[00:00:15] Alice Bentinck: Hello, and welcome to the Entrepreneur First Podcast, where we uncover the stories and ambitions of some of the world’s most inspiring entrepreneurs. My name is Alice Bentinck. I’m the co-founder of Entrepreneur First, and I’ll be your host for this episode. Today, we’re talking about innovations in reproductive healthcare. This is a fascinating and traditionally underinvested in area of healthcare. I’m super excited to see the next generation of founders tackling so many problems in this space. Our two guests for this episode are Hana Janebdar, CEO and co-founder of Juno Bio, and Alexandra Boussommier, who holds the same role at ImVitro.
Both these companies use innovative technology to tackle reproductive health issues. ImVitro works to improve the success rate of IVF, and Juno Bio’s microbiome test kit helps diagnose a wide range of vaginal health issues. Settle down, and grab a cup of tea to hear a fascinating conversation between two amazing founders doing exciting things in the reproductive healthcare space.
At Entrepreneur First, we’re always eager to find out why people decide to become a founder. I asked Alexandra how her journey began.
[00:01:26] Alexandra Boussommier: I’m a researcher by training. I did a PhD. I did a post-doc, and to be fair, I always knew I wanted to start a company, I just didn’t know when. I just knew that I was still lacking some scientific maturity. I think I was at the end of my postdoc when I felt like I had accumulated enough experience. Because going through a PhD and a postdoc is not easy, and it builds a lot of soft skills that I find really interesting for when you start your company. It was really at that stage. I always knew I wanted to build an R&D centric company. So, that’s why I felt like it was the right time to go into it.
The other reason that really made me take the leap is that, while I loved academia, I always felt like there was maybe a little too much inertia for my personality. It’s all very well it being like this, like you need some risky long-term academic projects. I was doing a lot of fundamental research, but I felt like I was missing some more immediate return. I wanted some sanity checks from the end users, and I felt like starting my R&D company, that would be product centric, having a parallel stream of feedback that would make sure that your R&D, even though it takes longer to achieve, is going the right direction, was the perfect fit. That’s why I ended up going there.
I moved a bit. I was first in Switzerland, then in the UK. Then I went to the US. I ended up coming back to Paris first because I’m French and Spanish, so I did want to come back to Europe. It had been ages, but actually, it was because I obtained this fellowship from the Marie Curie Institut. They have developed this fellowship that really encourages academics to come to Europe and integrate a startup to discover this world, and I really used that as a stepping stone. I just tried to start my own company, and then I joined the EF. Now I’m in Paris, and you can tell it’s really an interesting hub to be in.
Of course, London has always been known to be a great startup hub, but you can tell that they’re trying really hard in Paris to make it a great place for founders, and I think in many ways it is. I can tell that especially founders are really trying hard to help each other out to make this a long-lasting startup hub.
[00:03:27] Alice: For Juno Bio, it was biology which sparked Hana’s interest in entrepreneurship.
[00:03:31] Hana Janebdar: To be quite honest, I think it probably started quite early during my Master’s. I went from doing biology at Imperial to Biochemical Engineering at UCL. The Master’s was very much about, how do you translate biology into meaningful products for the world? It’s all about scaling up things, building bioreactors, downstream processing and all the rest of it.
That Master’s for me was the eye-opener, that actually biology isn’t just about having your favorite parasite, or your favorite microbe, which I’ll admit I have, it’s about using that to put products in front of people. The microbiome industry is really exciting. It’s nascent in a lot of ways, but also the impact that it can potentially have is huge. Previously, we’ve seen in the space that, I think, there are a lot of overreaching claims that have been made, interpretations that don’t quite add up, et cetera.
Also, a lack of transparency for the customer, and we’ve seen companies fail in the space – quite big companies backed by really big investors. For us, it’s really important that we’re fully transparent with the customer. What is it that’s being sequenced? What is it that is being pooled and anonymized and used to power up research, and to what end? Is it just to make endless profits or is Juno to close the gender health gap?
Then with these claims, the microbiome industry navigates a space that is adjacent to things like probiotics, which to date haven’t been regulated, et cetera. You really need to make sure that what you say is backed by science, backed by consensus in science and caveated in a way that makes it factual, but also accessible to the customer. That is challenging, and it’s challenging in communication as much as it is in what we do behind the scenes, and that’s where we’ve been really responsible.
[00:05:22] Alice: As one of the co-founders of EF, I’m also keen to understand why people join us. Whilst EF plays an integral role in making a founder’s role ambition a reality, we often find that goals and ambitions change once they’ve joined us. I asked Hana to tell us a little bit more about why she joined EF.
[00:05:36] Hana: I joined EF because I had been working in the microbiome space. I’d worked in the lab, and I’d seen all the different applications of this kind of technology. But I’d seen a really big sort of huge space and lack of anything being done when it came to the microbiome in the vagina and women’s health. Which to me was ridiculous, because of all the microbiomes, it’s the most directly accessible and meaningful, and impacts over 30 women’s conditions. I had this idea that like, well, this is ridiculous. This needs to change. Someone introduced me to Jade who used to work at EF back in the day, I think. I just sat down with her and I said, “Biology is great, but this is terrible and this is what needs to be changed,” et cetera and she’s like, “Well, come to EF and do it there.”
[00:06:20] Alice: Alexandra had tried starting a company before, but she felt that EF could take her founder ambitions to the next level.
[00:06:25] Alexandra: I knew that I wanted to work in the field that we call cell culture, so manipulating cells in the lab. Ironically, it had nothing to do with IVF, which actually makes this story I think even more interesting to me because I actually had tried starting a company for a year. The first time EF had contacted me was for the first cohort in Paris, and it’s actually funny because I was like, “It sounds interesting, but I want to give it a try for myself.” I hear there’s no better way of attributing value to something when you’ve tried, because I was trying for a year alone and it’s really hard.
What was really funny is that the same person called me a year later, because they’re really smart, and they were like, “How are you doing? Do you want to join us?” That’s when I was like, “Yes, maybe I do. Maybe this is actually really hard in the end.” And so, I did decide to join EF, and at that point, I had matured a bit, had some ideas, and I did make some progress, but it wasn’t nearly as much as I would have done and I did end up doing with EF in a couple of months.
The idea was that I had spent a lot of time in the lab as a researcher. My research was in bioengineering, first around glaucoma, then cancer, and so, it was more the techniques that I was really interested in. Because I could really see – and I’m not the only one – that cell culture is going to be central to many, many treatments. What was interesting is that EF was really good at encouraging me to just look into it and different fields where cell culture was central. I didn’t have a set idea. I thought I did and EF was really open to saying, “Don’t worry, you’re going to come in with your idea. You’re going to think it’s the best one and you’re actually going to realize that it isn’t,” and that’s exactly what happened.
The good thing is I came in with knowing what I was passionate about, which I feel is maybe more important rather than attaching yourself to a specific idea. Then I gave myself, or EF gave me, some space to explore what other applications around that initial idea I could find traction for. That’s what ended up happening because at the heart of IVF, you do have cell culture.
[00:08:17] Alice: I asked Alexandra to tell us a bit more about what ImVitro does.
[00:08:21] Alexandra: The one-liner is that we use AI to tackle infertility. In reality, as you can imagine, there’s many ways of doing it. One of the main medical solutions to infertility today remains in vitro fertilization or IVF, and while it has helped a lot of people, often its success rates still stagnate, and they’re still quite low. It means that the patients have to go back. They have to repeat their treatments, which are not easy. They take a lot of time. They’re expensive, and emotionally, it can really hurt. The mission really here is to increase the success rate of IVF to make an easier path towards parenthood, but in doing so, we want to help doctors better treat their patients.
It’s B2B and what we’re developing is a Software as a Service platform, whereby we’d have a software that the IVF experts in the lab, the embryologists, could connect to, essentially upload some of their key data, and we would then help them make more robust decisions. The one decision that I was really interested in to start with – first because it’s really key, but second because it gets back to my own expertise in the lab – is that of the evaluation of the embryo. Because again, in a nutshell, IVF consists in creating embryos in the lab using the patient’s gametes, maintaining them alive in the lab for a few days, and then choosing which one you’ll transfer back into the patient.
For the last decade, clinics have been equipping themselves with a new generation of microscope called time-lapse microscopes. All they do is acquire images of these embryos as they develop every 20 minutes for six days. This is the data we’re interested in because, as much as they have their undeniable expertise, the embryologists spend time going through these videos looking for biological hints that might help them predict which of these embryos has the highest chance of leading to a pregnancy.
Again, as much as they have their expertise, if you saw one of those videos, you’d realize how rich in information it is. The belief is that we’re missing out on maybe some key hints that AI could pick up on. We have algorithms that have been trained on these videos of embryos for which we know there was or was not a pregnancy. The idea is that now it’s accumulated some knowledge that helps them upload their video. That way, when the algorithm sees a new video, it can predict with an accuracy that is higher than that of the doctor which one should be transferred first, so that the patient doesn’t repeat treatments that will fail.
I’m really happy to say that this year has seen our first version of the product come out. We actually also got what is called the CE marking; we’re in the medical field, and so, obviously, you want to make sure that what you develop is safe to use for patients, and for doctors. This was a huge milestone earlier this year in June. The team did a wonderful job and so, now we have the CE marking and we have a first version of the product, which is a software, I’ll tell you more about later. Now it brings us much closer to the patients, to the users, and it opens up a lot of doors for us to keep improving the product and the company, of course.