EUROSTARS

The treasure seekers

A new partnership between Eureka and the EU has been set up to support research-intensive SMEs, in order to help drive forward economic growth. The programme should unearth whole pearls of European ingenuity.

Medicine, a field where SMEs can play an important role. Microbeads based on cyclodextrins – these naturally formed cage molecules can encapsulate many different molecules and are often used in pharmacology. © CNRS Photothèque/Hubert Raguet
Medicine, a field where SMEs can play an important role. Microbeads based on cyclodextrins – these naturally formed cage molecules can encapsulate many different molecules and are often used in pharmacology.
© CNRS Photothèque/Hubert Raguet
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Cancer cells are remarkably adept at fending off drugs; that is one of the reasons why a complete cancer cure has thus far defeated the medical field. One of the most subtle ways a cell dodges therapeutic attacks is by enclosing and degrading the drug molecule in vesicles inside the cell – known as endosomes. Efforts to address this problem – widely acknowledged in medical research - have so far had limited results. But scientists at the Norwegian company PCI Biotech reckon they may be on the way to solving this problem. They have found that if they inject photosensitises into the patient at the same time as they inject the drug, the photosensitises are absorbed into the membrane of the endosome. By shining a light on the membrane, they destroy it and the drug is released into the cell.

PCI Biotech’s invention sounds like a wonderful new treatment that could save many lives. But getting therapeutic treatments such as these to market is an expensive business, and medical technology is a very competitive field. However, PCI Biotech, funded by the new Eurostars programme – a European innovation fund specially targeted at SMEs - is one step closer to seeing its product in clinical use. The Eurostars funding will pay for clinical trials that will explore ways to illuminate the tumour under the skin by inserting an optical fibre through the skin or body cavity and into the tumour.

“There is substantial experience of using photosensitiser compounds in therapy but not in terms of redeeming the molecule from the endosome. Using illumination techniques on the endosome is exclusively our own invention,” explains Dr. Anders Høgset, the company’s Chief Scientific Officer. One of the main impacts of the technique will be to improve how specifically cancer therapies can be directed at the tumour.

A flying start

PCI Biotech is one of nearly 200 European companies that have benefitted from Eurostars cash, which first started to flow in 2008. It received EUR 1.1 million. “For a company like ours, that’s a lot of money,” says Høgset. Like most Eurostars beneficiaries, the company had been operating for some years already, but was looking to step up to a new phase in its development. It currently employs nine people and was floated on the Oslo stock exchange in 2008. It has no income at the moment and exists on research grants. When the technology is ready, it will licence it to companies that make drugs that can benefit from it, rather than selling or using it directly.

Small companies can grow in a variety of ways. They can be privately funded by angel investors or private equity. They can seek venture capital or a stock exchange listing. But they most need help in the earlier years of their lives. Bernd Reichert, head of the SME unit at DG Research, says they are a crucial aspect of Europe’s economic development, since they represent 99% of all companies. “They are responsible for job creation and are drivers of innovation,” he states.

For that reason, the Eurostars programme came into being. Managed by Eureka, it has already taken its creators by surprise. Twenty-five percent of funds originate from the European Commission, which has budgeted for €100m to 2013, with the balance coming from the 32 participating countries. According to Reichert, it is the first project of its kind in Europe.

“Eurostars is the first programme across Europe which puts R&D intensive SMEs into a leadership role. Its goals are set around the needs and desires of SMEs,” he says, adding that SMEs can benefit from the FP but that the applications are usually rather too expensive and time consuming to suit them. The sole aim of Eurostars, on the other hand, is to help companies fast track their products into a full commercial life and accelerate their growth. “Hi-tech SMEs want to be quick; their market environment is changing very fast. The Eurostars project works much more quickly...we hope we can help SMEs put new products on the market and innovate faster,” says Reichert.

Stars in the ascendant

Projects can last up to three years and the aim is to help companies get the final product on the market within two years. Start-ups are not the priority; instead, the fund assists companies who are already a fair way through to full commercialisation or product development and who employ up to 35 people. It also focuses on technology driven companies that are spending at least 10% of their turnover on research and development. The beneficiaries tend to operate in hi-tech sectors such as information and communications technologies, biomedical and healthcare and industrial materials.

“When we did the first call in 2008 we didn’t expect so many R&D performing SMEs to apply. More accurately, we didn’t know so many of them even existed,” remembers Michel Vanavermaete, Eurostars operations manager at Eureka. Both funding rounds have attracted hundreds of applicants, with an average of 3.5 partners per project and an average funding requirement of €2.9 million. To the surprise of Vanavermaete and his colleagues, relevant SMEs have also emerged from some of the EU’s smaller and poorer countries in Eastern Europe.

One of the main characteristics of the project is to assist companies using a “bottom-up” approach in which each case is considered on its own merits. The team is hoping that the programme will help identify and nurture future stars that help grow Europe’s economy and develop into bigger companies: “we’re interested in the companies that will become the Googles of tomorrow. Our ambition is for the EU to develop large companies from the medium sized segment – we feel this is the way to go.” says Luuk Borg, Eureka’s director; companies with a high turnover growth rate – perhaps as high as 180% - have particularly high chances of getting funding.

Eastern promise

Environmental business is another fast growing sector that the programme has supported. Wind power has been developing quickly across Europe, from Denmark to Portugal, bringing employment for thousands of people not just at project development companies but in manufacturing and the supply chain – from turbine production to spare parts. EC Group in Poland is one of the companies benefitting as a result. It wants to make devices that help spot flaws in wind turbines and is part of a bigger venture known as the Smart Embedded Sensor System (SESS) based in Poland, Estonia and Denmark and funded by the Eurostars Programme.

EC Group is on the electronics manufacturing side of the consortium and employs 35 people. Its part in the SESS project is to provide signal processing hardware and the communication technology needed to monitor a turbine blade. SESS has already developed equivalent products for other parts of the turbine, such as the gearbox or bearings.

“SESS’s aim is to detect critical damage in select areas. SESS analytics will make it possible to understand if a given crack or other type of damage will likely propagate and if so, what it will look like,” explains Artur Hanc, director of EC Group. : “A unique feature of the SESS is that it will rely on both active and passive sensing, which means that you not only find out if there is some failure or damage when it happens or begins to happen, but you also can ‘ask’ the sensor to check the blade hotspots for damage. This lets you better assess the structural health of the blade hotspots,” says Hanc.

None of the Eurostars beneficiaries are actually stars yet. But it is hoped that a few will begin to sparkle within a couple of years.

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