December 7, 2017

A start-up grown from single-cell technology expertise

Alumni in Profile, Peter Nestorov (PhD student, Antoine Peters lab 2009-2015)

When starting his PhD studies in 2009 at the FMI, Peter Nestorov had no idea where an interest in cellular biology would lead him; by the time Peter defended his thesis in 2015 however, his plans were clear: His future lay in single-cell technologies.

During his thesis, this technology captured his imagination as he delved deeper into the study and understanding of the genetic markers underlying the first steps of mouse embryogenesis. The use of single cell technologies allowed Peter and his colleagues to gather expression dynamics of genes encoding chromatin-modifying proteins during mouse preimplantation development. Among other findings, they observed co-expression of genes with opposing biochemical activities. Based on this, they suggested a dynamic chromatin steady state at this time in development. By investigating the expression profiles of a great number of genes in different cells, they were able to discern the maternal or zygotic expression patterns, thus advancing our knowledge about the transition from the individual maternal or paternal genomes into a new, shared genome.

After that, the single cell analysis bug did not release Peter anymore. However, as many early phase scientists at the end of their PhD, Peter found himself at a crossroad deciding whether to go for an academic career or move to industry. In the end, he secured a position at Witec AG, a leading provider of single cell technologies in Switzerland.

Turns out that the new job at Witec offered him not only valuable industry experience but also insights that helped him shape another idea: Through the many customer interactions, he learned how the technology is used and "I realized that there is one recurring challenge in the field," Peter explains, "the meaningful analysis of the subtleties within the huge amounts of extremely complex data".

And another interaction turned out to be invaluable: Prior to joining Witec, when he was still considering a postdoc, Peter approached Manfred Claassen from the Institute of Molecular Systems Biology at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Even though, in the end, he did not join Manfred’s lab, he nevertheless kept in touch with Manfred, and after he started at Witec they started to work on a business idea.

Together they realized that they might well have an interesting proposition for the field. With Claassen’s computational biology skills and Peter’s in-depth knowledge into single cell technologies, they looked into developing a commercial software solution allowing scientists to extract meaningful information from their single cell data. The result of these discussions was the start-up company Scailyte, which gets its name from Single Cell Artificial Intelligence.

The goal of Scailyte is to produce commercial software that can deliver ultra-sensitive diagnostics, using artificial intelligence and addressing the requirements of the clinical regulatory authorities. In the course of setting up the start-up, Manfred and Peter realized that they need professional and experienced software engineers if they are to develop a high-end clinical-grade software and they were fortunate to find Dennis Göhlsdorf and Daniel Sonnleithner, who joined the team as co-founders.

This is an exciting time for Peter and the team at Scailyte as they already raised initial seed funding, which will cover the cost to develop the software. They are now setting up clinical partnerships and looking for additional funding to launch a biomarker discovery pipeline with the goal to develop diagnostic tests for early detection of complex diseaes such as cancer and immune diseaeses.

Alumni in profile is a series, which aims not only to promote the further achievements of FMI alumni but is also intended to demonstrate to the current students and postdocs what opportunities have been created and are available after your time at the FMI.

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