Danial wants to ensure that his research does not end up on the shelf

Danial Senejohnny wants to improve donor and patient matchmaking by creating a risk prediction tool for doctors. He got the idea while doing research on the topic, and while the tool is on a prototype level today, he has the ambition to set up a startup around the solution to be able to really make an impact.

Danial is a data scientist at UMC Utrecht within the department Center for Translational Immunology. Together with his principal investigator, medical and transplantation immunologist Henny Otten, he is working on a risk prediction tool that can anticipate the risk of kidney transplantation. Right now, it is a prototype they one day hope to develop into a commercial product. The goal is to be able to provide a decision support tool that can help nephrologists, the people in charge of carrying out kidney transplants, to assess the risk of matching a donor kidney with a patient, to be able to decide if they should accept the kidney or wait for a better match.

How to prevent an idea from ending up on the shelf

How did you come up with this idea and why did you choose to set up a startup?
Danial explains that the problem they are trying to solve is not new, researchers all around the world have been looking for solutions to improve kidney transplantations for decades. Danial himself has been working on this problem for the last two years and explains that “the idea came while I was doing data crunching”. When he looked into the immunological records of patients that got kidney transplantations from 1995 to 2006, he started to see a pattern and slowly an idea emerged.

The reasoning behind developing this idea into a science-based company was to “prevent our solution from ending up on the shelf” Danial explains. He has seen many examples of companies buying ideas from research and then simply putting them in a corner to maybe do something with them in the future. But Danial says that when working on a research project for a couple of years, it becomes your child, and you want to see this child growing up and starting to walk. He concludes that “As a researcher, it is always nice to try to valorise the solution that you have, to make it commercial, that was the driving force for us”.

As a researcher, it is always nice to try to valorise the solution that you have.

How do you look at the idea of commercialising findings from research? 
“For us, given that we see how the results of our research could improve the quality of life of patients, it is interesting to look into commercialising the findings,” Danial begins. He specifies that besides improving the quality of life of patients, the results of the research could help improve matchmaking between donor and patient as well as reduce healthcare costs. “If our solution would not bring any added value you would question yourself ‘Why should you do this?’,” Danial continues. But as they have seen the potential of their research, they believe that commercialising their findings is the best way to make an impact.

“Our results help the nephrologists to make an educated decision about whether the donor kidney and patient are the most suitable match, based on historical data and statistical analysis. Given these value propositions, we are convinced that this is an interesting idea,” Danial explains. He adds that he is aware that the road ahead will not be easy and that they will face many challenges, some foreseen and others not, bringing this solution into the market, such as getting a CE certification.

I’ve had a great chance to meet people with a similar mindset while undergoing this process of validation.

First-hand experiences of entrepreneurship

Between February and October this year you participated in UtrechtInc’s Science Validation Programme, how is that? 
“It has been a great opportunity and I’m quite proud of having this experience,” Danial smiles. He adds “I’ve had a great chance to meet people with a similar mindset while undergoing this process of validation.” Being among others who try to, or have already succeeded, in bringing their research to the market offers a great opportunity to learn from shared pains and challenges, Danial believes. “This network of entrepreneurs that are more experienced creates a great opportunity and a great environment to be in when you want to undergo a transformation,” Danial says.

This network of entrepreneurs that are more experienced creates a great opportunity and a great environment to be in when you want to undergo a transformation.

“I’ve never been an entrepreneur myself before. I’ve worked in industry, I’ve worked in academia, and now I have a position which is somewhere in between. But, this is indeed my first time trying to be an entrepreneur. And landing in an environment that provides you with workshops and education, next to the mentors that could support you and give you the spirit and right direction, as well as other fellow entrepreneurs being in the same stage – it’s an extraordinary opportunity,” he concludes.

According to you, what are the differences and similarities between being a researcher and an entrepreneur? 
“If you want to be an entrepreneur your mindset should be a little different,” Danial begins, specifying that “you should be a little bit more practical and business oriented and envision the impact your solution can make for a business.” He continues by saying that as an entrepreneur, one thing you learn is how to ‘fail fast’. In a nutshell, this means that the faster you find out if the current version of the idea will fail, the faster you can learn from that failure, implement the feedback and build a new, improved version. Whereas as a researcher, “You are a perfectionist,” Danial says smiling, emphasising the theoretical focus and the goal of building the ‘perfect thing’.

“When it comes to similarities,” Danial continues, “I think you should be curious and proactive in both cases. Another similarity is the need to sometimes be comfortable with uncertain outcomes. There is no guarantee that your research will actually land with a result, and the same goes for entrepreneurship. So, being comfortable with taking the risk and the uncertain outcome – these are the things that come to my mind.”

Future career pathway

Do you think you will continue your startup now that you have graduated from the programme at UtrechtInc? 
“Yes definitely,” Danial says without a doubt. “I would like to go as far as I can with my partner on this trajectory. As I mentioned, this is the ‘child’ that we have brought to this life and we have to do our best to help it start walking. There is no guarantee that the child will become an adult, we never know that, but we can always try.”

How do you see the potential to combine this startup with your research career?
“If I look at the past, combining the two has been fine while we’ve been trying to commercialise the results,” Danial shares. “At the moment I’ve got a couple of months of contact with the hospital, and when that is finished I have two options,” he states. One option is to go all in with a high risk for a startup, another is to instead take a part-time position and work part-time on the startup. “I would go for the latter,” he continues. “Because of risks and uncertainty, I would choose to follow a path that would provide me with a fixed salary somewhere. If we don’t get funding,” he adds, hinting that that might open up other doors.

Being an entrepreneur is a choice.

What would you recommend to other researchers who are considering setting up a startup?
“Being an entrepreneur is a choice,” Danial begins. He says that it is difficult to give anyone a recommendation to make this decision or not, as it is highly personal and dependent on personal characteristics, interests, and future job expectations among other things. However, Danial also adds that “I would suggest anyone to just give it a try – ‘maybe it’s something for you?’.” More specifically, he says that he would “definitely suggest following a programme similar to the valorisation programme that was brought to us by UtrechtInc to basically anyone doing a graduate study. Because it is good to know what type of skills are needed to take this type of transformation. It’s not just that you take all the workshops that we’ve been taking in the past months – but a programme like this also provides general information for the public. It would be interesting if all people at the university would have had access to such a programme”.


Published November 2022