Medicortex – winner of the Life Science Pitching competition 2019

On November 22, Y Science hosted a Life Science Pitching competition for early-stage startups and pre-startups. Today we had the opportunity to interview Dr. Begum Utz from Medicortex, the startup who won the 30,000€ prize.

Dr. Utz, could you tell us a bit about the story of Medicortex?

Medicortex was founded in 2014 by Dr. Adrian Harel. He started his academic career as a neurobiologist and then switched to industry. When he got the idea for Medicortex, he moved to Finland to start the company because of the great opportunities this country offers to entrepreneurs. Dr.

Harel’s initial plan was to develop a drug for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). However, he later came up with a second idea for a diagnostic test to detect TBI and this is currently the priority of the company. TBI can happen to anyone and, if left untreated, can cause many other complications later in life. MRIs are the standard way to detect TBI but they are expensive, not always able to detect milder injuries, and require exposing the patient to harmful radiation. So there is a clear market need for a fast, cheap, non-invasive and portable way to detect TBIs.

Dr. Harel used an animal model to investigate the presence of biomarkers that could be found in urine or saliva and that would indicate TBI. The positive results from this trial were really the beginning of Medicortex.

Currently, there are five employees working at Medicortex, all with an academic background. We are analyzing the samples collected from a second clinical study in humans while planning a pediatric clinical trial to test if our biomarkers can detect TBIs not only in adults but also in children. 

As Product Manager, what does your role at Medicortex entail?

I am in charge of developing a prototype of the device that will allow to test for TBIs. This prototype will be a small handheld test, much like a pregnancy test, which will detect the presence of biomarkers indicative of brain injury. We also have some ideas on how to develop it further. For instance, if we were to observe that levels of specific biomarkers change over time, this could mean that the test can also be used to monitor patients’ recovery.

In addition to working on the prototype, my scientific background prepared me well to write grant applications, so I also work on securing funding for Medicortex.

You moved to Medicortex after your postdoc at University of Helsinki. How was the transition from academia to industry?

The transition happened by chance for me. I moved to Finland to continue my career in academia, but after a year I thought I wanted to try something else. I started looking around and three months ago I got a position at Medicortex. I'm really enjoying this new environment: it combines life science and business to actually bring something to the market and have an impact in society.

Moving to Medicortex also meant developing a new expertise in the fields of neuroscience and entrepreneurship. I have done my Master’s thesis on Huntington's disease (a neurodegenerative disorder) but all my later research focused on oncology. I really enjoyed working on cancer and I thought I would continue in this field, but then I realized I wanted to learn something new. Luckily, a PhD prepares you well for this kind of changes. Having a scientific background in biomedicine, I could understand neuroscience articles and, after reading up on the latest literature in this field, I got enough background to start working on this new project.

Acquiring business skills is also very exciting but still a work-in-progress: Y Science was actually my first time pitching to potential investors. I really appreciated that Medicortex gave me the chance to do it, and it was also very rewarding to bring home the prize.

As one of the finalists of the Life Science Pitching competition, how was your experience at Y Science?

Overall I really enjoyed the event and I felt that Y Science did a good job at showing how life sciences and business can be combined to have an impact on healthcare. The talks really highlighted different aspects of the life science sector. Hearing the experiences of entrepreneurs and investors and their view on how things work in the startup world, really helped me understand how life science business works. I also enjoyed listening to the other pitches: everyone's talk was really good, so I guess it was really hard for the judges to select a winner.

Y Science was also a great networking opportunity that brought us a lot of visibility. We connected with a few investors potentially interested in supporting Medicortex and we are now following up on that. Moreover, some of our stakeholders saw on social media that we won the competition and called to congratulate us. 

Participating to the pitching competition was also more than just publicity. The pitch training was very useful, as was the rehearsal the day before the event. Having a dress rehearsal also allowed me to meet the other finalists in a more relaxed context: everyone was very friendly and a good sport, and I am actually still in contact with a couple of them.

What is in store for Medicortex in the near future?

In the next two years we are aiming to develop a prototype and apply for the regulatory approvals. Of course this kind of timeline always depend on funding, but we hope to start the regulatory applications in 2021, first in Europe and then in other countries. After that, we estimate that it will take one more year to bring the product to market, so you might find our TBI test in the pharmacy by 2022.