“I like a good challenge”
As a CEO of a health tech startup looking for funding, you need to do two things extremely well: make sure your scientific ground is as solid as a rock and convince investors of the potential. Marija Plodinec is mastering both to perfection. The physicist by training runs the Basel based health tech company Artidis with passion and compassion. In our Basel Area Business & Innovation podcast, Marija also explains why she wants to contribute to bringing more women into leadership positions. And she tells you what the best holiday looks like for her.
The diagnosis of breast cancer usually takes days. Basel-based health tech company Artidis accelerates the analysis of suspicious tissue. A nanosensor palpates the tissue, results can be expected within an hour. Artidis CEO Marija Plodinec does not doubt that the technology will contribute to a transformation in healthcare. For our Basel Area Business & Innovation podcast, we have talked to Marija Plodinec about science, women in leadership, Corona, and Elizabeth Holmes, the infamous Theranos founder who raised “billions on nothing”, as Marija says.
You find the full transcript of the podcast episode right here.
Annett Altvater: Today I am meeting Marija at her office at Technologiepark Basel. We moved from the office to a different room because the office was so loud, cause they’re building a new construction. Now we’re in a room that is packed with computers. Marija, where are we?
Marija Plodinec: So, we are in our R&D development space. It’s a large office and – yeah, it’s quite packed because we have a lot of electronic components, computers. We do a lot of analytics and testing of our software here so yeah it’s a busy room.
You are here for a couple of years. What do you like about the place?
MP: We moved in here in 2017 and what was really attractive about the technopark is that the office and lab space was already well organized so we didn’t need to equip the lab space. We got one big lab together with very nice offices and when we were moving in, technopark was expanding. There was a great opportunity to have an office at the top, at the eighth floor so we like that very much.
You have a lovely view, see everything of Basel and the surroundings. What about the neighbors in the Technologiepark, how important are they?
MP: That’s interesting, I think for us it’s a bit special because we’re not the classical biotech company, so most of the companies here are biotechs. But I have to say our neighbors on the floor are quite nice because this is also a spin-off from the University of Basel, Polyneuron. And from Versameb some of the colleagues I know from Roche before. It’s a very nice environment to be in work here.
I met Maria Plodinec a couple of years ago during an event from Basel Area Business & Innovation and I remember thinking – what a cool person. She had just started as a CEO with Artidis back then with a handful of employees. Now, numerous research papers and developments later, Artidis has grown significantly.
Artidis is a medtech company.
MP: Yes, medtech, health tech.
And your focus is on diagnosing cancer, especially breast cancer. Usually, women do mammography. And when the doctor suggests looking into the findings further, they remove some of the suspicious tissue to examining, meaning that they look at that issue closely. Then it takes a couple of days until the patient gets her result. You are taking that process a step further. You use atomic force microscopy. That means that is a very sensitive microscope and this microscope palpates the tissue with a laser. So you know within three hours if a person has breast cancer.
MP: Yes, that is a very nice description. In principle, our technology is based on atomic force microscope, which means that we use a very sharp nanosensor. This is a silicon nitride probe that literally touches the tissue. And when we touch the tissue, we make ten thousand of these small palpations and we create a special profile. This profile describes what are the physical characteristics of different cells and different matrices within the tissue. And that will be very different for a healthy tissue or a benign lesion or a malignant lesion. In particular, tumor cells are very aggressive.
So, they have a high propensity to spread, to metastasize which is actually what kills at the end the cancer patients. They have very unique physical characteristics. They’re very deformable and that has its biological function. Because when you think of how does a cell from breast or lung end up in liver or bone or distant sites – so how do these metastases spread – and if those cells don’t have those particular physical characteristics, they won’t be able to sneak in between different tissue sides and actually spread.
So you can say better which cancer is producing metastases.
MP: Which cancer is potentially more aggressive. Our biomarker is not just about saying you have cancer and it’s aggressive or not aggressive, but we are an active partner in supporting therapy to modulate tumors and increase the responses.
6200 women and 50 men get breast cancer per year in Switzerland alone. It means it is the most common cancer for women.
MP: I have to say that meanwhile we actually expanded the use of our technology. We are now working also in lung cancer as well as pancreatic cancer. I think in breast cancer we have massively advanced with the screening of patients and this is why we often call the disease early. But still, we don’t have good tools that will tell us will certain tumors continue to progress on treatments or how aggressive they are, and also: how can be best treat those tumors?
And the other very important aspect which we often tend to forget is the aspect of time waiting to get the results of the test. For a patient, be it a woman or a man, the acknowledgment that you have to undergo a biopsy procedure is very stressful and this time matters. We bring also that component to the table because how our technology is built is that you can really place it directly at the patient bedside where you are taking those biopsies and you can do an immediate measurement on fresh tissue on site. With that, you can provide very quick results.
We are meanwhile also going faster than three hours; we expect to have that within an hour. And then for patients that actually have cancer, the goal is to analyze this thoroughly and provide them a personalized treatment approach. And that’s what we combine using the digital platform and the measurement system. Since recently we also collaborate actively with Microsoft on how we bring this technology together with the infrastructure that is needed to digitalize hospitals. I think we are still very far away from that dream that it’s so easy to plug in all sorts of software and devices into hospitals and we gonna magically integrate this data and then AI will spill out something meaningful. We need to really work hard still to make that infrastructure possible.
“We think of technology that’s going to change the landscape of diagnostics”
You also told me when we were talking before on the phone that the ground needs to be solid for a company, especially a medtech company. What do you mean by that and how did you make sure that your ground is solid?
MP: I mean by that is that first, at least in health or life science medical field where we work, the facts, the scientific basics need to be very solid. Because on that will depend the success of every next step. The success of your preclinical studies, your clinical studies… It’s very important to ensure that we understand what we’re measuring and how that serves the clinical purpose.
From a company standpoint, the ground needs to be solid because it’s very different for technology versus biotech to bring it to the market. Every technology is unique, every test is unique. To build the whole market launch and strategy – how you will actually ensure that there is the uptake once you go to the clinic. You know, how do you ensure that there is interest from the hospitals, from the clinicians, from the patients to actually make use of your technology.
Understanding of what the market needs, maybe not necessarily today or tomorrow, but in five or ten years, because when we think of our technology, we think of technology that’s going to change the landscape of diagnostics. This never happens in a couple of years, but I think it can make a dramatic impact. I think especially for technology companies it’s very important to have that understanding of who will use my technology and make it such that that is applicable. A lot of things that you don’t think of when you are working in a research lab: how the nurse will interact with the device, how the patient will perceive it. Physicians will have a view on this device, patients will have a view on this device, so the design is important, a lot of different features. All this needs to be very well developed and I think then you have a good chance to actually succeed.
Now you’re running a company with 28 people. You told me now about what you have to think of. In retrospect, were you prepared for that transition from science, researcher to CEO?
MP: How do you prepare? I guess when you do this journey where you go directly from the University to a startup, I think you are by large not knowing what to expect. I think that at least for me was part of the beauty of this journey. It’s not easy or straightforward but I like a good challenge. I think it did help when I was working still at University, I was leading a team of people. So we already learned to do a lot of organizational work and developments. That was a bit special in our case. But obviously, a company brings a lot of new things. You have to learn how to fundraise, you have to learn to interact with different types of people, you have to learn how to present that science and you just learn along the way.
You seem quite happy, confident with that, but be honest: what were your biggest challenges?
MP: In the beginning, my biggest challenge was: how to make people see what’s the potential of the technology the way how I see it. It was never a challenge in the clinical setting. We have huge collaborations in Europe and the US with the largest Medical Center so that works very well. But investors… In general, for medtech or diagnostic companies, it’s very hard to bring across what’s the value, because they all have some bad previous experiences. They didn’t have good returns, exits as they have seen in biotech and so the challenge was always how to demonstrate that this is different and that we can tackle maybe some of those issues that were there before. One of the learning points was for me how to successfully raise money and it wasn’t easy but we did it.
You know what I was thinking about when I saw the machine: Elizabeth Holmes. Do you know that woman in Silicon Valley?
MP: Oh yeah. That’s why it’s important to say that science is the foundation of every company. Sell it well but don’t overdo it. I mean this is scary because I think this kind of situation destroys the trust in new technologies. I got it as a present from one of my investors, the book “Bad blood” and I read it. And there is one thing that is interesting about her: she was an amazing salesperson, incredible in fact. I mean, she has raised billions on nothing. Sometimes that even makes you disappointed. Why are we all working so hard to get clinical data? It seems so easy to raise money. But I think that’s a very short-term view as we could see with Elizabeth Holmes.
And it was interesting to know that she pitched to many health tech VCs in the area but they didn’t pick up. She raised money, not from the experts. When you talk to the real funds in life science and biotech and medtech, they have technology experts and they look at technology very carefully and I actually like to speak to such funds because then you can really benefit from solid science and solid ground.
Back to you running the company. Who helped you to overcome obstacles. Was it University?
MP: When we started University was very important. We did have good support, but it was different those days. The whole Artidis concept started in 2011, 2012 roughly – a long time ago. At the University of Basel, you didn’t have at that time such strong support. I think Christian Schneider built a very nice environment in the meantime that offers a lot of consultancy, meeting points for people that like to go into entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of opportunities to learn faster now. But we did have great support from Unitectra, when we had to do patenting, discussing some IP issues, licensing, and so on. We had good support. And then on the Artidis side, I think what truly helped was: I have a very good board of directors. These are all experienced people that have run startups, but also they were leading venture funds, big corporates and they were crucial people to support.
Was there ever the question of relocating, going somewhere else, or was Basel always set for you?
MP: I mean for us, for me personally Basel was always the site. That’s where we started. Another very important point for us is the US. We do have a US office and I was always working on both ends, so collaborating with our partners from the beginning in Texas Medical Center. Some of them I know also from my academic time so that helped, but we see Basel as our home, absolutely. But obviously being a health life science company, you have to think of yourself as playing on the global market and growing and it’s very important to have a strong foot in the US.
So that also is very important for our clinical developments in terms of speed. Time to market: the US is more complex, but certain things are significantly faster happening than in Europe – we see also now with the vaccine. But I think in Switzerland we have the right mix of talent, access to funds, and the right support. You know, we like technopark, we’re expanding in the neighborhood and I think we have good support from the city of Basel, also during Corona. I think all that together, yeah, we feel at home here.
“We need the best”
2020 we saw a new record in startups: there were nearly 47,000 new companies registered, 5% more even than in the year before which was also already a record year. Guess what the ratio of men and women founders is.
MP: That’s a good question. 20:80?
Yeah, you’re quite close. It’s 77% men and 23% women, at least in Switzerland. In Germany, it is even 85% male founders 15 % female founders. You are part of a minority: female scientist medtech founder. Did you ever think twice about your career choice?
MP: No, never. I love my job. To be able to turn something you develop in the research lab and build it into a product and actually now being so close to bringing it out there to the market, to patients, I have no regrets.
You told me that both your parents are chemists.
MP: Yes, that is true. I come from a scientific family.
Your brother is a physicist as well. How did that shape your perception as a professional?
MP: I mean, we were never particularly encouraged to pick our area of interest, but at home, we were always discussing science since we were children and that was part of our life. Both of my parents were working, both in academia and industry so it was kind of just our natural environment where we grew up. We are five siblings and four out of five are in different natural sciences so it is quite funny. I have now two kids and my daughter, she’s 15, she’s gonna go to gymnasium next year and she’s also leaning towards natural sciences, but she’s good at music, too, so let’s see what happens.
Is that something that you make consciously or that you think about, women, leadership? Your company was once nearly 50% men, 50% women.
MP: We are still pretty good.
Is this a conscious choice?
MP: No, no. We don’t select people by – really not – by gender. We need the best, either being technology developers, software engineers, but I guess somehow it is true that we get a lot of female applicants and I take that very positively. I think for them it is somehow more natural and attractive to apply to a company where there is a female CEO. I think there is some truth in that, but in general, I really would like to use this opportunity that I have being in the leading position to lead by example but also help other women to climb that ladder.
I think that’s where we as women have failed a bit so far. You often see women that climb up and they take up these leading positions, they don’t necessarily are in the mood to support the new generations. I think that is very important. Because if we don’t create this ecosystem, we will never see this 50% of women that we expect at some stage in leading positions. We need to create enough of women being in the jobs and staying in jobs, climbing the ladder, and not leaving after they have family or kids. There’s a lot of support that needs to come from us that are working in this setup, also from the environment, better child care, or organizing flexible working schemes.
And if you ask me, I think the Corona situation with all this home office, it is a challenging year. But I think what it brought out is that our working environment, our working time can be flexible and it can be organized. And that was a bit more difficult to bring forward before and I think long-term women will benefit from that. I would really like to see more women and I’m trying to do personally whatever I can to support them – equally as my male colleagues.
What can you do?
MP: I provide them an environment where they can work, they can grow. I also actively encourage my female colleagues to go out and present and join some of the meetings, workshops, networking… Because I think with women it’s not about technical skills or capabilities, I think it’s much more this networking component, so I think we need to group and join forces so that I’m trying to encourage in my team strongly.
You have raised 15 million dollars already without ever having a financial round. How far did that get you?
MP: We had a couple of seed rounds and that was nice because we had private investors. And I think that’s a nice thing of the Swiss ecosystem that it is possible with private investors to go very far. I mean it got us to the point where we had one large clinical validation: 545 patients in breast cancer. It got us to the point where we have expanded to the US, installed the first device in Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, we started several studies there. We completed the medical device development. We are now at the serial production, grown to 28 people now also expanding and growing in the US. I think that brought us quite far, I think much further than many even expected. It’s possible with 15 million and we are now really ready to scale and bring this technology to the market. And now we will need substantial funds for this.
What is happening this year?
MP: This year, we plan to raise roughly up to 30 million Swiss francs in two rounds. I think with that we will be ready to go through the regulatory approval in Europe and particularly the US – that’s our focus – and prepare for the market launch. We collaborate now and discuss with some potential strategic pharma partners, so I think it’s going to be a very exciting year for us.
Do you think the Corona pandemic has affected any of the investor’s priorities?
MP: Yes. Same as in our case, most investors focused on their already existing portfolio companies, because we did experience delays. That was inevitable and we see that we have some delays in supplies. When you are dependent on some parts coming from other countries, this is slower. Also in Switzerland, we work with several partners. Things are slower. Clinical studies: we saw some impact, not dramatic, so overall I think we have a couple of months delay from that and I think other companies have the same experience. So investors were focusing on providing funds to companies to overcome until the next financing round and hoping that the covid situation will get better over time. I think now it got prolonged, but overall, I think the situation is not bad, but things take longer and we just have to live with that notion. Also raising funds takes longer than usual and I think that is great that we have a very strong base of our existing investors that can support us through that period. We also got support from the city of Basel. We expect that to get us through this stage.
From your experience: any advice you would like to give other founders?
MP: I think energy, motivation, hard work. I mean there is really no special recipe. For everybody, this is a unique situation. But I think definitely perseverance and having very clear long-term goals and working for those. Having the finish line in mind and dreaming big. I think that’s something maybe we miss and I really want to encourage people that also here we can do great stuff. Google or those type of companies don’t need to be just in the US. I think we can do that in Switzerland, we should do that, but it’s important to be bold and bring your ideas forward. So that’s what I would like to see more in Basel.
I would like to ask you some personal questions. They are short questions, you may give very short answers.
MP: OK. I will. Let’s see how I do that.
What was your dream job as a child?
MP: My dream job as a child: I wanted to be a medical doctor.
You were born in Croatia but you live in Basel for 15 years now. Where do you go on holiday: Croatian coast or Swiss Alps?
MP: Both. Well not at the same time, they’re different holiday seasons, but in summer I am always in Croatia. I go to the coast and I think by now we have been to all different parts of Croatia many times. I like camping, so we go always on the camping wagon. I just love that disconnect from the high tech and then really being in nature and doing something very different. Even though these days Wi-Fi is pretty good also in the camping places, so I have to do some calls sometimes. But I like also Switzerland because I like hiking. When it’s nice weather, almost every weekend we are somewhere in Switzerland for hiking. We like skiing, so I do combine both at different seasons.
What do you find more stressful: homeschooling your two children or running a company?
MP: That’s a very good question. No, I definitely find homeschooling my two children a more stressful job. I think it’s different. They try to argue with me much more than my company colleagues.