Curious decision-makers and promising investors – Researchers draw energy from encounters at Slush

In December, teams of researchers headed to the Messukeskus Expo and Convention Centre in Helsinki to shed light on the functioning of mini-brains, microneedle patches and other groundbreaking inventions.

The University of Helsinki and its commercialisation company Helsinki Innovation Services (HIS) presented five research-based spinouts as well as 12 innovations at the beginning of their commercialisation path. We asked the researchers what they gained from the event.

Living mini-brains attracted politicians

What would you say if it was possible to create in the laboratory a miniature copy of anyone’s brain on the basis of a skin or blood sample? Sounds unbelievable, but it is possible. The Living Human Brain team aims to revolutionise the development of drugs for brain diseases: the mini-brain could be used to design personalised therapies and test drug effectiveness faster and at a lower cost than today.

“Our technique can help cut out many unnecessary clinical trials,” says Professor Jari Koistinaho, who leads the team.

At Slush, the invention attracted curious visitors. Among those exploring the mini-brain were Minister of Science and Culture Antti Kurvinen (Centre Party) and Matias Mäkynen (Social Democratic Party), chair of the parliamentary RDI working group. According to Koistinaho, there was much to talk about, to the degree that fellow members of the visitors’ retinues had to urge them on their way.

In fact, the team received encouragement at Slush to continue its work. If all goes to plan, the mini-brain can be ready for commercialisation as soon as in the autumn of 2023.

“We are on the path expected by our funders and partners,” Koistinaho sums up.

New contacts established by researchers developing a treatment for dry eye syndrome

Slush visitors also turned their attention to RevEye, an innovation focused on an ocular ailment familiar to many. According to University Lecturer Filip Ekholm, one of the project’s leaders, the team met with Member of Parliament Atte Harjanne (the Greens).

“It was nice to see that politicians are very interested in Finnish research and the opportunities it provides,” Ekholm says.

The RevEye team aims to help hundreds of millions of people suffering from dry eyes. Often, the problem is caused by a disturbance in the lipid layer that covers the tear film, allowing tear fluid to evaporate quickly from the surface of the eyes. To fix the problem, the team has developed a lipid-based product that prevents such evaporation.

“We hope our innovation will transform the eye drop market by supplementing the current selection with an effective and easily accessible alternative.”

Ekholm is pleased that the visitors to the startup event took a positive outlook on the innovation.

“We gained several contacts from Slush from both Finnish and international capital investors.”

A team focused on reducing food waste sounded out investors’ opinions

Food spoilage and waste is a major global problem. The amount of fruit, berries, vegetables and other fresh produce that spoil is particularly high, constituting roughly 86% of all food waste. To tackle the problem, the FreshTech team has developed a bio-based pad that extends the shelf life of products without harming their taste and quality.

“It’s an ideal solution to support the European Green Deal, whose aim is to halve food waste by 2030,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Anis Arzami.

Arzami was at Slush for the first time to introduce the work of her team. She is pleased to have received useful comments from visitors and to have the opportunity to meet a number of investors interested in the active packaging solution.

“It was an eye-opening experience to talk to them and hear what aspects they consider important.”

Now, the team is concentrating on guiding its innovation towards the founding of a business.

“I hope we will be able to attend Slush also in the coming years,” Arzami says.

A microneedle patch for people suffering from needle phobia garnered positive feedback

Postdoctoral Researchers Nesma El-Sayed and Flavia Fontana introduced at Slush a microneedle patch developed by the Medixmicro team, which could be used to administer various drugs to both humans and animals. For people with injection phobia, who according to estimates may constitute as much as 30% of the global population, a patch would be an option preferable to a hypodermic needle. According to the researchers, the solution would also facilitate the transport of vaccines and conserve the environment.

“I believe this is a solution for the future,” El-Sayed sums up.

At Slush, the team had the opportunity to meet startup founders and gain valuable information on what to expect on the path to commercialisation. Inspiration was drawn also from discussions with investors and other visitors.

“We gained more confidence when we saw how interested they were in our innovation,” Fontana says.

Next, the team intends to continue its development efforts. The goal is to establish a spinout based on the innovation in the near future.

Researchers who are solving the problem of vaccine shelf life drew fresh energy from Slush

That certain viruses have not been eliminated from the world is not down to a lack of vaccines, but transport issues. Many vaccines are so sensitive that even minor changes in temperature, lighting and humidity can destroy them. This problem is being solved by Professor Vincenzo Cerullo and his Globevac team.

“Our goal is to make vaccines as stable as possible to enable their distribution anywhere in the world,” Cerullo says.

This would also make vaccines less expensive, since roughly 80% of the associated expense is made up of transport costs. According to Cerullo, the innovation elicited a lot of curiosity among Slush visitors, with the team also receiving offers for collaboration.

“Investors were very eager to be part of our story.”

As an experienced Slush attendee, Cerullo thinks the best thing about the event is the enthusiasm it engenders, making it possible to gain new insights on the impact of your own research. This time was no exception. The entire Globevac team, headed by Project Coordinator Manlio Fusciello, drew fresh energy from the event to carry their work forward.