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The Biomedical Entrepreneurship department helps researchers transform their new technologies into products which have the best possible market potential. It provides a ‘flying start’ which ensures that the innovation reaches the patient more quickly.

Whenever researchers develop a new healthcare technology, they start to think about how it can be applied in practice. Conversely, researchers will often identify a particular problem and then try to find a technological solution. In either case, arriving at a real product with good market potential is a specialist undertaking. It involves considering not only the technical possibilities, but also the practical requirements of patients, doctors, insurance companies and policy-makers.

This is why the University of Twente has a specialist department devoted to helping researchers set up their own successful companies. The staff of Biomedical Entrepreneurship first conduct a full examination, or 'audit', of all the many aspects involved in bringing the new product to market, such as user-friendliness and cost. They will also examine all the existing patents in the same product group.

Photo-acoustic mammograph
One example of this process in action is the photo-acoustic mammograph developed by the Biomedical Photonic Imaging department, which can be used to screen for breast cancer. A laser is directed at the breast tissue, thus slightly increasing the pressure within the blood vessels. This rise in pressure, imperceptible to the patient, creates a soundwave which can be detected by the imaging equipment and converted into a visual image of bloodflow in the breast. This method produces extremely accurate results.

It also entails far less patient discomfort than the current X-ray examination, in which the patient's breast is clamped between two plates, and has none of the hazards associated with exposure to radiation. The photoacoustic examination requires the patient to lie face-down on a table, in which there is an aperture at breast height. The laser light can then be shone onto the breasts and the patient feels absolutely nothing.

To prepare for the system's launch, the Biomedical Entrepreneurship department conducted extensive market research. The benefits for the patient were clear. However, other parties had to be convinced that the product represented a marked improvement on the existing system if it was to stand a good chance of success. The equipment must be easy for doctors and radiographers to use. Insurance companies must be willing to pay any additional costs, which can be justified in terms of patient comfort. Policy-makers must be encouraged to support new forms of healthcare if the advantages are clear. In the case of the photoacoustic mammogram, it would seem that all parties were duly convinced as the system is now being refined prior to its actual roll-out.

The Biomedical Entrepreneurship department develops and evaluates the research methods it uses to determine the viability of new biomedical innovations at an early stage of development. It maintains full and systematic records which enable it to make use of past experience. When the requirements of all stakeholders are taken into consideration during development, a greater proportion of the new products will go on to pass the clinical testing phase. The attention which the University of Twente devotes to enterprise offers its spin-off companies a flying start. And that will benefit society at large.