Vectiopep – Sparkup Incubator’s graduate (interview)

1. Please introduce yourself and your startup.

Vectiopep is a biotechnology company developing a new type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy. Through immunotherapy, we help the patient’s immune system hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

Helping the immune system means that we send information to immune cells about the mutations present in the tumor. This information is sent using a molecular message called mRNA. Vectiopep has discovered a method to deliver mRNA-type drug molecules into the patient’s immune cells. Our business model is to license the technology to pharmaceutical companies.

The founding members are Kaido Kurrikoff and Piret Arukuusk, researchers from the University of Tartu. We have 15 years of experience in developing peptide-based drug carriers and collaboration. We complement each other’s expertise well. I, Piret, design and synthesize the drug carrier, and Kaido tests it in various animal models.

2. What inspired you to start the company?

We have been working on developing peptide-based drug carriers at the University of Tartu for 15 years. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new and attractive molecule, mRNA, which can also be used in cancer treatment. Initially, we tested our previously developed peptides. Since the results were surprisingly good, we started further developing them specifically for mRNA.

We both believe that science should have a practical application. To bring this topic to the market, we founded the company.

3. How did the incubation program help the company grow?

We benefited greatly from the mentors, their good advice, and their contacts. We liked the freedom to find our mentors and that the program funded this. We would like to highlight Andrus Kurvits, T├Ánu Esko, and Katrin Kaarna as mentors.

Interacting with other startups was very beneficial. Just sharing experiences and knowing that we all have the same problems helps.

The sales training was our favourite among the training sessions.

4. What were the biggest challenges during the program and how did you overcome them?

By the end of the program, we closed our first investment, the pre-seed round. Determining the company’s value for investors was quite challenging. Interacting with Pirko Konsa, Andrus Kurvits, and other startups was helpful.

5. What are the plans for the company’s future?

Our goal is to complete Phase I clinical trials within 3 years. This will validate the safe use of our technology in humans, which is a prerequisite for collaboration with global pharmaceutical companies.

Our product is a platform technology, meaning we can license it to many pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies simultaneously.

6. What advice would you give to future incubation program participants or young entrepreneurs?

Always be open to new opportunities and challenges. The main growth happens when it is difficult, not in the comfort zone.

Be an open communicator and maintain a positive attitude!

7. If asked whether you would recommend the incubator program to a friend, what would your answer be?

I would definitely recommend participating in the program. There, you feel that you are not alone with your problems.

Piret Arukuusk, Vectiopep