Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more precise in image analysis and image recognition. So why not employ AI to assist in pathology by analyzing digital microscope images and suggesting potential diagnoses? This is the approach of aisencia GmbH – a start-up that was launched by a team from the University of Bremen’s industrial mathematics working group. What is it like to develop a start-up as a researcher? And how can the university support this?
The founding of aisencia began with a basic idea: “Sample processing in dermatology is an extremely lengthy and complicated process that has not yet arrived in the 21st century,” says Maximilian Schmidt, one of the founders of aisencia. It generally involves examining skin samples under a microscope in the laboratory without digital aids. This requires a multitude of intermediate steps up to diagnosis. Those who analyze the samples usually make an audio recording of their assessments using a dictation device. This recording must then be transcribed and submitted for signature. Getting a second opinion is quite time-consuming, since the samples are usually sent by mail.
However, there are already scanners that are able to create digital images of tissue samples, making an analysis on a computer possible. The services Maximilian Schmidt, Daniel Otero Baguer, Jean Le’Clerc Arrastia, and Dietrich Schreiber provide are based on these scanners. The four founders of aisencia have trained an AI model to analyze digital microscope images and then propose a diagnosis. They also provide digital sample processing, where AI automatically creates a preliminary lab report that physicians can view and sign directly without taking the intermediate step of creating an audio recording
A Diagnostic Tool for over 40 Skin Diseases
The aisencia AI model can already detect over 40 diseases, which account for about 80 percent of the daily diagnoses in dermatopathology. To achieve this, the founders worked with partners such as the University Medical Center Essen and the University Hospital Bonn. These partners provided over 100,000 images of tissue samples with which they trained the AI model. The aisencia team is currently working on obtaining certification of their product for the European market. How did the team make it this far? And how do the founders of aisencia look back on their journey from research to the start-up world over the past three years?
It all started in the Industrial Mathematics Working Group under the direction of Peter Maaß, professor at the Center for Industrial Mathematics. At the suggestion of a pathologist, Peter Maaß and his team began their first research attempts. These were so promising that he proposed a spin-off and approached three of his employees: the doctoral students Jean Le’Clerc Arrastia and Maximilian Schmidt, and Daniel Otero Baguer, who worked with him as a postdoc. In addition, Peter Maaß brought Dietrich Schreiber into the team, who had studied chemistry and business administration and had previously worked in various companies.
BRIDGE Provides Support with Applications for Funding
“In terms of scientific research, we had a lot of ideas and approaches that we wanted to pursue,” says Jean Le’Clerc Arrastia. However, the founders entered uncharted territory when they began to search for financing. The team decided to apply for funding under the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action’s “EXIST Transfer of Research” program. “This was particularly suitable for our idea because it specifically supports research-based and high-risk start-up projects,” explains Daniel Otero Baguer. As easy as it was to decide on the funding program, the application process proved to be quite time-consuming. The team received help from BRIDGE, the University of Bremen’s start-up support program, which is part of the UniTransfer unit. BRIDGE is both a university network as well as the central contact point for students, alumni, and members of Bremen’s universities on the topic of business start-ups.
BRIDGE has the aim of improving the entrepreneurial climate at all involved universities in Bremen and supporting promising ideas with start-up potential at an early stage. Stephanie Rabe has been a start-up consultant at BRIDGE for ten years and assisted the aisencia team. “A good research idea is not sufficient to apply for this type of funding. You also need some form of business plan,” she explains. Gaining competence in this area is often not easy for researchers, but it worked well at aisencia. “It was especially helpful that the team already had expertise on the subject and that the roles of the individual team members were, from my perspective, clearly defined,” she summarizes. Over the next few months, text excerpts from the application kept going back and forth between the founders and Stephanie Rabe. When the application was consistent for all, the University of Bremen/BRIDGE submitted this to the project promoter. Six months later, and after a presentation to a jury in Berlin, the team finally received the desired positive feedback in September 2021. For 18 months, the founders received all the funding they needed to implement their ideas. Personnel costs, purchases, and travel costs were subsidized in full by around 750,000 euros. During the entire project implementation, the team was accompanied by the start-up support of the university/BRIDGE, for example through monthly status update meetings and presentations.
Beyond the World of Research: the Frontier of Patents and Business Plans
During this time, the team also got a new location: BRIDGE provided the founders with office space in the Digital Hub Industry in the Bremen Technology Park. “This suited our situation very well, because we continued to work in scientific research, but also dealt with economic and legal issues,” says Dietrich Schreiber. In addition to their scientific work at the university, the start-up team was confronted with questions of how to apply for a patent, how to market a medical product, and how to build up a company. Combining the two areas was sometimes challenging for them. “Many organizational things happen faster when starting a company than at the university,” says Maximilian Schmidt. “However, by virtue of the EXIST funding, we were still employed at the university, and also had to keep an eye on deadlines there, for example for the submission of our interim reports. Throughout the project, we were superbly supported by BRIDGE.” With the official founding of their start-up in the form of a company with limited liability (GmbH), the team embarked on their own path. Nevertheless, ties to the university remain close: the team participated in the CAMPUSiDEEN competition, in which BRIDGE presents awards to business ideas and business concepts from the Bremen university landscape, and went home with a first prize. At the BRIDGE StartUp Lounge and the Bremen-Cardiff Initiative on Sustainability & Entrepreneurship, a start-up workshop for students from the University of Bremen and Cardiff University, the team reported on their entrepreneur experience. If you want to get very practical insights into the work of a start-up, the doors are open at aisencia, Jean Le’Clerc Arrastia emphasizes. “We are always looking for student employees from all faculties.”
BRIDGE, which is part of the UniTransfer unit, is the central point of contact for students, alumni, and members of Bremen’s universities when it comes to business start-ups. The BRIDGE university network is supported by the University of Bremen, Bremen University of Applied Sciences, Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences, the University of the Arts Bremen, Constructor University, and Bremer Aufbau-Bank GmbH. BRIDGE has the aim of improving the entrepreneurial climate at all involved universities and supporting promising ideas with start-up potential at an early stage.
BRIDGE advises around 160 start-up projects per year and offers more than 80 events involving over 1,600 participants on the topic of business start-ups. The BRIDGE network is able to record 20 start-ups per year from Bremen’s universities. Furthermore, the network has acquired over 11 million euros in funds from the nationwide EXIST program since 2007. The “CAMPUSiDEEN” competition, with prizes worth over 20,000 euros, rounds off each year. Since 2003, around 800 entries have been submitted. This makes CAMPUSiDEEN one of the most continuous competitions of its kind.
The University of Bremen is aware of its responsibility in the community and involves society as a whole with its broad understanding of research-based knowledge and technology transfer. UniTransfer is the University of Bremen’s central point of contact between academia, business, and society. The experts support cooperations and projects across the whole spectrum of the university’s subjects. These range from business start-ups, to the commercialization of inventions; the placement of specialists, managers, or science communication formats; the coordination of programs for schools; the management of the university foundation; and university fundraising.