Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with eNuvio Inc., this year’s McGill Dobson Cup honourable mention in the Health Sciences Track for innovation and potential to advance the way Life Sciences Research is conducted. Learn more about eNuvio‘s Lab-on-a-Chip technology, their entrepreneurial path thus far, and their McGill Dobson Cup 2017 experience.
READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017
A team of forward-thinking scientists and former doctoral collaborators with a passion for building new technologies to change the status quo in Life Sciences Research, eNuvio was co-founded by CEO Hugo McGuire, PhD in Biophysics; CSO Élise Faure, PhD in Molecular Physiology; and CTO Mark Aurousseau, PhD in Pharmacology and current post-doctoral fellow. Working together from Centech, bridging complementary expertise, creativity and scientific aspirations, entrepreneurship was the natural path for these co-founders motivated to develop innovative solutions for scientists by scientists.
About eNuvio inc.
eNuvio is developing lab-on-a-chip technologies aimed at the life sciences and drug discovery markets.
How did it all start? What brought the three of you together?
HM: I did my PhD in Physics at Université de Montréal, specializing in biophysics. Élise and I did our PhD together in the Rikard Blunck Lab. In 2010, Mark collaborated with me on a project – that’s how I got to know Mark. I joined Derek Bowie’s lab where Mark was doing his PhD for my post-doc at McGill. At that point, my projects involved working in a cleanroom environment and I developed an expertise and a huge interest in microfabrication techniques. That new skillset led us towards lab-on-a-chip technologies and to what we are doing now at eNuvio.
EF: Like Hugo said, we worked in the same lab, although I did my PhD in Physiology. My background is in biochemistry. Afterwards, I worked as a teacher – I give fundamental science classes to students studying osteopathy, and then we started this eNuvio adventure!
MA: I’ve been at McGill for a long time. I completed my bachelor’s in Physiology and a Master’s in Biotechnology. During that time, I was working on a project at AstraZeneca and had previously worked at Charles River. Needless to say, I was bitten by the pharmacology bug and decided to start a PhD in Pharmacology. As Hugo mentioned, the three of us met as part of a collaboration between our labs at that time. It was clear that we worked well as a team, and each of us brought distinct, but complementary skillsets to the project. It’s all about that really, bringing cross-disciplinary skillsets that fit nicely together.
From there, what is the problem that you are trying to solve?
HM: There’s a type of scientific equipment used in health research labs to measure the electrical response of cells to various stimuli, which includes small molecules, such as drugs. Broadly speaking, the technique is known as electrophysiology and all three of us have been exposed to it since we started our PhDs. The equipment that is the most used right now is from the 80s and it’s still the gold standard. However, it requires a lot of expertise to operate, and operating it is also quite time consuming. Some competitor companies provide systems that allow for faster automated recordings, but only in one possible configuration which has the lowest resolution. And it’s for that reason that the machine from the 80s was never replaced.
The equipment that is the most used right now is from the 80s and it’s still the gold standard.
EF: When the systems offered by competitors were developed, they were very good to answer basic, big picture-type questions, such as the electro activity within the cell. But now, in 2017, there is a need to answer more complex questions, requiring a finer, more detailed approach and therefore higher resolution recordings. For example, in a cell, there are many proteins that act like little doors that let ions in or out of the cell which creates an electrical current that you can record. You can see the live electrical activity of the cell on your computer. It’s fairly easy to see the activity of several of these proteins at the same time, but now, more people want to measure the electrical current of a single protein.
— District 3 (@D3Centre) June 9, 2016
MA: Just stepping back from that, why would you even want to record the electrical activity in the cell? Because your brain and your heart work using ion channels that open and close at precise times so that you can think, learn and have a heartbeat. You can measure these openings and closures using electrophysiology. So, why study these things? Well, the idea is that if you want to help someone with a cardiac problem, you might be able to modulate one of these channels with a drug so that they don’t develop a fatal arrhythmia. Or, if someone has epilepsy, you might want to tone down these ion channels so that they don’t get seizures anymore. You can see right there why we want to study these and develop drugs to alter their function. On the flip side, because these ion channels are fundamental to your brain and heart, you probably want to know if a new drug will affect them in a negative way. In fact, drug regulatory agencies like the U.S. FDA [Food and Drug Administration] play a huge role here. They require pharmaceutical companies, biotechs… anyone making a drug, to test any new drug candidates on a panel of ion channels to make sure that there are no serious side effects. Most of these tests use electrophysiology, and every drug has to pass these important safety tests before they can be used in humans.
How did you come up with your Lab-on-a-Chip technology?
HM: We were aware of the problems with the old systems during our PhD, but we didn’t have the solution at that time. At eNuvio, we’ve basically come up with a solution by reversing the problem. With the old system, you have to manipulate all the machinery around the cells, whereas we have a device prepared for the cells to sit directly where everything is recorded. This way, no accessories are necessary. Everything happens directly on the chip. In the end, it’s about thinking about the problem from a different perspective.
Where did the entrepreneurial spirit come from?
HM: We have been talking about starting something for a while. At the end of the PhD, I knew I liked science, research in general, and developing tools. So, that’s what I wanted and liked to do. I figured, all of us have ideas, we all want to build solutions… so, why not just create a company to do just that?
EF: Exactly. I didn’t know I wanted to become an entrepreneur when I started my PhD. We started discussing the idea of having our own company more and more seriously along the way, mostly because of the lack of efficient tools we experienced and the opportunity we saw. I didn’t see myself going on with the academic path, but I knew I still wanted to do research.
MA: I have always been interested in developing tools because with new tools, you can find answers to hard questions and ultimately, that’s what you want to do in science. So, what’s nice about what we are doing is that we focus on how we could improve something that we find super cool as scientists, but also get to release it to help other people solve problems at the same time. The aim is to democratize the technique using new technology, and to improve it, as opposed to just leaving it the way it is and continuing with the status quo. Besides, nobody else seemed to be working on this either. We talked to other researchers about what we are developing and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. This reinforced our ideas and in the end, we said “maybe we should do this”… and we are!
— InnoCité MTL (@InnoCiteMTL) June 9, 2016
How do you see your technology impacting the way life sciences research is conducted?
MA: Just the idea of replacing an old system with a chip, you gain so much productivity. It’s not just in how many recordings you can do with the chip in a day. It’s also about the time of the person having to do the work. If you think about the life cycle of academic lab personnel, there is a new cohort of trainees that has to be re-trained all the time. Because the chip is essentially plug and play, the productivity gained in terms of training is significant. So, by not having to spend so much time dealing with the technique itself, as is currently the case, using the chip gives the scientists more time to think about the big picture questions they are working towards. The second aspect here is that the chip will open up the eyes, so to speak, of people who are used to low resolution systems. It’s like watching hockey on TV in the 80s. Once you watch it in HD, you can’t go back!
… the chip will open up the eyes, so to speak, of people who are used to low resolution systems. It’s like watching hockey on TV in the 80s. Once you watch it in HD, you can’t go back!
How was your McGill Dobson Cup experience?
MA: It was quite fun! The feedback that we received, especially during the Semi-Finals, was very useful. The questions the judges had were interesting as well. They touched upon aspects of our pitch and business that we didn’t expect, aspects that we didn’t place enough emphasis on, such as how you present yourself, not just what you present. We also met with Dr. Margaret Magdesian afterwards to get her input. It was very valuable and very nice of her to offer us her advice. I found that the Finals were a little bit easier, likely because we were better prepared.
As scientists, how was the business part for you?
HM: We’re lucky to be in the Centech incubator. We have access to many business experts and we get a lot of training about the law, accounting, marketing, etc. It’s a two-year program to prepare co-founders to be company leaders.
MA: We’re selling a scientific device. So, being scientists ourselves is actually a real bonus when it comes to selling and marketing to other scientists. We tend to speak the same language.
What have you learned about entrepreneurship that you didn’t know before?
EF: In the end, graduate studies are a good preparation for entrepreneurship. Besides your specialization, you gain organizational and problem solving skills that are really important as an entrepreneur. I would say that the networking and marketing part in particular were fairly new to us.
HM: I knew networking was important, but I hadn’t realized it was that important before founding our company.
How did you come up with the name – eNuvio?
HM: It was really about having a short name that would incorporate all the small elements that are important to us, such as the “e” for “electrophysiology” or “e” because it’s electronic.
MA: There’s also “new” in there and “life” (from French, “vie”).
EF: “Innovation” as well… It took us some time.
What is your vision for eNuvio?
HM: We are people who like creativity in general. We are scientists. We are trained to develop stuff. We would like to build a good environment for scientists and people who like developing new technologies – this doesn’t only include scientists. We’d like to build our company from the creativity of its people.
We are scientists. We are trained to develop stuff. […] We’d like to build our company from the creativity of its people.
What advice would you give other scientists who are considering the entrepreneurial route?
MA: My advice would be to just do it! There are roadblocks… There are so many roadblocks. Access to specialized equipment, which cost a fortune, as well as getting access to specialized facilities is tough. We managed though, maybe we set the precedence with our company, and can offer some help to others. But my simple advice would be to just do it!
To contact eNuvio, check out their website at enuvio.com!
Thank you for sharing your interesting journey and congratulations on your honourable mention at McGill Dobson Cup 2017!