometimes you have to take some decisions and some people make your life difficult because they are not happy with your decision.

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

You need to have a very high quality of co-founders on the core team if you want to have a chance of succeeding. I’m very lucky because my colleagues and the management team that I have today is extremely strong, loyal and good at what they do.

You also need to have a huge amount of optimism because it’s a very violent way of living, professionally speaking. Yet a huge amount of optimism translates into almost never following deadlines, taking more time and more money. I have written more than 300 business plans and none of them worked out. You are always adapting to the reality: regulatory issues, technical issues, clinical conditions, etc.

What are your hopes for the company?

My hope is to develop the company and to make something big that everybody sees as a success; my definition of success is to have this technology accessible to the highest number of people as possible.

No matter what happens, whether we are acquired or if we continue to grow organically, or go through an IPO, I will fight very hard to make sure that our technology will be used by the highest number of people possible.

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