Interview with Franz Boszak, co-founder and president of Sensome
The Ecole Polytechnique's innovation and entrepreneurship department is pleased to present an interview with researcher and entrepreneur Franz Boszak, creator of an innovative device for characterizing and treating strokes. Enjoy the interview!
Hello Franz, can you introduce yourself in a few words and remind us of your relationship with the Ecole Polytechnique's innovation and entrepreneurship department?
Hello, my name is Franz Bozsak, I am the president and co-founder of the company Sensome. I was originally trained as an aerospace engineer in Germany, then I spent a year in the United States before coming to Polytechnique to do my thesis, where I was lucky enough to meet Abdul Barakat, a professor at the CNRS and at Polytechnique. Abdul convinced me to look at the human body rather than to go to space! It is with this meeting that I decided to do my thesis on coronary stents.
After this thesis, 7 years ago, I decided to co-create Sensome with Abdul. At the time, Sensome was focused on cardiovascular devices and not neurovascular devices like today.
The relationship between Sensome and Polytechnique is extremely strong: on the one hand, it is a startup created by a former X doctoral student and an X professor, and on the other hand, Sensome was part of the very first promotion of the X-Up incubator. We had the chance to "beta-test" this incubator in a way! I tend to say that the whole of X-Up acted as an incubator for us.
What is Sensome's core business?
Sensome is primarily a Med Tech company specialized in stroke treatment. The core of this company is based on an impedance sensor, the smallest in the world, which makes it possible to identify and characterize biological tissues based on the analysis of electrical currents that flow through these tissues. The analysis is performed by a Machine Learning approach. The goal is to integrate our technologies and our sensor into existing devices from major Med Tech companies to bring them new functionalities.
Your Clotild device seems to revolutionize the approach to stroke treatment, can you explain how it works and the technologies that differentiate it from other solutions?
Clotild is our first device, it is also a demonstrator in the sense that it allowed us to prove that we were able to integrate our sensor and software technologies into an existing medical device.
We have created a neurovascular guide made of different materials, which we insert into the bloodstream at the level of the groin and which we can direct to the brain. On this guide, we have integrated our impedance sensor which allows us to characterize the nature of the blood clot at the origin of the stroke. Thanks to Clotild (guide + sensor), doctors will be able to know precisely the nature of the clot and thus choose the most appropriate third-party device to unblock the vessel and save the patient.
Our technological breakthrough is based on the miniaturization of the sensor, and on the AI we have developed. We have indeed miniaturized an impedance meter down to 15 microns, almost 10 times less than the thickness of your hair! Traditional impedance meters are several hundred or even thousands of times this size, which makes them impossible to use in blood vessels. It is this drastic miniaturization, based on semiconductor technologies, that allowed the creation of Clotild.
The second thing is data processing: how to analyze and interpret the signals transmitted by the sensor? The challenge was to create software that would translate this data into a diagnosis of the clot and its composition.
To be honest, the most complicated part was not the miniaturization of the impedance meter but the integration of the sensor into the guide. We often think that this kind of device is created on an industrial line, but not at all! Clotild is a craft product, with an essentially manual production.
Why did you focus on the treatment of stroke among the whole range of cardiovascular diseases that exist?
Very good question, as I told you, I did my thesis on coronary stents, so it is very logical that we started by working on cardiovascular issues. But we soon realized that research and devices related to cardiovascular disease were much more advanced and used in the field than for neurovascular disease. The first cardiovascular devices appeared in the 1970s, whereas neurovascular devices are only 20 years old. There was a whole field to explore and improve here. Furthermore, stroke is the leading cause of motor disability worldwide, so it was necessary for us to address this issue.
Prior to 2014, stroke was treated by injecting a drug within 4.5 hours of the onset of the stroke and crossing our fingers that the vessel would open up (nearly 90% of these interventions ended in failure). At that time, we did not yet have mechanical thrombectomy: medical devices to unblock the vessel from inside the vessel. Today, this is possible! Since 2014 we have been using stentrievers (a catheter with a metal grid at the end to remove the clot) or aspiration catheters. This has increased the success rate from 10% to 80% and expanded the intervention window to 24 hours.
Unfortunately, these mechanical thrombectomy devices do not always allow the clot to be removed on the first try. Without knowing the nature of the clot that is blocking the artery, the doctor succeeds about 1 time out of 3. This is where Sensome comes in: by characterizing the nature of the clot with Clotild, the right device can then be used to unblock the artery on the first try, which drastically increases the patient's prognosis, while decreasing the costs for the healthcare system.
Can we explain Clotild's R&D pathway? How did the devices offered by Polytechnique help you to implement this beautiful project?
Clotild's R&D path was long, almost 7 years! In fact, this development consisted of 3 main steps :
- First, develop our algorithm to differentiate tissues
- Create a 15 micron impedance sensor
- Integrate this sensor on a guide and make it work
Concerning the ecosystem of Polytechnique, I think it is a rather particular place in the world, it is a school and a research center with transversal fields of competences gathered in the same place; competences which we deeply needed to develop our product (data science, biology, microelectronics, mechanics...).
From this point of view, Polytechnique is very fertile because it has representatives from all these fields, as well as laboratories with machines that you can't necessarily find elsewhere.
Being exposed to this ecosystem and being able to openly work and collaborate with X researchers and structures has been a huge advantage for Sensome. For example, we had the biology lab and the electronics lab right next door, and across the street we had access to clean rooms at Thales to create the first prototypes of our sensor. These 3 research labs we were using were less than 5 mins walk away! Having access to such state-of-the-art equipment and labs for a young company, all on the same site, was unhoped for. I think that our 4 years at X saved us several years of R&D if we had been anywhere else but at Polytechnique, these years were a real rocket for the development of Sensome.
We also took advantage of the X-Up incubator for the business part, you know, we are above all researchers, we didn't know much about entrepreneurship before this adventure... (laughs)
More seriously, I sincerely believe that Polytechnique is one of the most advanced places on the planet, the kind of place that allows you to go beyond current knowledge.
Your device is now entering human clinical trials in stroke centers in Australia, Europe and Belgium. What does this mean for Sensome?
It means great things! We've been working for 7 years, and today we feel like the real story is beginning. A clinical trial is a founding step for a Med Tech company because it is the realization of the purpose of the company and its product: to help patients.
It is also a way for us to demonstrate Sensome's ability to integrate its sensor into existing medical devices, which is fundamental for us. This clinical trial is therefore a question of credibility and viability in relation to the medical sector, and we are proud to have taken this major step.
Even if this study is a real boost for the whole team, we must not lose sight of the other stakes behind this clinical trial: the marketing of the device and the passing of medical sector certifications, which as you can imagine are very heavy and long to obtain. We have already had to set up quality assurance and meet numerous regulatory requirements in order to start this clinical trial on humans.
What are the next steps for Sensome, both from a financial and industrial point of view and from the point of view of the development of the Clotild device and its deployment in hospitals?
The clinical trial must already be completed, because it's only in its early stages! For the rest, we will have to pass the CE mark and the FDA certification which will be essential for the marketing of Clotild. The goal is to integrate the sensor into other third-party devices, so we must actively work with partners. For example, an initial collaboration has been underway since 2020 with the Japanese company Asahi Intecc, producing neurovascular guides, and we are starting joint R&D to implement our sensor in their devices.
Beyond the clinical studies, for the large-scale deployment of the device in stroke treatment centers, this will probably go through our partners: they will buy our sensor and our software to integrate it into their devices, and then they will distribute them in hospitals.
Are you already working on another medical device based on the technologies developed for Clotild?
What's interesting about this technology is that it can be used in a variety of medical fields, including oncology. The applications are very broad, but like any company we have a limited number of researchers and engineers...
However, we are thinking more and more about studying what could be done with implants. We are also actively working on the development of a sensor dedicated to the detection of cancerous tissues, promising great advances in the field!
Finally, what is your vision of Bio Tech and Med Tech? What can we expect in the coming decades?
BioTech and MedTech are very different! We often tend to mix the two, so I will only talk about my sector of activity: MedTech.
I think that sensors will play a major role in tomorrow's healthcare. What's missing today is in situ data retrieval, straight from the patient's body. The next sensors we will see arriving in our hospitals will not only be dedicated to interventions, but they will also be used for medical monitoring. The challenge will be to move towards risk prevention to avoid serious forms of disease. In this sense, medicine will move towards an increasingly important monitoring of patients, with personalized medicine. We tend to theorize about a standard patient, but each human body is in reality unique, which is why succeeding in recovering data in situ and knowing how to process it is a real step forward for medicine.
Finally, today's medicine can be defined as disease care, but I hope that in a few decades it will be defined as health care. The goal being to no longer have to intervene surgically! But Man is an enemy to himself, because despite all the medical advances imaginable, some people unfortunately do not take enough care of themselves, neglecting the nobility of their precious bodies...