ImmuneSpec distinguishes itself with rapid and reliable identification of immunogenic peptides for the development of the next generation of vaccines, cancer therapies and protein medicines. This is how VITO is creating an economic and societal impact with technologies developed in-house.

Innovative research field of immunopeptidomics

Several years ago, VITO researchers, along with colleagues from the University of Antwerp, discovered the huge importance and potential of the as-yet embryonic research field of immunopeptidomics. An initial lead were tumour-specific antigens. With the analysis of these small pieces of protein (known as immunopeptides) in tumours, VITO collaborated on analyses that could grow into a form of immunotherapy tailored to the patient.

A unique, advanced methodology has grown out of the knowledge and expertise from the initial years, which is enabling the researchers to rapidly and accurately identify peptides that could generate an immune response. The MAPPS analyses, as they are known, are among the most sophisticated methods for carrying out immunogenicity tests. These tests form a crucial step in the development of the next generation of medicines. Major applications include the development of (mRNA) vaccines, immunotherapy and testing (protein) medicines for undesired immune responses. Computer-assisted molecular design or in silico drug design is currently a standard approach applied at all large pharmaceutical and biotechnology research centres for discovering and optimising new medicines. The MAPPS analyses go one step further and measure which parts of a protein actually provoke an immune response – not only a prediction from computer models. This offers great added value, in terms of both accuracy and reliability, as well as the speed of identifying suitable peptides. 

From lab to commercial scale

From the moment there turned out to be market interest in the sophisticated MAPPS analyses, the research team – along with VITO’s Tech Transfer Office – began to create a spin-off. First, a business plan and financial plan were drawn up. The good news was that the opportunities were even greater than first thought. After that, the incubation phase of the spin-off began, led by the VITO Venture Studio. This is a separate programme within the Tech Transfer Office, specialising in intensive guidance for spin-off teams, so that VITO spin-offs can take and retain their position in the market in the most optimum circumstances, including in the long term. A sustainable development, as it were.

Elise Pepermans, CEO of ImmuneSpec, explains what the incubation phase meant for launching the company: ‘The VITO Venture Studio helped us actually optimise everything and shift towards being a truly fledgling company. They looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the research team, as well as the technology, and how we could address these. I’ve joined VITO’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence programme. That means I’ve traded in my job as a researcher at VITO for an entrepreneurship pathway with VITO.’ This role gave Elise the ability to optimise the high-throughput method of their analyses in order to perfect their innovative approach for the market. “VITO advised and supported us in our first few steps as entrepreneurs. The transition from conducting an analysis in the lab to launching a company where these analyses could be carried out required certain skills that we didn’t have. The VITO Venture Studio guided us through each of these steps, while also providing the necessary operational resources for us to achieve all the optimisations.”

VITO Venture Studio

“The VITO Venture Studio has a single mission: to create spin-offs based on VITO’s innovations. In doing so, we attempt to include every aspect of the venture creation. Initially, we obviously look at the business plan and financial plan, with a major focus on the team there. Depending on the company, we create a particular team with due attention for the group dynamic,” explains Nils Wuytens from the VITO Venture Studio. “The technology, as developed at VITO, is not in fact quite yet ready for the market. We also try to tackle the latter step at the VITO Venture Studio. We provide time and budget to make the innovation market ready. Finally, we also supervise the quest for an external investor. VITO doesn’t join the spin-off exclusively. We help with finding external investors and that process is sometimes highly intensive.”

From the Tech Transfer Office’s network, HERAN Partners were contacted, a Belgian investment fund that targets support for European start-ups and scale-ups in the MedTech and HealthTech industry. “From the very first conversations, ImmuneSpec demonstrated the disruptive nature of their MAPPS offer,” emphasises Katleen Vandersmissen, Managing Partner at HERAN Partners. “The technology delivers some larger and – moreover – validated data sets, which will highly increase the efficiency of developing the next generation of medical treatments. Our investment enabled ImmuneSpec to set up the necessary laboratory facilities at the Science Park in Niel and to expand the team with lab personnel, project managers and bio-IT staff. Now ImmuneSpec has started, we’re guiding ImmuneSpec in its further expansion as the pre-eminent player for MAPPS analyses.”

“Over the past few months of incubation at VITO, guidance for the team was gradually taken over by the investor. The VITO Venture Studio took on the practical monitoring of the closing, including in terms of IP,” says Nils Wuytens. Since the actual launch of ImmuneSpec in late March 2023, a VITO director still has a seat on their Board of Directors, but the start-up functions completely independently.

“We’ve received support from VITO in many different phases,” concludes Elise Pepermans. “For us, the incubation phase at the VITO Venture Studio was the most crucial. We were truly supported in founding a business. Now we’re an independent company, we’ve noticed that we’ve already managed to convince several customers in the first few months and have been able to complete projects successfully. Our ambition to be among the major players in immunopeptidomics providers with ImmuneSpec is turning out to be more realistic than ever.” 

Jo Brouns, Flemish Minister for Economy, Innovation, Work, Social Economy and Agriculture fully supports initiatives like this: “Flanders is absolutely a top region in terms of innovation. One major component of this involves turning that innovative power into practice and marketing new possibilities. VITO is taking on a pioneering role as one of the Flemish Strategic Research Centres for growing excellent research from Flanders into innovative applications with an economic and societal impact. That’s how this spin-off will help ensure that the next generation of medicines will be discovered and developed more quickly.”

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