Designing a new medical rapid test – and getting it approved – is a mega job. But 28-year-old Sander Brus (pictured below) knows what he’s getting into.
His father Ronald (Leyden Labs, MyTomorrows) made an exit in 2011 with biotech company Crucell. He parked part of the profits in an investment fund for medical innovations.
This meant that the son Sander could alreadyManagement and entrepreneurship in health and life sciences) research scientific studies and prepare business plans.
The outbreak of the corona pandemic called for precisely that combination of medical knowledge and entrepreneurship. Just after the start of the pandemic, Ronald Brus (with former Crucell colleagues) launched the antiviral nasal spray manufacturer Leyden Labs.
With PrevViral, Sander Brus focused on importing rapid tests from Asia, assisted by two partners, including Erik Hoving, the former KPN CTO. Among other things, the company helped Picnic and Mollie build test streets for employees.
Plastic soup made worse by covid
At the same time, the growing mountain of plastic waste began to eat away at Brus. “We already had a plastic soup problem, which was greatly exacerbated by the covid pandemic,” he tells MT/Sprout.
Like a pregnancy test, a Covid 19 rapid test is a strip of paper, but the plastic case that protects the test is many times larger. Each test thrown away after a single use produces around 12.5 grams of plastic waste.
British researchers have calculated that this has so far resulted in 19 Olympic swimming pools filled with plastic waste in the UK alone. In total, tens of billions worth of rapid tests have been used in the past two years.
Self-testing is a growth market
Because factories could take advantage of pregnancy and HIV tests, production could start very quickly. ‘But now that we are in an endemic phase, it is time to move away from plastic and think about the future,’ says Brus. According to him, sustainability is still a neglected child in the medical sector. ‘I want that subject hot to make.’
Self-testing is a growth market, according to Brus, and not just because of Covid-19. You can also detect conditions such as venereal diseases, gluten intolerance and vitamin deficiencies at home.
Industrial designer from Mexico
In his search for a plastic-free alternative, the Dutch entrepreneur came across the Mexican industrial designer Luis Fernando Sánchez Barrios. He graduated from the Technical University of Monterrey with a biodegradable rapid test.
Brus sent the designer a message via LinkedIn, paid for a plane ticket to Holland and convinced Sánchez Barrios at the beginning of this year to start a new company together.
His new partner provides expertise in product design, an area ‘that I’m not good at at all’, says Brus. Thanks to the Mexican’s connections, their company Okos was featured at the annual design fair earlier this year (Salone del Mobile) in Milan. ‘They are two completely different worlds, with the same vision to do something about the plastic waste problem.’
The first version of the biodegradable test (house) consisted of cellulose, but that material proved difficult to scale. A better option seems to be collagen, a by-product from the slaughter industry, which is also used to make e.g. pills.
The material dissolves in water, is widely available and relatively affordable. Due to the new technology, the biodegradable tests are a few cents more expensive per test. ‘The challenge is to ensure that costs do not get out of hand,’ says Brus. He is currently in negotiations with ‘one of the largest collagen producers worldwide’.
An employee at Okos Diagnostics is currently looking for companies that can produce the new test in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. A patent application should provide extra protection in a market dominated by giants such as Abbott and Roche and where more sustainable newcomers are entering.
Okos is looking for a few tons of growth capital to make and test the first thousand prototypes. Medical approval can follow relatively quickly, Brus expects, since the technique of the test itself will not change.
As much power as possible
Brus: ‘We don’t want to do this on a small scale, but make a real impact. And ensure that all testing is done within five to ten years biodegradable to be. We need to find the right partners and investors for that.’
Challenging the status quo can also mean dealing with an established player, Brus agrees when asked. “The market is dominated by a few large companies. If your goal is to have the greatest possible effect, this is the most obvious path.’