Sample by sample a fast and reliable cancer diagnosis

Laura Diez

Startup Stories

Every second person in Germany will be confronted with a cancer diagnosis in the course of his or her life. This makes it all the more important that a diagnosis is made as promptly, safely and confidently as possible. Munich-based startup Inveox develops systems for digitizing, automating and networking pathology labs. 

According to Maria Sievert, co-founder of Inveox, Inveox's participation in events such as our eHealth Symposium Südwest 2022 this year are of "outstanding importance for the startup. They give us a professional stage and access to a professional audience with relevant expertise in the field of medical technology. That's why we are proud partners of the 5HT Digital Hub, because every contact today can be the most important tomorrow!"

In the interview with 5-HT, Maria gives us insights into the technology of Inveox as well as the versatile advantages of digitizing histopathology (=science of pathological tissue changes).

Maria Sievert, co-founder of Inveox

What is the idea behind inveox? 

"The basic idea is initially quite simple: We want to help people - sample by sample. We achieve this by developing solutions and systems that network doctors' offices and histopathology laboratories. Particularly in the area of digitalization, there is still strong potential for innovation here, which is beneficial for all sides. Medical staff, for example, can use digital solutions to speed up processes and store documentation sustainably and electronically. On the laboratory side, too, processes become safer if they can be automated or digitized. Put these two sides together, and it also helps people waiting for a potential cancer diagnosis. The goal of better processes is to enable an even more reliable and faster response. Inveox aims to contribute to exactly that."

How would you explain your solution in three sentences to a healthcare professional?  

"Inveox is the first provider to digitize communication between medical practices and histopathology labs and automate key steps of sample receipt in the lab. To do this, we are developing different products, from a digital communication platform to an automation system to completely new types of sample containers. Because our mission is to help people - sample by sample."

Why do pathology labs still seem to do a lot of things manually?

"On the one hand, this has grown over time and become the status quo. Histopathology laboratories have been around much longer than the Internet. For some work steps, there are already medical devices that partially automate the work. But especially at the beginning of the chain, the receipt and preparation of samples, many things are still done manually. Currently, several thousand tissue samples arrive at a laboratory every day. There, they often have to be repackaged and relabeled several times. Even with the greatest care, there is a risk that people will become inattentive if they have to keep repeating the same activity. Errors can creep in. For a long time, no one cared about the interface between medical professionals and pathology labs. There was no really better solution for how to replace manual processes. We're the first to connect practices and labs with our automation system, making their jobs easier."

A decades-old problem, how does a cancer diagnosis occur? What is the advantage of inveox? 

"You can imagine the process like this: Doctors take tissue samples, for example, when they suspect cancer. The tiny pieces of tissue are first packed in small plastic containers filled with formalin. This prolongs the shelf life. On the container, medical technicians often just handwrite the patient's name. Then the container is sent by mail to a laboratory with a handwritten examination order. There, this laborious manual process continues: the sample is opened, the toxic formalin is carefully removed, the notes are deciphered and assigned to the handwritten examination orders. Only then can the sample be further processed and finally examined under the microscope. Not only does this sound manual, slow and potentially error-prone, it actually is. 

Inveox is focused on developing digital solutions for sample shipping and receiving. This allows us to become the unified interface between the physician's office and the laboratory, and to digitize and automate the manual steps that are prevalent there."

It's especially hard to get a foothold in the healthcare industry, do you have any advice for founders? 

"On the way to the startup we are today, we had a lot of obstacles to overcome, but we have celebrated so many milestones. One key challenge my partner Dominik and I faced right at the beginning was finding the right investors. Here, much more is important than "just" the financial aspect. In the very lively startup environment around Munich, mobilizing a financial backer is only a moderately difficult challenge - but finding investors who represent the right values, have a similar idea of cooperation, and fit the company from a professional, strategic, and human perspective is a much bigger task. I am therefore particularly grateful that we have succeeded in doing so. We have investors on our side who are advisors, partners and close confidants for us in equal measure."

How did you manage the Covid-19 pandemic? 

"The most important decision was initially to protect our team. From one day to the next, we switched completely to mobile working, at all locations.

In parallel, at an early stage of the pandemic, we made the groundbreaking decision to use our global contacts to build another business line with medical consumables, thus making our contribution to the pandemic response worldwide.

Communication with potential customers and employees also faced major challenges. Laboratories have increased their security measures and have been very selective in admitting visitors. However, the fact that everyone had to communicate digitally during the crisis has at the same time significantly increased the adoption of digital products in practices and labs. That's a big cultural confidence booster in digital technology."

What have been your biggest challenges so far? 

"As already mentioned, the selection of the right investors is of course of utmost importance, especially at the beginning. We had to find that out ourselves at the beginning. Fortunately, we then found the ideal investor constellation for us and have already gone through three successful financing rounds. One thing you must remember is that an investor contract is something like the next level up in a marriage contract. So let him who commits himself test his mettle! Beyond that, however, there are of course a multitude of other challenges. Special attention must be paid to everything that forms the basis for successful cooperation within the company.

The inveox team

For example, team composition. You don't get very far with just a big idea and a commercial register entry. The tasks ahead of us were complex, and we needed a team of experts at our side. Here, too, our demands were high. For us, the personal diversity of our employees is just as important as the professional diversity. We went looking for talent, for people with a passion for innovation who share our values. We wanted to combine young people who are researching at the cutting edge of the latest technologies with older people who, thanks to their many years of experience, can channel talents and ideas and promote the young team members as leaders.

Building up the company itself was also one of the big challenges, as we both had to familiarize ourselves with a large variety of areas in a relatively short time. The complexity of the tasks does not diminish even with the successive hiring of specialists and the scaling of a fast-growing startup - but that is also the exciting thing about startup everyday life: No day is like the other, we can hardly speak of everyday working life in the sense of a plannable constant. Our everyday life consists of ups and downs with a lot of movement and sometimes large amplitudes. Over time, however, you learn not only to accept change as a constant in startup life, but even to appreciate it: You become more flexible, take things more calmly and can pursue your tasks with more peace and focus."

What would you like to see from the political side in the healthcare industry?

"Politically, a lot of groundwork is already being done for the digitization of the healthcare industry. Just think of the digital patient file or the Hospital Future Act. However, one important point that we believe still needs to be tackled is the creation of uniform standards for interoperability.

Interoperability plays a central role in the digital healthcare system: it enables the networking and integration of different data sources and information systems, thus laying the foundation for innovations in the field of eHealth, as well as the use of artificial intelligence and Big Data."

How can 5-HT Digital Hub Chemistry & Health support you in your further development?

"The 5-HT Digital Hub Chemistry & Health brings together important players in the chemical and healthcare industries. Thus, from our point of view, it offers a great situation for exchange and networking. The contact to potential investors should also not be underestimated and is highly relevant for us as a startup on our way to scale-up."

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