‘You are what you eat’ – an increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that our diet has an impact on many aspects of our health, and it promises to play a key role in personalised healthcare in the future. We speak to scientist-turned-entrepreneur Alberto Noronha, who recently launched the LCSB/University of Luxembourg spin-off NIUM about his mission to use metabolism as a tool to improve health and which support helped him bring his idea from lab to market.
Chronic conditions and an ageing population are challenges facing healthcare. Physicians also have an increasing amount of administrative work, leaving many with less time to spend with patients. Healthcare needs to evolve with society’s needs and patient-empowerment is a term that stands out in many new digital approaches.
“As more information related to these diseases is becoming available and mobile technologies become ubiquitous, digital solutions have the potential to provide physicians with actionable insights and support better patient-management through the analysis of the different types of data being generated,” Alberto Noronha explains.
“These technologies can enable a patient-centric approach where access to care is more natural and empowers patients to better manage their health, boost adherence, and cultivate healthier lifestyles.
“However, their successful implementation depends on a successful translation of these technologies to the clinical-setting, addressing the needs of both patients and physicians while preserving and promoting their relationship.”
A tool to predict individual blood sugar level
In May 2019, Alberto Noronha officially created his LCSB/University of Luxembourg spin-off company NIUM, with the ultimate goal of using nutrition as a therapeutic tool.
“Currently, our focus is the development of a tool that is capable of predicting, for each person, what their blood sugar level will be after the consumption of specific foods. We do this by analyzing the genetic composition of the bacteria that live in our guts and other metabolic markers.”
The company currently offers R&D services to nutrition companies, pharma as well as healthcare organisations. Alberto explains that longer-term, NIUM wants to use this technology as the basis for a tool for the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes, which affects 400 million people world-wide.
Valuable experience gained from creating interface of Virtual Metabolic Human
We take a step backwards and speak to Alberto about his journey from his University studies through to becoming a scientist-entrepreneur and CEO of NIUM – and which support helped him on the way.
Alberto originally studied Informatics Engineering in Portugal. During his BA, he started losing interest in typical IT projects and became curious about how he could use his knowledge to tackle problems in biology. Soon after, he embarked on a Masters in Bioinformatics. Alberto chose to move from Portugal to Luxembourg for his PhD when he came upon an opportunity in the lab of Prof Ines Thiele (FNR ATTRACT Fellow at the time) at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB), a research center focusing on a systems approach to Parkinson’s disease.
It was during his PhD that Alberto’s work started to revolve around metabolism, with a particular focus on the gut microbiome. During his PhD, Alberto mainly worked on helping create the ‘Virtual Metabolic Human’ (VMH), a resource that integrates data on human and gut-microbiome metabolism, nutrition and disease.
“The resource we have built integrates knowledge that has been accumulated over the years, coming from different sources and groups around the globe. My background was particularly useful in this case as the goal was always to make this resource publicly available. I developed a web interface that today has thousands of visits every month and is helping researchers around the world.”
Alberto also explains that in addition to learning a lot from the interdisciplinary approach required for the VMH project, it also required him to be able to communicate with people from different backgrounds to understand what their needs and expectations are, which is undoubtedly good experience for any future entrepreneur.
“Only this way it is possible to develop a resource that is truly useful to the research community. For me, this was more important than any publication.”
FNR Pathfinder: Finding your market
How did Alberto go from developing a web interface for the research community to launching a company? “During my last year as a research associate, I was already thinking of creating a company but was not entirely sure how valuable the project was, in other terms, if there was a market opportunity there.”
“The first step was to apply for the FNR Pathfinder, which allowed me to do market research, but also obtain valuable training at the London Business School. This experience helped shape not only the idea in my mind but also a subsequent Proof of Concept application. During this period, I also attracted the interest of an industrial partner who is now part of the PoC project, highlighting the commercial attractiveness of our proposal.”
Pathfinder is one of two strands in the FNR’s JUMP programme, which provides researchers with funding to e.g. gather evidence of the potential market of the product or application. Once the Pathfinder stage is completed, the Proof of Concept strand provides support for bringing the product or service to the market. In the capacity of his position as CEO of NIUM, Alberto is currently in the midst of a Proof of Concept project, focussed on the development of a dietary-recommendation tool that predicts the impact of specific diets by analysing the gut microbiota and metabolomics profile of individuals.
Support from mentors to innovation and entrepreneurship training
On his journey to become an entrepreneur, Alberto also received support from the University of Luxembourg Incubator, which is currently hosting his startup NIUM in its premises. He took part in the Incubator’s 1st International Summer School on Knowledge-Driven Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The school, moderated by a renowned entrepreneurship expert from the US, prepares researchers thinking about starting a business based on their research findings, for the world of entrepreneurship.
Supporting early stage ventures, one of the Incubator´s aims is to help its entrepreneurs mature to the stage where they need to integrate a sector-specific incubator in Luxembourg. Alberto also benefitted from the Incubator’s Venture Monitoring Service (a sister programme of the prestigious MIT Venture Mentoring Service), which gave him access to advice and assistance from VMS mentors – high-level professionals in their field, who challenge the entrepreneurs to study areas that are new to them and crucial to their business.
Virtual Metabolic Human https://www.vmh.life/
NIUM https://www.NIUM.io/ / @NIUMhealth