From the lab into the world
As a young entrepreneur, she wants to implement her research: Gabriela Figueroa Miranda develops rapid diagnostic tests for malaria.
Talking about biosensors, Gabriela Figueroa Miranda goes into rhapsodies: “I am really in love with biosensors,” laughs the Mexican. The biomedical engineer from IBI-3, who just received her doctoral degree, is firmly convinced that it is precisely this enthusiasm that is the most important foundation for her path to self-employment. “In ten years, I’d like to be running a company that sells rapid diagnostic tests for malaria and other diseases,” says the lively 32-year-old. At the same time, however, she knows that “you can’t make money with idealism and a good idea alone. I’m a scientist, not an entrepreneur.” Setting up a business requires capital, a well thought-out business plan, a good network and much more – knowledge she is now acquiring at Forschungszentrum Jülich.
When Gabriela came to Aachen University of Applied Sciences and IBI-3 as a master’s student with a DAAD scholarship in 2014, biosensors immediately fascinated her: “These tiny sensors can do so much!” She wrote her master’s thesis on them, and in her doctorate developed the biosensor that can detect malaria using a small blood sample. “To date, the existing malaria tests work inaccurately. Ultimately, the person tested only knows whether they are infected or not.” By contrast, her own biosensor also reveals the amount of the pathogen and which of the two most common types of pathogen are found in the blood – even in the early stages of the disease. “With this knowledge, the doctor can treat the patient faster and better with medication.”
Innovation – and then?
In mid-2020, Gabriela was about to complete her doctoral thesis and was repeatedly faced with one question: “How can the 1.1 billion people in malaria risk areas benefit from my research one day?” At IBI-3, which has experience with start-ups, she approached her group leader Dr. Dirk Mayer, who made the contact to Corporate Development (UE). Since then, innovation manager Dr. Andrea Mahr from “Innovation and Strategy” (UE-I) has been advising the young researcher regularly via video conferences on her path to her spin-off company. For the time being, she will continue to receive a monthly salary through Forschungszentrum Jülich’s new Innovation Fund. “Valuable time to advance my start-up concept and learn a lot,” says Gabriela. “For example, there is a huge difference between developing a single biosensor in the lab and bringing a portable test device to series production.”
In a support program, of which the Corporate Development is in charge, she also met other young researchers from Jülich who are themselves interested in transfer. Together, they conducted market research with NGOs that work in malaria regions. “The things I had to consider for a test unit to be interesting at all for those who use it there quickly became apparent! For example, it has to be as cheap and robust as possible, but also has to quickly spit out test results with the utmost accuracy – without taking a time-consuming lab detour.”
Malaria as a disease receives too little attention in western industrialised countries, while more than 400,000 people die of it every year in Africa and India alone, most of them children. Actually, the disease is relatively easy to treat, especially in the early stages of infection. I really want to make a difference here with my spin-off company. This is why I’m so grateful that my institute and director Prof. Andreas Offenhäusser supported my idea from the very beginning.”
Gabriela Figueroa Miranda, IBI-3
With double power
In the beginning, Gabriela set out on the road to self-employment on her own. In the meantime, Colombian electrical engineer Dr. Viviana Rincón Montes from IBI-3 has become her ideal spin-off partner. “We complement each other perfectly in our expertise. What is more, there are many start-up funding programmes that explicitly want teams because they are usually more successful in the end,” explains Gabriela. Andrea Mahr from UE-I provided her with such crucial start-up knowledge. “If I want to succeed, I have to get out of the lab and network a lot,” says Gabriela. “That’s the only way to learn more about the market, customer needs and the business.”
What if their start-up dreams are shattered? “I wouldn’t consider it a failure,” says the 32-year-old, “but rather an important experience. At the moment, I’m learning a lot for life and expanding my personal network, and I could always continue my research or contribute my knowledge to a company.” But the Mexican is not thinking about failure now. She prefers to put all her energy into the spin-off. The next step: applying for new funding to get her biosensor ready for series production.
Text: Katja Lüers for the staff magazine "inside" of Forschungszentrum Jülich