Odd as it might sound, strobing lights at particular frequencies can be good for the brain. Researchers at the American elite university MIT discovered this four years ago, after studying the effect of the flashing light in mice with Alzheimer’s. The neurodegenerative disease simply affected the mice at a decreased pace when exposed to strobing lights at a certain frequency one hour a day.
At the time, Ngoc Mai Nguyen was pursuing her Ph.D at the University of California, Berkeley. When she first encountered the research, she spotted the potential to help masses of people; there was just one problem to solve first.
“In principle, the research demonstrated that stroboscopic light can be therapeutic for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The problem with strobe lights is, quite simply, that it is a strobing light which is uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable to look at for long durations of time. They can also cause headaches, dizziness and may even trigger epilepsy,” Nguyen explains.
She envisioned a solution where the flashing strobe light would be masked with another kind of light, so that the eyes would be unable to detect the flashing, but the brain would still be able to benefit from the strobe.
Nguyen’s idea resulted in a joint patent between DTU and UC Berkeley. In 2017, Nguyen was invited by her co-inventor, Jes Broeng (Now director of Entrepreneurship at DTU) to come to DTU and work with a group of students, including Marcus Schultz Carstensen, who should try to bring the idea to life and attempt to build a prototype. An attempt that went much better than expected.
“The sponsoring professor actually thought it would take us three years to build this device, but it took us three weeks. All of a sudden, we had this ugly-looking MVP, that we were able to present to the proof of concept committee at DTU where we were granted a 500K grant,” says Nguyen, and continues:
“Instead of pursuing a career in academia after my Ph.D, I completely shifted my trajectory in life, I thought: Now I’m going to build a company.”
A competitive edge
Startups with university roots have become a more common phenomenon in recent years—both those started by graduate students who put their university knowledge into action, and those started as deliberate university spin-outs, i.e. companies based on specific research that has been conducted at the university.
Danish universities are also getting better at cultivating a startup environment, and have almost all set up ambitious startup hubs for the benefit of students and researchers who want to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas seriously.
Whilst there isn’t a nationwide directory of all the university-based startups, across the country, the number seems to be increasing. For example, DTU has gone from 19 startups in 2013 to a whopping 76 startups in 2019. According to Jasmina Pless, Head of Entrepreneurship at the Danish Chamber of Commerce (Dansk Erhverv), this is a really promising trend.
“University spin-outs are of great importance to society, because the kind of business ideas they come up with are based on in-depth research, which means they have a huge potential to succeed commercially, but also to make our future greener, more efficient, or even save lives,” she says, adding that this is the case not just for spin-outs, but all university-inspired startups.
Startups generally create new jobs and exports, but the growing number of university startups with their roots firmly in research are uniquely placed to do that and much more.
“With these kinds of startups, Denmark is really gaining a competitive edge, especially when the universities collaborate with the established business community, so that the best research can be commercialised and further developed,” says Pless.
A pacemaker for the brain
Following the first primitive prototype, Nguyen and Carstensen, together with a growing team of co-founders and specialists, have spent the last few years turning the technology into a fully-fledged company. Today, Optoceutics is a digital therapeutics company, whose targeted light therapy device will, in the long run, be able to treat neurodegenerative and mental illnesses such as dementia, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer's.
“Our product is like a potential “pacemaker” for the brain - just non-invasive. The signal is transmitted from the strobe light, through the eyes, to the brain, and it’s a surprisingly large signal we can transmit. And it’s a valid treatment method—by now it’s been well documented that light-based neurostimulation can treat Alzheimer’s in mice,” explains Carstensen, co-founder and CTO in Optoceutics.
Whether this is also true for humans is something Optoceutics is currently testing through clinical trials. If they succeed, they will be able to provide the world with the first treatment for Alzheimers—a treatment that has an enormously obvious business potential.
In the meantime, the company will begin to sell its first neurostimulation device as part of their efforts to gain more insights on how the devices are being utilized by the individuals who need it most. This fully CE marked device allows them, in true startup spirit, to begin generating revenue that can be put towards further development.
However, such clinical trials would be too expensive to conduct if funded by product sales alone. Again, in startup spirit, Optoceutics are using their initial sales as clinical trials themselves—collecting feedback and data from their customers—and they are also collaborating with the universities from which the company was born in the first place.
“Instead of spending billions of kroner on preclinical and clinical trials, we’re working with researchers at UC Berkeley, DTU, and KU. The trials are being conducted by doctors at Zealand University Hospital, and we’re more like the company who provides the equipment. This pays off in the sense that all the research is public, but it’s also because it makes sense for a startup like us to work with accredited universities and hospitals to ensure that we are properly conducting our trials in an honest and open manner. With the help of the hospitals and institutions Optoceutics is able to move forward much faster than we would otherwise be able to, at a much thinner run rate,” says Carstensen.
Research and business go hand in hand
As Optoceutics is demonstrating, research and commercialisation don’t have to be kept separate. In fact, they go hand in hand. This kind of symbiosis of research and business is also the case, albeit on a much larger scale, for the by now well-known robotics cluster in Odense.
“It originally started at Lindøværftet [Odense Steel Shipyard] when Mærsk began to invest in automated welding processes. Mærsk build a relatively large unit for this, but they lacked specialised workers, so they went and invested 100 million DKK in a robot center at SDU, and in my opinion that’s how the whole robot cluster started,” says Søren Peter Johansen, Network Manager at Danish Industrial Robot Association (DIRA).
With such a double investment—both in the business and university world—it drew employees and students in the field to Odense. Three years later, three of those students founded Universal Robots, which has since become a billion-dollar company and yet another success that leads to more success in the forms of more robot-interested students, research funding and more startups in the field, creating what is known as a ‘cluster’ in Odense.
“It’s really a snowball effect,” says Johansen, “you create an environment that attracts the relevant people who begin to get exciting new ideas and go on to create their own projects and inspire even more ideas, and when that kind of innovation is working together with business, the ball really starts rolling quickly.”
Bringing advanced technologies together
Odense’s robot cluster has become a world-famous case, where the combination of successful companies and the most advanced knowledge in robotics make for a budding ecosystem. And, according to the new digital research centre DIREC, Denmark needs more competitive advantages like this, especially when it comes to advanced, digital technologies where development goes at a much higher pace than we’ve previously been used to.
“We have to be ahead of our game when it comes to things like AI, big data or IoT. These are the kind of sectors we’re interested in supporting. Denmark might not become the industry leader in every area, but if we don’t stay at the forefront of research, we have no chance of staying afloat,” says Thomas Riisgaard, DIREC’s managing director.
With a budget of 275 million DKK for the next five years, DIREC plans to take on the challenges ahead by demanding more collaboration between Danish universities. Given that Denmark is such a small country, it doesn’t make sense for universities to be researching similar technologies without communicating with each other or working together.
“It’s also about connecting those who are conducting slightly different, but complementary research, for example robotics in Odense and AI in Copenhagen. When you put those two groups together, something entirely new might come out of it, that they would never have come up with alone. Typically, the best researchers aren’t found at a single university but scattered across the country. We want to gather them in a Danish dream team across universities, which can solve the challenges in the digitale field,” Riisgaard says.
Meanwhile, DIREC also has a vested interest in bringing research beyond the university walls, both in the form of spin-out companies, and in order to give existing companies a competitive advantage.
“For a company to really make it big, it has to be able to offer something totally unique. Sure, it can be a strong brand like Nike, or a social network like Facebook, but the usual way is to develop a technology that other companies don’t have but that plenty of people need. Our hope is that we can fuel the development of those kind of technologies for Danish companies,” says Riisgaard, and continues:
“We are up against enormous players like MIT in Boston, Silicon Valley and Shenzhen in China, where the research investments are way beyond what we can manage here in Denmark. What we can do is collaborate. If, instead of seeing ourselves as eight separate universities, we saw it as a single, unified effort and we were able to coordinate efficiently, then we’d begin to have a better shot with investors, and a chance to take on the big boys. But we can only do that if we work together.”
Real products to real people
When Ngoc Mai Nguyen left her research position in order to start a company that would attempt to cure neurodegenerative diseases with light, most of her friends thought she was crazy. Today, Optoceutics are not far off from achieving their mission. And for the founder, it wasn’t a crazy move, but the natural next step after her research.
“A startup gave me the opportunity to test my research and ideas in a completely different way. Creating Optoceutics allowed us to build products that are based in science and tested in clinical trials - while simultaneously taking these products and putting them into the hands of real people. People who can provide us with the feedback and information that we need to continue developing solutions for some of the world’s most challenging disorders,” she says.
Nor does Nguyen feel like she’s left research. She’s just moved it from the university to a startup.
“There is often a disconnect between research and business, but why not do both? We’re conducting research whilst building a company and that means we can test our product in ‘the real world’ sooner. University research makes an impact, but usually at a much slower speed than is possible in business,” she says.