20 February 2024
New winter school on ‘future chips’ in Eindhoven brings together world-leading parties on semiconductors and photonics
- International talent
- International student
- Micro- and nano electronics
- Blogs work
- Digital technologies
TU/e spin-off VivArt-X has raised nearly one and a half million euros for the development of its biomaterial with the express desire to help women after breast-conserving surgery.
Remember this name: Dan Jing Wu. Pronounced with her own Eindhoven accent as Dan Zjing Woe. We are going to hear a lot from this enterprising doctor of biomedical engineering. The CEO of TU/e spin-off VivArt-X has great ambitions to make a real impact in society with her research. The road ahead is long, and strewn with potholes and bumps, but Dan Jing is confident that with VivArt-X she will help women with breast cancer. We ‘traveled’ with Dan Jing Wu for just under a year on her path from science to human application.
When postdoc Dan Jing Wu and professor Patricia Dankers made plans in 2021 to turn their scientific knowledge about regenerating the body’s own tissue into a business, she had no idea what was about to come her way. All she knew was that she wanted to bring her biomedical research to society, and to do something tangible with it to help people.
A doctor is what Wu wanted to be as a child. Or an entrepreneur. Or something in the sciences anyway. After some hesitation this Eindhoven native eventually chose TU/e. “I was good at engineering in high school. Tinkering and fiddling, doing calculations with levers, I liked that.”
“I thought at the beginning of my studies in Biomedical Engineering that in my master’s I would be able to deliver a product that helps people.” She now laughs at the naiveté and ambition of her younger self. “I soon found out that academia doesn’t work like that. You research things and write papers on them, but don’t develop a product that gets to patients.”
And that’s the nub of the problem for Dan Jing. “It’s a real shame, isn’t it, that all this cool research done at TU/e and other universities fails to get to society? At least I thought so. That’s why it’s so great that I now have the opportunity to do something about it.”
Half the circus passes by in conversation with Dan Jing Wu. She is SO driven and impatient and wants to move forward with VivArt-X, preferably yesterday. Practice is often more uncontrollable, and sometimes makes her a little rebellious. “I feel like a puppy who only wants one thing: to run, run, run. But I’m stuck on a leash that’s holding me back.”
“I’m a fixer, a doer.” This was evident when she and a childhood friend started the bag line Noya Noir during her PhD period at TU/e. “I found it terrifying, because we put all our savings into it and had no idea whether it would succeed. But we wanted to do it, and learned an enormous amount from it. For me, the nice thing about entrepreneurship, in comparison to doing scientific research, is the speed.”
With startup Vivart-X, her drive to keep that speed up will be sorely tested. The experience of setting up and running a successful bag line does not compare to setting up VivArt-X.
“With Noya Noir, I was the investor myself, and helped determine the path we took. Now, we are dealing with shareholders who put money into our idea and who also have their desires.”
During the celebration for International Women’s Day at TU/e, Dan Jing tells a room filled with women about VivArt-X and her ambitions. She smoothly takes her audience through her research on tissue regeneration, and how she wants to use it to help women after breast cancer.
“How long will it be before this can actually be applied?” comes the question from the audience. “It will definitely be another ten years or so before our invention can really start helping women. And I’m talking about the best case scenario where we can work hard towards our goal with a large team and enough investors.”
Such a long period does not deter her. “It’s not so simple as first doing a test in vitro, and then testing it on humans the day after. If you want to bring a product to market that will be used in humans, a lot of research is needed. That has to be done safely, properly, and ethically. When you sterilize a device, it can change something. Does something cause irritation or infection? You have to study it all and be able to rule everything out.”
“We still have so much to research and document. That will result in volumes of thousands of pages to show that we have conducted our investigations through the proper standards.”
Meanwhile, she welcomes small successes, such as founding VivArt-X, or securing funding. “I break everything down into chunks, otherwise you can’t last the distance. First I want to expand the team. Then I work toward the proof of concept - proving that our idea works. Then we’re one or two years down the line.”
The money also comes in bit by bit. “I hustle and scrounge up money everywhere, but it also flies out again. I can raise a thousand euros somewhere, but that’s already gone after a three-hour conversation with my IP lawyer. Not to mention applying for a patent.”
Entrepreneurship is in Wu’s blood. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My parents own several catering businesses. My grandfather used to say to me ‘You can’t say something can’t be done if you haven’t tried it.’”
She unmistakably inherited her irrepressible energy and drive for entrepreneurship from them. Studying, pursuing a PhD, and living a life in the service of science is something she got from herself. “I do talk to my parents about what I do, but the content is a bit beyond them. What I learned mainly from them is that you should always think in terms of possibilities. At TU/e, I learned how to solve problems as an engineer.”
After being named one of the 50 “Talents under 35” by the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad, Wu was also named winner of the InnovAsian Award 2023 in May. She ticked all the boxes: woman, Asian, smart, articulate, and working on an innovative idea. “My parents first read about their daughter in the media in their own language after winning this award. Only then did I notice their pride in what I have already accomplished.”
Wu's parents are from China. "I feel Dutch, but people don’t always see me that way. It’s sometimes a struggle to grow up between two cultures; you don’t really belong anywhere. In the Netherlands, people see me as Asian, and in China, they see at a glance that I am foreign.”
VivArt-X has now doubled to four employees. Pre-clinical researcher Annika Vrehen and Muhabbat Komil, who specializes in polymer chemistry, have joined the team. “They started with literature research, and they will then go into the lab. I spent a long time working on the plan of how we will approach the research.”
“I am extremely proud of Annika and Muhabbat. They make a valuable contribution. We really do this as a team, and with a common goal. I hope I can keep them motivated - and that they like me. I told them honestly that this is my first time in charge and that we have to help each other. I am eager to learn. That’s how you go from being a researcher to suddenly becoming a manager. And you have to know everything about HR, finance, insurance, and marcom (marketing communications). And, I’m also a coffee lady,” Wu jokes.
It seems like all eyes are suddenly on Wu and VivArt-X. Almost everything she touches seems to succeed. “We applied for eight grants and got them all awarded,” she says happily.
There were also plenty of awards and nominations: in August, VivArt-X was named one of the ten most promising startups in the Brainport region. For this they received the Gerard and Anton Award.
In September, they won the European Innovation Award from the European Supplier Diversity Projects. VivArt-X finished in the top-3 of the most promising Brabant startups at the Brabant40 Award, from BOM, Braventure, and The Gate. Wu managed to haul in a total of 12,500 euros in award money.
Together with the award money, previously secured grants, and the money from the first round of investment, Wu has a financial buffer to move forward with VivArt-X for two years.
“That’s such a nice feeling. After being outwardly focused all this time with events, pitches, grant writing, and conversations with investors, I can now turn the focus inward. We are busy further developing the technology to be able to help women in the future.”