Start-up - Therapixel
Medical imaging with Therapixel: sweeping views
© Inria / Photo Kaksonen
Therapixel aims to revolutionize surgery through touchless visual recognition. The Inria start-up won the 2013 Creation–Development Prize of the Concours national d'aide à la création d'entreprises de technologies innovantes (French national competition for assistance in the creation of innovative businesses and technologies). Co-founder Pierre Fillard talks to us about the birth of Therapixel, a few months before market release of its innovative product.
A meeting of minds
Fillard met his future associate, Olivier Clatz, while both were PhD students. Clatz was already in the third year of his doctoral studies. ‘We first got to know each other as colleagues. The idea of creating a start-up came later.’ Fillard was then still focused on his thesis work concerning the reconstruction of brain fibres on particular MRIs. ‘As you can imagine, this in itself was a fascinating topic.’ Standing at the crossroads of information technology and neuroimaging, his studies led him to venture into the world of medicine. Fillard had no prior training in this field. When asked how a computer engineer manages to converse with doctors, he answers modestly: ‘By spending enough time with them and looking at the issues they face, I’ve managed to learn a thing or two and even speak their language. But I would never pretend to be a medical expert. I need surgeons and the expertise of others, like neurologists and psychiatrists, to understand the mechanisms of thought.’
However, Fillard says that there are not many doctors approaching computer scientists: most practitioners ‘feel they have too many other things to do.’ This is why he became interested in software development, while still working on his thesis: ‘I see programs as a universal means of communication between computer scientists and users—in this case, medical experts and clinicians—who should only have to tap on a few buttons. That way they can concentrate on what is most important to them. Any feedback they can provide on how well the software meets their requirements is extremely valuable to us. It allows us to zero in on needed adjustments. These interactions allow us to move forward. It’s a win-win process.’ This of course assumes there are medical experts willing to participate in such a process.
To develop his software, Fillard teamed up with a radiologist from Kremlin-Bicêtre, who has since become a friend. ‘Together we worked on brain fibres. The software was an effective way to communicate with each other.’ Fillard named the software Medinria, a nod to the Institute. ‘It already had the simplest possible user interface, or at least one that was not as austere as a command line. Something more accessible to users.
The market test
Fillard developed a taste for applied research while working on Medinria. Research that only led to published articles was no longer enough. ‘I wanted to know if the software had any useful contribution to make.’ In fact, he wanted to go as far as releasing Medinria onto the market. Backing up a bit, in 2008—before the idea of starting a company took shape—Fillard joined NeuroSpin as a postdoc researcher. The joint research centre of the CEA (the French atomic energy commission) was ‘particularly interesting, even astonishing: it brings together diverse talents unique in France and probably Europe.’ He would stay there until 2010, when he was recruited by Inria Saclay Île-de-France after taking its competitive exam.
When he speaks enthusiastically about the research institute, it is clear that he has found his niche: ‘Inria devises innovative algorithms that can help solve real problems faced in various professions.’ It was in this environment that the plan for a start-up would take root. ‘I wanted to take my research to its fullest extension, by venturing to see whether it met anyone’s needs—in other words, whether there was a market for it. The market is, after all, a useful indicator of how sound an idea is.’
The story of Therapixel is also about a successful partnership with an associate he showers with praise. ‘It’s hard to describe him in one sentence. He’s brimming with energy and ideas. I am absolutely certain that without him, I would never have dared any of this.’ The two complement each other. Fillard has the technical expertise necessary to develop the product and manage R & D. Clatz brings his technical know to the fore as well, but he also works on securing capital investments to develop the company.
Fillard hopes to eventually hire highly qualified individuals exiting Paris-Saclay programmes. There are still the nitty-gritty details that any new entrepreneur must work out. For example, who should they bring on board first and how much should they be paid? ‘Recruits will be given the chance to embark on an exciting adventure, not extravagant sums of money.
Fillard explains how Paris-Saclay is conducive to the growth of start-ups like Therapixel: ‘Because Therapixel also has a branch at Sophia Antipolis, the impact of Paris-Saclay alone is, of course, not as great as for other start-ups. But it nevertheless plays a decisive role in the success of our undertaking, if only through the valuable human and financial resources it offers.’ Fillard gives the example of Digiteo, which assists with the costs of employing an engineer. The start-up has an office at Inria Saclay Île-de-France. ‘It’s not a business incubator, but it does put us close to other start-ups. And that’s priceless.’ Last but not least, Therapixel has retained the attention of Nozha Boujemaa, Director of the Inria Saclay Île-de-France research centre. ‘She really believes in what we’re doing.’ Therapixel receives financial assistance from IT2, an Inria investment fund. ‘It is at our side and even represented on our board.’
Fillard shrugs at the suggestion that Plateau de Saclay is isolated. ‘The same is true for Sophia Antipolis: companies and labs in the middle of nowhere.’ But the Paris-Saclay complex has one advantage over the well-known science park at Sophia Antipolis: it’s next to Paris. ‘That is undeniably a plus.’
Excerpt from the interview ‘Medical imaging with Therapixel: sweeping views’ on the Media Paris-Saclay website
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Pierre Fillard , co-founder of Therapixel