Personal trainer becomes PhD researcher and startup founder

Pim van Dorst thrives on challenges and has always had a great interest in health. After finishing two masters, working as a personal trainer and having a successful career at a multinational healthcare company, he is now doing a part-time PhD and running a healthtech startup. 

Pim follows a part-time PhD at UMC Groningen, but has chosen to locate his company in Zeist, and therefore decided to join the science-based validation programme at UtrechtInc. Together with Cornelis Boersma, Pim is the founder of the healthtech startup SensUR Health. The long-term goal of the startup is to lower the bar for people who want to proactively monitor their health. SensUR Health will do this by facilitating preventive blood and urine testing at pharmacies, to ultimately decrease the risk of serious illness further down the line. “But, that is the future,” Pim explains and continues, “We are not ready for that as a society. Therefore we choose to initially focus on people that do have a disease, more specifically people with cardiometabolic diseases, so then we are talking about cardiovascular disease, chronic diseases, and diabetes.”

How was the idea of SensUR Health born?

“It started with my girlfriend having Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) quite often. So I thought, maybe we can prevent her from getting a UTI in the first place, by just checking some markers in her urine – and that got the ball rolling,” Pim shares. As the health and economic impact of UTIs is not very high, except for the cases where the infection further develops into pyelonephritis, Pim and Cornelis decided to target chronic diseases instead, where they could make a substantial impact. “If you have chronic diseases it can progress to kidney failure or dialysis, which can cost € 100,000 per year for these patients. In addition, it has a severe impact on these patients’ quality of life, as they have to be connected to a dialysis machine three times a week. So, there is a huge potential impact there.”

How did you know that setting up a startup would be your thing?

“It was quite spontaneous, I like to pave my own road,” Pim says. That he likes to follow his own path is easy to see when looking at his track record. After a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Human Movement Sciences, he chose to do another master’s degree in Management and Entrepreneurship in Health and Life Sciences. As health has always been a great interest to Pim, he ran an online coaching platform for people doing sports and he worked as a personal trainer in a gym, during his studies. This, he confesses, is more of an exception than the standard way of going through university, adding “I just want to be challenged all the time.”

Once graduated, Pim worked for three years at IQVIA, which in the beginning was a challenging and inspiring environment, though after a while the excitement faded away. Therefore, during the last year, when Pim came into contact with Cornelis they established SensUR Health. “It’s not necessarily that I wanted a startup,” Pim adds, clarifying that if the environment at IQVIA had encouraged the employees to implement their own visions to a greater extent, he might have stayed there, but instead Pim’s search for new challenges brought him on another journey. “And then, after 1.5 years, I got the unique opportunity to do a part-time PhD in health economics with a focus on diagnostics. So that is where I am currently at, working part-time for my PhD and part-time for SensUR Health.”

It’s not necessarily that I wanted a startup.

What are the differences and similarities between being a researcher and driving a business?

“There are differences with respect to what you are doing,” Pim begins. He continues “For the business, I am talking with a lot of different people. You do the financial part, and you create your business model – I see that more as the people part. The scientific part is more research, not talking to people but reading articles, writing articles and doing analysis. But the nice thing is that the focus of my PhD is on the health economics of diagnostics and SensUR Health is developing diagnostics and implementing diagnostics in society. So, from that perspective, there is a great overlap between my research and running a startup.”

What have you learned so far from SensUR Health about being an entrepreneur?

Pim starts laughing straight away, saying “That it goes slow. I was thinking, ‘let’s establish a company and within two years we will be in the market’. But, it is going so slow, slower than expected.”

I always believe in the long-term vision, I don’t believe in the quick fix.

Is that intimidating you?

“Not necessarily. It is sometimes frustrating, but I always believe in the long-term vision, I do not believe in the quick fix. So with that respect, if you keep doing what you are doing, you give 100% of your energy and time, and you invest in it – in the end, if you have a great vision, it will go, it will fly! Although it needs a long runway.”

Especially in the beginning, you set up a startup for the greater good, you do not get an initial reward with respect to money or anything else.

Finally, would you recommend other researchers who are considering setting up a startup to do it?

“I think it is difficult,” Pim begins. He believes that if you are more of a technology-focused person, for example, and not so interested in the business perspective or validating an idea by talking to people, it might be wise to search for a more “business-savvy” co-founder or partner. “Especially in the beginning, you set up a startup for the greater good, you do not get an initial reward with respect to money or anything else,” he adds. He further explained that the startup phase is always longer than expected, and if you do something that you do not like for such a long time, even for the greater good, you will not be happy. “So in that case, it is probably better to look for someone that can help you on that business part, so that you can focus on the technology development.


Posted July 2022