„It sounds like science fiction, but it’s only science” | Interview with APPERCELL
As you could read in the previous post: two Hungarian teams also joined the X-Europe program. This time, Design Terminal talked about product development and future plans with András Bencsik and László Grand, the founders of APPERCELL.
Recently, selected startups for the first round of X-Europe have been revealed. This cohort focuses on HealthTech and BioTech areas. In addition to four organizations, Design Terminal has taken an active role in the program, which aims to boost startups to build investor and corporate relationships through training and promotion, and to connect the ecosystem across Europe. At the autumn events, 27 entrants will have the opportunity to develop their products and build a network, and amongst them there are two Hungarian teams.
One of them is a solution that records the bioelectrical activity of cellular networks consisting of neurons or myocardial cells. The Hungarian startup’s biotechnological, IT and artificial intelligence-based development is led by Dr. László Grand, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. András Bencsik joined the team from a completely different area: he is an economist and corporate financier. In 2017 they started working together.
How would you summarize your solution? Tell us about APPERCELL!
László Grand: Our goal is to learn more about neurons, myocardial cells, and their network, to better understand their function. The essence of the method is that the cells of these cellular networks communicate with each other with electrical impulses and we can tell the activity of many cells and the networks formed from them, which helps to understand their function and test the mechanism of new chemical agents. With electrical activity, various drug molecules, or even light we can stimulate the cells in a measuring tray with holes in them, the cells grow in these holes. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s only science. This knowledge is very important in the academic sector and in the pharmaceutical industry, as it can also shed light on how medicines should be developed more efficiently. The solution generates huge amounts of data from these neuronal and myocardial cell networks. The product consists of a hardware and software component. Artificial intelligence helps to decipher the network activity that is needed, as we record 4 terabytes of data per day with our devices. Even in medical science, we now face problems of complexity to which machine learning and AI can provide answers more and more.
Do you feel that you have to break down walls in healthcare to make an innovative idea a reality?
L.G .: The use of AI is becoming more widespread and accepted in research as it is used by people who want to achieve new results. The big question is how to manage these innovations in the field of health from a legal point of view and how to support them financially.
What can we know about the team?
L.G.: We are currently a team of six, but we would like to expand and have 12-15 people next year. It is an absolutely interdisciplinary team: we have professionals with many decades of experience in electronics development, data scientists, software developers, medical scientists, and a team of economics and product managers. We value this community. Some people help us from different parts of the world, from the US to Australia.
András Bencsik: We are very lucky in this regard. We have the background that many startups lack. Together, we are already over six funding rounds, so we have experience on how to build a company and acquire fellow investors for that. When I attended the Seedcamp program in London with my previous venture, I was taught that five factors should be given special attention when looking for an investor. The most important thing is traction, which are results you can show to validate your solution. Second in order is the team: there’s no use of a good development team if you can’t sell the product afterwards. Then comes the market, especially the size of the market. How long the business can be scaled and what the exit value will be as important to investors. Then only comes the product itself and social proof, which is who joins the project and supports it as a credible expert.
What do you expect from the X-Europe program?
L.G.: In Hungary the biotechnology sector is less significant, and this program may attract the attention of several companies. Also, when talking about mentoring, we expect to learn more about how to enter an international market. We have the experience, but we can still develop a lot. We find the possibility of meetings with partners and representatives of pharmaceutical companies useful and are happy to meet other participating companies as well. When our business started, we received an investment from Creative Accelerator that allowed us to work on the prototype. It would be great if a mechanism could be set up in our home country on how to help these biotech startups. They bring new innovations for Hungary, achieve international success, and create new jobs. Several countries have a central tender program opportunity for startups. Unfortunately, this is still lacking in Hungary, but we, together with a few actors in the industry hope that such a program will soon be available for highly innovative companies. That is why we are very happy that investors like Attila Várkonyi and Csaba Lantos – recognizing the importance of one of the leading industries of the 21st century – have been persistently supporting companies in the sector for years and have seen the opportunity to invest in us as well.
A.B.: We want to develop the team. We are beyond two funding rounds, but we are also preparing for a third, which can help us complete product development and go to market with it. We will have the opportunity to expand our current team. We want to attract people who also see the biological, electronics, and software development side of this industry. The program will also provide an opportunity for corporate presentations. A few days ago the first webinar took place with three companies from the pharmaceutical industry who already showed interest in the participating teams. We need this because the product needs to be tested continuously, through multiple channels, feedbacks need to be collected and end-user habits need to be better understood. One-on-one mentoring and leadership training will also be an important element of the program. In addition, with our participation, we would like to show that it is also possible to join foreign initiatives from Hungary, and it is worth trying similarly to us.
What are your further plans with the product?
L.G.: There are many. The public one is that we want to recycle some parts of our software and algorithmization solutions in other sectors as well. Not only can we present solutions for neuroscience and myocardial research, but some of our solutions can be used in other areas where large amounts of data need to be displayed and processed in near real-time.
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