When it comes to creating spin-offs, one university stands out: KU Leuven, Europe’s most innovative university for four years running. This Belgian powerhouse boasts 135 spin-off companies, including ArtiQ, an artificial intelligence based software company that supports doctors in the diagnosis, treatment, and follow up of respiratory illnesses. ArtiQ was co founded by Wim Janssens, a respiratory physician and Associate Professor at KU Leuven, and Marko Topalovic, Janssens’s former PhD student and ArtiQ’s CEO.
The idea for ArtiQ first came about 8 years ago with Topalovic’s PhD project, which was a collaboration between physicians and engineers to develop software that could use artificial intelligence to analyze lung function test results. After analyzing the results, the software suggests the appropriate diagnosis, offers an immediate treatment protocol, and suggests other tests that could complete the diagnosis or provide a better treatment protocol. In a study comparing the results of the software to results from pulmonologists around Europe, “the computer was much more efficient at coming to a diagnosis than the clinicians,” says Janssens.
Excited by their results, Topalovic contacted the Spin-off and Innovation Department of KU Leuven Research & Development (LRD) to see if the software had potential for a spin-off. LRD was established in 1972 making it one of Europe’s first tech transfer offices. Today the department has around 100 employees with expertise in collaborative agreements, business development, funding, intellectual property (IP) and spin-offs, who work together to help KU Leuven researchers capitalize on research discoveries and bring promising new technologies to market.
One of the first people at LRD to help Topalovic and Janssens turn their research into a spin-off was Wim De Clercq, an IP and technology transfer officer. A big part of De Clercq’s job is to evaluate whether technology developed at KU Leuven is patentable and determine if patent protection would be helpful to valorize the technology. De Clercq’s scientific background (and a PhD in electrical engineering) is crucial for working out an IP strategy. In the case of ArtiQ, he and his colleagues assisted Topalovic and Janssens in securing the IP for their spin-off by filing several patents and developing an IP strategy to get their software to the market.
Next, Topalovic and Janssens were connected with Ilse Sienaert, an investment manager at LRD, who investigated their technology’s potential to become a commercial product. Sienaert is also an engineer by training and has a PhD in applied biological sciences. After her postdoc she joined a drug development spin-off and then built up further business expertise in both start up and small- and medium-sized enterprise environments. Sienaert joined LRD in 2011 and is responsible for guiding KU Leuven researchers through the spin-off process, from creation to incubation to incorporation.
Topalovic and Janssens started working with Sienaert and others at LRD discuss how they should approach the market, develop a business plan, draft a financial plan, make a timeline, put together their team, and find investors. Before pitching to potential investors and venture capitalists, Janssens and Topalovic attended a training weekend hosted by LRD where they learned how to pitch from LRD alumni and other successful entrepreneurs. “LRD has a large network of experienced entrepreneurs and investors we could easily reach out to. Having the label of KU Leuven helped too,” Janssens says. During this phase, De Clercq and the legal counsellors of LRD negotiated and drafted the technology transfer agreement which contains the terms and conditions under which the KU Leuven IP would be made available to ArtiQ upon first closing. In June 2019, Topalovic, Janssens and their co founders announced that they had successfully raised €1 million in seed financing.
From the initial business idea to incorporating, KU Leuven was there to support ArtiQ every step of the way. This is a key part of the LRD approach to spin-offs, explains Sienaert. “You can’t coach a team all the way from the concept phase to a solid business plan that will get traction with VCs if you’re not involved in every phase of the spin-off process,” she says. “To be good at this job you need to see the growing pains and challenges they have once they’re incorporated and get their first investment.”
As a result, Sienaert and her LRD colleagues are always working with several spin-offs at the same time. An investment manager typically intensively coaches four to five spin-offs at once while also following up with existing companies in the university’s portfolio. “I like that I work on different projects from different industries at the same time,” adds Sienaert. “I really love what I do. I think you need to love this kind of job because it’s quite demanding. You’re constantly in start up mode. The technology domains also evolve quite rapidly so you need to stay on top of developments in several sectors. But at the same time it’s an incredibly rewarding job because you get to help build a young entrepreneur’s dream.”
KU Leuven’s structure is essential to enabling technology transfer and helping researchers realize their entrepreneurial dreams. “There is often a barrier between medical practice and fundamental research and sometimes it means you risk losing this transfer of technology,” Janssens notes. “Intermediate people, clinician researchers like me, are very important in bringing good fundamental people like engineers to products and patient care.” This mindset combined with KU Leuven’s entrepreneurial research culture helped make ArtiQ a spin-off success.
Wim is a respiratory physician and associate professor at KU Leuven. He is the head of the Laboratory of Respiratory Diseases and Thoracic Surgery and a co founder and board member of Artiq.