IT’S PURE PLASTIC
Soon producers of milk will have a test at hand that is able to detect the presence of antibiotics in a split second – filling a need in the dairy industry. Getting feedback on the business plan at Venture Cup gave the inventors a push in the right direction.
Scientists at DTU Nanotech had worked for years on a microchip for testing human saliva samples for virus. The time had come to advertise for a PhD student to develop the device for business purposes, and the position attracted Johannes Daprà. At the time, he had really been aiming for a degree about concrete. Today, he works with neither human saliva nor concrete.
“I worked on that for quite a while, and from the beginning it was clear that it was something we could patent,” explains Johannes Daprà. He came to Denmark from the Technical University of Munich, Germany with a master’s degree in polymer chemistry.
During his studies in Munich, he took one semester abroad in Denmark at DTU, where he participated in a special course at Nanotech, so he wasn’t brand new to this field.
“The PhD I was offered involved microchips made of conductive polymers, and it was something relatively new. The industries are only now beginning to use them widely in their processes,” says Johannes Daprà.
Conductive polymers are special plastic compounds made from organic material with the ability to conduct electricity. You don’t need to handle them in a clean room, and this makes mass production easy and cheap. The research group at DTU had determined to exploit this property and decided to make a sensor with only polymers, leaving out metal compounds.
And this was new. Normally, microchips of this kind have gold as the conducting material – a rather expensive solution. This is not the case for polymers, which into the bargain come as a liquid and are therefore easy to work with. You simply apply them like paint.
Change of business model
Johannes and his colleagues attended the Venture Cup Idea Competition, which aims to identify the best ideas for creating new businesses. This process drove the scientists to rethink the entire project.
“Some of the feedback we got at Venture Cup was to consider in the beginning developing the microchip for something other than medical purposes, to avoid the laborious authorization procedures and related expenses,” explains Johannes Daprà.
This made the scientists split the project in two. One part carried on developing a medical device, the other turned the focus to a non-human application. The first thing that came to their minds was food. There are many food-borne infections and you can relatively easily change the microchip probe to detect new microorganisms.
They managed to get GAP-funding for Johannes Daprà’s salary at DTU Nanotech.
At first they tried to detect the bacteria, Escherichia coli, but without success.
“Then, a veterinarian who specialized in cattle infections recommended testing milk for antibiotics. It’s easy and availability is not an issue,” says Johannes Daprà.
Furthermore, comparable literature makes it straightforward to document whether the new microchip is better or worse than the equipment that is already accessible.
“In the beginning, we discarded the idea and thought that it wasn’t a big thing. It basically never happens that milk contaminated with antibiotics is delivered. When 300,000 samples are tested, only 150 are positive. But then again – ideally, every delivery from a farmer is tested before transporting the milk to the dairy. And, it turns out, that the microchip works well with milk,” says Johannes Daprà.
So then they started paving the way for a business.
The company has reserved the domain www.plastisens.com, but, at the time of writing, the website is not published.
The people behind Plastisens have developed a microchip capable of sensing antibiotics in milk. Currently, the device is able to detect two different kinds of antibiotics.
The microchip for electrochemical measurements is made entirely of plastic and contains specific biological probes for target recognition.
The name, Plastisens, is a contraction of the word plastic and sensor.
One patent was applied for in 2010.
Besides Johannes Daprà, the founders of the company are:
Attila Sukosd, CTO and cofounder of Airtame, LinkedIn
Noemi Rozlosnik, associate professor at DTU Nanotech, LinkedIn
Torsten Freltoft, technology development & commercialization executive and founder of Fretec ApS, LinkedIn
The initial phase is looong
The scientists began to look for a person to help make a business plan and they ran into Torsten Freltoft, who is the CEO at Plastisens today.
“Torsten has previously worked with plastic and he turned out to be the perfect choice. He was excited about the product, and he has a well-developed network in the industry,” explains Johannes Daprà.
Copenhagen Spin-out (CSO) granted money to Plastisens to help finalize the business plan. They needed the experience that CSO could share, and to find at least two companies to supply electronics and plastics respectively.
“The funding from CSO helped us in our search for the best suppliers, and they were really helpful. Among other things, they organized a trip to the Medica Trade Fair in Dusseldorf, which was very beneficial for us to get in contact with possible suppliers. It took much longer than expected, and I also had to solve technical issues during the same period,” says Johannes Daprà.
Countless patents have to be analyzed
The process of formulating a patent application can be tedious, but an application is not enough. You also have to make sure that the rest of the technology does not infringe existing patents. If it does, is there a way around it, or can you get a license from the owner? The research team found some that were in the way but they were easy to deal with.
In Germany, a master’s course on patent law is obligatory at the university, so Johannes Daprà already knew the overall principles.
“I found it very boring at the time. Compared to other subjects it was easy, but if you have decided to do chemistry, you don’t want to study patent law. Nevertheless, I saved my notes and it helped me to understand some of the complaints from the lawyers,” tells Johannes Daprà.
A patent lawyer would come in handy at this point, but …
“It’s too expensive! As a startup, you have to bootstrap and do as much as you can yourself!”
A dream scenario or…
In the dream scenario, Plastisens would get 5–6 million DKK from an investor who has faith in the business idea. But then again, maybe they won’t get a penny.
“We have set ourselves a deadline of six months from now. If we haven’t been able to raise money by then, nobody is interested in the microchip – by now we have contacted all actors from the innovation environment except one. We are currently negotiating with Capnova, who have more or less agreed to an investment of 4 million. The papers are not signed yet, but we expect that to be done soon. Minor things have to be changed, but it’s something we can negotiate, I’m sure. If everything turns out as we hope, the money will be in our hands four months from now,” says Johannes Daprà.
As soon as the money is granted, Johannes and his colleagues can continue developing the microchip at DTU. The university just signed an agreement giving Plastisens exclusive rights to a part of the patent with the rest belonging to DTU. Everything is ready.
Blue book, Johannes Daprà, 29 years old
2014 – present: Co-founder and head researcher at Plastisens ApS. Freelance technical consultant
2013–14: Postdoc position at DTU Natotech
2010–13: PhD degree at DTU Nanotech
2008: semester abroad at DTU Nanotech
2004–9: MSc in Chemistry at Technische Universität München (TUM), Germany
Johannes Daprà is a genuine European citizen. He was born in northern Italy, close to the border of Austria. The best university in the area to study chemistry is TUM, which is nearby – but in Germany. Here, he met German citizen, Katharina, whom he married and brought with him to Denmark. Here they decided to put down roots and have found a nice apartment in Kokkedal, close to Hørsholm where lots of biotech companies are situated. In their spare time, they both enjoy travelling and road biking.