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Pushing boundaries in bioengineering

Marcelo Ribeiro (founder & CEO/CSO) and Lisanne Blauw (co-founder & business developer) share their experience as early-stage entrepreneurs.

Why did you found River BioMedics?
Marcelo: ‘My dream has always been to have my own company, and my decisions were always directed towards that goal. I liked science and decided to study biochemistry to develop a translational and marketable product.’
Lisanne: ‘My interest in technology and medicine was my motivation to start with, and I have always been interested in the commercial side of science. I think start-ups are necessary to foster innovation in the medical/pharmaceutical field.’

How did you develop the technology for River BioMedics, and at what point did the two of you partner up?
Marcelo: ‘I started my PhD with the idea in mind that I wanted to develop something that could be used as a business. After five years of PhD and a postdoc position, I succeeded in making the mini heart and file the IP for the technology in 2018. That was the breakthrough. Robert, my PI and mentor, played an important role by giving me this fantastique opportunity: He assured me two years of funding to research “whatever I want” in that time.’
Lisanne: ‘That’s something very unique, an incredible opportunity to have. I joined in 2018 after getting in contact with Robert for an internship as part of my master’s studies. He suggested that I could work together with Marcelo.’
Marcelo: ‘I had been looking for a partner for six months already, but it didn’t really click with anyone. With Lisanne that was different.’

What does your workday look like?
Lisanne: ‘We are both still employed as postdocs, and I am finishing my master’s in biomedical engineering at Delft University. In addition, I work for River BioMedics as Business Developer. This involves for example, exploring funding opportunities, talking to potential customers, connecting with investors, experts and other entrepreneurs, writing the business plan and pitching our venture plan.’
Marcelo: ‘My days are a combination of lab, supervising students and River BioMedics. After I have finished at the university, I continue with work for the company: organising meetings, talking to people, contacting clients, financing – as CEO I am responsible for everything.’
Lisanne: ‘Since our postdoc positions do not pay us for the work we invest in River BioMedics, we do everything on the side. At this point, we just have to push forward and do everything we can to make it a success.’

What do you like about being an entrepreneur?
Lisanne: ‘I enjoy building a network and making connections. I am constantly busy with thinking of how to connect things to make them work. I like that it is more focused and efficient: you work towards a concrete goal, everything goes a lot faster. That requires a different mindset compared to pure scientific research.’
Marcelo: ‘To be honest, I am still looking for the final answer to that question. What gets me up in the morning is the puzzle: putting pieces together, thinking one step ahead and considering your competitors, planning ahead. I like the challenge of it, it is exciting.’

How did you learn the entrepreneurial skills that you need to run your company?
Marcelo: ‘I took a set of different courses during my university time, on business development, entrepreneurship, IP, all these things. However, once you start you realise you basically (still) don’t know anything, you just go with the flow. You must couple yourself to experienced people, that’s how you learn most.’
Lisanne: ‘I agree, you learn most on the go, by connecting with experienced people. Finding the right people is very hard, if collaborations don’t work out, you don’t learn a lot and waste time. Since I consider it useful to also know the theoretical part, I’ll do a course soon too, the Talent Accelerator Programme for BioBusiness. This programme also involves mentoring, which I find very valuable.’

What is your advice for people who want to start their own business?
Lisanne: ‘Connect with people with experience in the field, because that is where you learn the most. It is important to recognise that you cannot do everything by yourself. And be prepared to work hard: If you want to succeed, great efforts are necessary.’
Marcelo: ‘One thing I have learned so far is that you need to be very aware of the deals you make at an early stage, because they will haunt you for a long time. The business world is extremely competitive, so make sure you keep your freedom of operation. Try to partner up with others, there is nothing more important than a good team. Other than that, in my opinion many people hesitate and doubt too much. You just have to jump in at the deep end, or you will never start. Just go for it!’

River BioMedics develops 3D heart models based on human induced pluripotent stem cells to mimic the human heart function for drug development and discovery. The start-up was granted the NWO Take-off phase 1 grant.

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