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"We jumped into the project and we are glad that we did" – an interview with the SME coordinating IMI’s FILODIAG project


Lars Ullerich
Lars Ullerich

IMI: To start with, could you tell us a bit about your company?

We are a start-up company and we invented a new technology that allows for ultra-fast molecular diagnostics, called Laser PCR [polymerase chain reaction]. Based on this technology we are building instruments, modules, assays and test cartridges for various pathogen diagnostic tests.

As part of the FILODIAG project, we are developing an ultra-fast, accurate diagnostic assay system that will test for Ebola in less than 15 minutes. We are glad to be the leaders of this small but important project. We are combining our Laser PCR technology with sample preparation developed by our academic partner in the Czech Republic. We are now doing validation with real Ebola material in a bio-safety lab in Rome and by the end of the project we would like to do a field test in Sierra Leone.

IMI: Was it difficult for an SME like yours to apply for this IMI grant?

It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears but in the end it was tears of joy because our project got selected. We first heard about this single-stage call in November 2014 in a medical magazine and quickly decided to go for it. We didn’t have the consortium or project partners yet, so we had a look at the IMI partner search tool. We got our Czech partners from there and then we did a lot of calling to find our third partner. As there are not that many biosafety labs with level 3 and 4 facilities in Europe, the selection was small. Before long, we found a partner in Rome that was very flexible and willing to participate.

Much of our company was involved in drafting the submission. We weren’t experts in EU projects, nor in IMI projects. Yet we managed to finalise the draft in a few weeks, without the help of consultants. We did it all ourselves and it was very intensive.

IMI: As a small company, what were some of your fears related to participating in this project?

Our main issue was regarding the intellectual property (IP). We are a start-up company and our patents are the most valuable asset that we have. In the grant agreement, there were some clauses that we didn’t fully understand and we felt a bit uncertain. However, we contacted the IMI programme office and once we got the answers, we felt more confident. We jumped into the project and we are glad that we did, because our IP rights are protected – participating in this project didn’t harm us at all.

Also, the exact terms of reimbursement during the project weren’t clear to us in the beginning. That was really important to us as an SME, because we have to have a really clear planning ahead of time to know when we can expect a cash inflow. The sooner we could get the cash, the better, and we were happy to learn that there is pre-financing for the project.

We also wondered if the administrative burden would kill us, especially because we are also the coordinators of the project. And yes, there is some burden: filing deliverables, periodic reports, etc. But we managed to do all this – in the end, it was all doable.

On top of everything, we were also selected for an EU audit at the end of last year. This was a surprise but we made it through that too – we had all the documentation needed and there were no major findings. It was very intense: two EU auditors came to our place and checked every relevant document for a week. That was a lot of burden but it also turned out to be doable.

IMI: What was the biggest surprise to you in this whole process?

We were very positively surprised by the helpfulness of the IMI staff. We felt supported throughout the process and we always got very pragmatic and timely advice.

We were also surprised to learn that EFPIA companies are very approachable once you get on the personal level. The connections we made thanks to this project have helped us broaden our overall network a lot.

Finally, we were pleasantly surprised by the objectiveness of the evaluators during the selection process. In the beginning, it wasn’t clear to us how and by whom our proposal will be reviewed. But the whole process turned out to be very fair.

IMI: How did your business benefit from participating in this project?

It is a really interesting and attractive funding opportunity. We are very grateful to have gotten it and thanks to it we are on our way to developing a commercial product. We grew in size as well – we went from about 12 people at the beginning of the project to 24 staff currently.

Moreover, we learned how to administer such projects and the next one will be easier to do. We have already been looking into other H2020 [Horizon 2020] projects and now we feel more comfortable with engaging in them.

IMI: Which tip would you give potential SMEs thinking about applying for future IMI calls?

There is a proposal template you need to start filling out. You need to find partners. But most importantly you need to have a story that matches the Call and your own business strategy. It has to be a really good fit.

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