With each of our innovator stories, we get a chance to meet the people behind EU-funded ideas, which have the potential to change our future for the better. 


For this edition, we met Nihal Engin Vrana, co-founder and CEO of SPARTHA Medical, a French Health Tech startup developing multifunctional coatings with antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. SPARTHA Medical was selected by the jury as the best pitch from Dealflow.eu’s E-pitching Event dedicated to Health Tech.

SPARTHA Medical received €3.2M in EU funding (from the EIC and Horizon Europe). 

“Going into such a Medtech/Biotech venture means dedicating your life to a technology for 5-7 years on average. You need to care about the problem, you need to believe in your technology to make a difference on this problem.”

 Tell us more about yourself and your work?

My name is Engin Vrana and I’m CEO of SPARTHA Medical. SPARTHA is a spin-off of INSERM (French National Institute of Health Research). We started our activity in 2019, creating a multifunctional coating technology to improve the performance of medical devices. We develop customized coatings based on supramolecular chemistry with inherent properties such as being antimicrobial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory. On one side, we work on delivery systems that would enable the use of coatings in situ (during surgeries or during wound care). On the other hand, we work on optimized coating formulations for different implantable devices with different medical device producers. We aim to make implantable devices safer and to provide solutions for daily safety of materials in hospitals or other public spaces. 


What problem is your product solving and what makes its solution unique?

Our first target problem is the hospital acquired infections (also called nosocomial infections), which touches about 5% of all patients. A significant portion of such infections are medical device related (implanted or otherwise). One way of avoiding such infections is to have antimicrobial coatings that can avoid the contamination and biofilm formation by bacteria, which we developed with a few important twists. 

Our unique coatings are based on super molecular chemistry, meaning that we have multiple molecules inside that self-assemble, so the coating happens by itself. Therefore, the coating happens on any kind of surface, material and geometry, having a near universal applicability. This is particularly important for medical devices as many of them are composed of multiple materials (such as metals, polymers and ceramics).  

The second unique aspect is the physical nature of bacteria killing activity. This mechanism is called contact killing: the coating itself kills the bacteria, not an antibiotic inside. Consequently, it is very hard for bacteria to develop resistance against our coatings, unlike their ability to develop resistance to antibiotics. This means that we can use our coatings for killing antibiotic resistant bacteria.  

Finally, while many antimicrobial coatings are based on antifouling effects or using slightly toxic compounds, our coatings are conceived to also aid the wound healing (due to the presence of polypeptides and polysaccharides with pro-regenerative properties), being particularly well suited for devices that need to integrate with the body (such as orthopedic implants, dental implants). 

 How did you start your journey, and where are you now on the road to achieving your ambition?

Our journey actually started in an EU project. I was coordinating an FP7 project called Immodgel, which has a focus on decreasing the adverse immune reaction to implantable devices using different approaches (coatings, surface patterning, cell encapsulated hydrogels). We had a set of well-functioning coatings, but the clinicians warned us about potential opportunistic infections, if we would modulate the immune reaction too much, we might enable it. Thus, we started to test the coatings for their interaction with bacteria with the vision of using antimicrobial peptides as an additive. However, certain formulations turned out to be antimicrobial! 

That discovery was taken very well by national and international press, leading to a set of patents, a maturation project by the TTO of the University of Strasbourg and INSERM (SATT Conectus), and finally the creation of the company.  

During our creation, the COVID crisis came, so we developed additional coatings with antiviral properties, advancing quite in our journey towards bringing this technology to clinical trials. At the moment we have several contracts with different Medtech companies for the clinical use of our coatings for different applications. This part of our activity is mature and already generating revenue. In the meantime, we have developed systems for the application of our technology directly in hospitals.  


What’s the biggest impact EU-funding has had on your journey so far, and can you specify an outcome? 

The technology originated from Immodgel (€6M budget for 8 partners, one of which was INSERM). After the proof of concept was achieved, a second EU project, PANBioRA (14 partners, total budget of €8M, SPARTHA was the scientific coordinator between 2020 and 2021), enabled us to further develop the technology, and develop capacities in biomaterial risk assessment and personalization of implants using coatings (additional patents, know-how and a very strong network). 

Following these, we have been laureates of the EIC Accelerator (Sparthacus, single beneficiary €2.4M grant, €1.7M equity), which enabled us to finalise our design, bring in the first licensing agreement and bring our technology to clinical trials.  

Finally, with the capacities developed over time, we were also able to address specific calls, namely an ongoing project (Horizon Europe NOVA, with 9 partners and a budget of €7.5M, where SPARTHA is the scientific coordinator). The call was about antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal coating development and this is exactly what we do. 

EU projects gave us the capacities, the required network and also a deep understanding of the most challenging and urgent problems, so much so that our core activities are well-aligned with the priorities of Europe.  

It is important to highlight that EU projects are always very relevant for current issues and if you find a solution to that problem, it is really going to be used. European projects are the Champions League of technology development, and trying to strive for greatness there ensures that we are up to global challenges as a company. It gives you additional motivation and perseverance to be a better company than you would be if you just stayed in your small pond. 


Have you already tested your product with clients? What was it like?

Yes, we have advanced co-development activities with very positive results. Our coatings are being applied to multiple different products by some multinational companies. The best part was to see the real interest and that it is going to be applied on a large scale and in an impactful way. When you are developing a technology in the lab, you just focus on how it works, but in real life it is more about logistics: storage, packaging, shipping, application. You cannot answer this kind of questions without having contact with the client. 

Quite early, we realized that to bring our technology to the market, we need to be agile, flexible and able to respond to the specific needs of each medical device. Therefore, we developed a customized coating development service, as each client interaction brings new specifications. We tried to find overlaps between the needs of the client and our technology and when a new development was necessary, we did not shirk away from it. The biggest advantage of this attitude was that we were able to address the needs of other sectors (such as cosmetics, electronics, chemistry). 


What is your company’s greatest achievement to date?

In France, the first big lockdown due to COVID-19 was in March 2020, just few months after the creation of the company. The government gave the option of suspending activity in the companies, but we decided to continue and started developing antiviral coatings using biopolymers and machine learning approaches. We obtained a national grant to work on this and the authorization to keep the company open. And within a few months we already had working formulations for antiviral gels that are biocompatible and also biodegradable. We now have multifunctional formulations (patent pending) that can potentially replace more toxic disinfectants and contribute to the European sustainability goals and crisis-readiness. 

This was also important as a technology company with a responsibility towards the public, especially a company like ours which had strong public support through national and European grants. When there is a crisis that you can contribute to, you should do your part. I feel that we did ours. 


How do you see your company making a difference in the future?

We want to be the reference company in the World when it comes to customized coatings. We envision that SPARTHA is the first door you would knock on if you had a problem that can be solved with coating. A specific example would be the personalization of medical devices according to the immunoprofile and the medical history of the patients. Another example would be the actual human/machine interfaces such as implantable electrodes or integrated prosthesis. As they become more and more common and sophisticated, there will be a need to control immune reactions and infection risks. The use of edible, biocompatible antimicrobial coatings and formulations would also be important in closed space environments (such as submarines, or space stations) where a resistant bacteria can be a disaster. 

The interface engineering will become more and more important as the walls between biotechnology and other fields get thinner and thinner; we are developing the capacities to ensure customized solutions for numerous problems. Sometimes we articulate this as a vision of “SPARTHA outside” akin to “Intel Inside”. 


Why is participating in Dealflow.eu’s e-pitching event and receiving their coaching important to you?

The training session was particularly helpful and comprehensive, one of the best I have had. Normally, our pitches are evaluated by experts in the field, focusing on content, but this time it was about communication and the expert you brought in helped us with a very specific glitch in our storytelling and with the fluidity of our pitching – leading us to another prize in an international pitching event (VivaTech 2023).  

The support to pitching and the pitch deck optimization were also top-notch. The quality of the other presentations was amazing, when going onto the court it is always best to go against the best. Listening to all the comments was very interesting too, those were two hours very well spent. 


How would you define success and what keeps you going in the pursuit of it?

For a Medtech/Biotech startup, success has two pillars: i) doing something original with practical applications; ii) doing it in an efficient and impactful manner, be it on improving the patient’s quality of life, avoiding pandemics or decreasing the healthcare burden. By being a good technology company, you become a powerful technology company and when you can apply your power in an impactful way, that is success. 

When I teach entrepreneurship, I emphasize the importance of believing in your technology. Generally, going into such a Medtech/Biotech venture means dedicating your life to a technology for 5-7 years on average. You need to care about the problem, you need to believe in your technology to make a difference on this problem. Passion, belief and perseverance keep you in the pursuit of excellence.  


Article published by EurA AG.

About Innovator Spotlight Stories

The aim of innovator stories is to highlight and share with investors and relevant stakeholders in the industry, insights, and unique stories from some of the most innovative EU-funded project that Dealflow.eu is proud to support.

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More about Dealflow.eu 

Supported by the European Commission, Dealflow.eu discovers and supports the most promising EU-funded innovators and connects them with relevant investors and corporates. The initiative was launched to help groundbreaking innovations secure the funding needed for their future commercialisation by offering them tailored support and matchmaking services. 

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Disclaimer: Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.