In 2013, Nicolas Vachicouras (in the centre of the photo above with other co-founders of Neurosoft Bioelectronics) was awarded a scholarship by the Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakala to complete his Master’s thesis at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. We met Nicolas to see how the scholarship has helped him and what his current activities are.
FZMB: How has the scholarship and your stay at Harvard influenced the course of your career?
NV: I received the scholarship from the Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakala while I was studying microengineering and the application of microelectronics to the development of implantable electrodes to interface with the nervous system to treat patients suffering from neurological disorders EPFL. Until then, I had primarily focused on the technical aspects of these devices, but I was missing more of the clinical side.
Thanks to the scholarship, I was able to complete my Master’s thesis at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Prof. Daniel J. Lee and M. Christian Brown. There I discovered another aspect of these medical devices: learning how to perform surgeries and implantations of neural implants in rodents. In addition, the laboratory was located inside the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary of the Massachusetts General Hospital, which fostered a great environment to work closely with medical doctors and see how they used electrodes to interface with the nervous system in clinical practice. Overall, that was an amazing experience, as I learned the importance of working closely with clinicians when developing innovative medical devices. This proved to be of the utmost importance for my future start-up company.
In addition to these clinical aspects, my stay in the USA allowed me to strengthen my international network and to meet ambitious researchers, clinicians, and potential investors. I believe this was a critical point for the current success of my start-up company.
In 2019 you co-founded the Startup Neurosoft Bioelectronics, which was recently selected by the Swiss magazine BILAN as one of the best Swiss startups. How did the idea for this startup emerge? Can you tell us about the concept behind it?
While working closely with medical doctors, I was struck by how clinical neural implants were made using technology that was 50 years old, with limited benefits to the patients. It became clear that one of the limiting factors of current devices was that they were made of large and stiff metal disks that presented a sizeable mechanical mismatch compared to the soft and curved tissues of the nervous system. This causes poor electrode-tissue contact, unspecific stimulation or recording, chronic scarring, and overall limits the device performance. It was apparent that the full potential of neural devices was still to be unlocked.
After my Master thesis at Harvard Medical School, I came back to Switzerland to start a Ph.D. with Professor Stéphanie Lacour, who developed ground-breaking technology to produce soft neural interfaces that leverage compliant materials to achieve chronic bio-integration to neural tissue and to solve the current limitations of rigid clinical electrodes. The main objective of my thesis was to improve this technology further and focus on its translation to the clinic. So, from the beginning of my Ph.D. project, my goal was to spin-off a company to bring this technology to the patients.
Therefore, when I finished my Ph.D. in 2019, I co-founded Neurosoft Bioelectronics with Prof. Stéphanie Lacour, Ludovic Serex, and Florian Fallegger. Neurosoft Bioelectronics aims to develop a new generation of implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that leverage soft electrodes to treat some of the most severe neurological disorders. Furthermore, thanks to the unique mechanical properties of our electrodes, we can promote the long-term bio-integration of the devices in the body while reducing surgical and implantation risks.
One of our first objectives is to develop a neuromodulation device to treat severe tinnitus (chronic and constant loud ringing in the ear). Severe tinnitus is a debilitating condition that negatively affects 7 million patients’ social well-being and health in the US and EU, and of which 7% attempt to commit suicide. Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment for tinnitus. Our unique soft electrodes are the only devices that can allow safe surgical access to a brain structure located near the auditory cortex in the depth of a brain sulcus. The goal is to use electrical stimulation of that region to suppress tinnitus.
How do you see your company evolving in the next ten years?
We estimate that the development of such an implantable medical device will take around eight years. We have so far raised close to $3M in mostly non-dilutive funding. We are currently building our first equity round of $12M to continue developing our technology and to start our first clinical studies.
Over the next ten years and beyond, we ultimately want to leverage our soft neural interfaces to revolutionize the way we interface with the brain and spinal cord to treat some of the most devastating neurological disorders such as blindness, deafness, or tetraplegia by targeting different regions of the nervous system.