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Bridging the gap between academia and business

Published online 13 December 2016

Hoping to build a bridge between academia and business, a professor of chemistry at the American University in Cairo (AUC) has created a spin-off company specialized in novel diagnostics, the first of its kind in Egypt.

Sarah Elmeshad

Dr Hassan Azzazy is trying to make diagnostics more affordable.
Dr Hassan Azzazy is trying to make diagnostics more affordable.
Hassan Azzazy wants to turn scientists into entrepreneurs for the benefit of public health in Egypt.

In 2013, the chemistry professor launched D-Kimia, with the support of the American University in Cairo (AUC). Earlier this year, he founded NanoEbers, a spin-off born of lab work. D-Kimia focuses on creating novel diagnostic solutions that are cost effective, efficient and accessible. NanoEbers creates wound dressing from natural material.

After years of scholarship and research in the United States, Azzazy speaks to Nature Middle East about his return to Egypt and quest to find cheap and accessible solutions to tackle the country’s medical problems. 

NME: What can you tell us about the D-Kimia initiative?

AZ: We are trying to make diagnostics more affordable, we are trying to lower the barrier to knowledge. D-Kimia develops novel tests to diagnose disease. If we have more affordable tests than maybe the physician, the government, ministry of health, or the World Health Organization can diagnose or screen large populations or patients and probably improve access to health care. 

NME: How has D-Kimia created an affordable machine to diagnose the hepatitis C virus? 

AZ: We started by developing gold nanoparticle assays and used them to detect the disease via markers. The idea is to develop simple, low-cost tests without jeopardizing accuracy. This was the work of my novel diagnostics and therapeutic research group. Once this research matured and we filed a few patents of this, we decided to start a spin-off company. Our starting experiment was to use gold nanoparticles for direct detection of nucleic acid of pathogens. We did this with hepatitis C and tuberculosis. We are currently in the process of optimizing the assay by reproducing it to prepare it for commercialization. 

NME:  Can you explain how this initiative is a way to improve research in Egypt? 

AZ: Basic research answers a fundamental question which takes solid funding. And there is applied research that develops solutions to problems in a given society…. In our specialization we look for medical challenges and try to develop innovative solutions. In order to address this problem we make a product, commercialize this product, create revenue, hire graduates, reduce importation and so on. 

With many challenges and many people suffering, we need to step out of our comfort zone and try to tackle real problems with real practical solutions. This will support the industry, support the economy, [and] solve unemployment. There are a whole lot of things that can be helped if researchers would direct their energy to realistic problems. 

NME: What is the need for a spin-off company to address this? 

AZ: The model is an ancient model. I was in the US for 10 years before I came here and over there, this happens every day. The researcher at the university develops research and has interesting data. Then they will patent this data, establish a commercial entity, a small medium enterprise or a ‘spin-off’ company, in order to move freely as a private entity. 

We call it a spinoff is because we are licensing the technology from the university and then they will get loyalty because all this research was done on university time, with university equipment. It is a healthy model and cycle. 

I wanted to initiate a trend that a healthy relationship is built through a natural process. The university will invest in labs, professors and students who do activities and maybe 10% of these activities, which will be heavily invested in, will result in something tangible that can be commercialized, so it makes sense that the university benefits. 

Many machines put together in one makes for efficient, cost effective and timely diagnosis of HCV. Currently in the commercialization process, this machine should help in mass diagnosis of many different illnesses such as HCV, tuberculosis and even cancer.
Many machines put together in one makes for efficient, cost effective and timely diagnosis of HCV. Currently in the commercialization process, this machine should help in mass diagnosis of many different illnesses such as HCV, tuberculosis and even cancer.
© Sarah Elmeshad / Nature Middle East
NME: And this is the first in Egypt?

AZ: Yes, it is the first in Egypt and it took me three years to get the license. I was hoping that after I opened D-Kimia that other spin-offs in Egypt would result but I have not seen many yet.  

NME: Do you recruit people from other universities in your spin offs?

AZ: We do everything. We have graduates from different universities in Egypt. We give them jobs with good salaries, very good working conditions. We have people from different backgrounds pharmacy, science and engineers. We have a multidisciplinary team because we need different expertise because we are trying to develop a solution. It’s a healthy environment. We increase the knowledge base. It is how to build the industry, by harnessing the technology on the ground. 

NME: What are some of the challenges you faced implementing this idea in Egypt? 

AZ: [That] we are not engaging the best brains to solve our problems. Essentially there is a disconnect between academia and the industry. In many forms the industry is falling behind because they are not investing in the brains. On the other hand academics look at industry and they think they are mainly merchants. 

We currently import everything. We do not make anything. We need to start an initiative to start our own industry. We need to teach [students] to develop high-tech products. It is interesting that we have survived in the difficult time we are in here in Egypt. One thing that is killing us is great difficulty in getting high tech ingredients from overseas. Although I have the money to order anything, it will arrive in two to three months. 

NME: What’s the next step for you?

AZ: If we get the right industrial support from entrepreneurs, not bankers, we will succeed. We’re trying to push a novel idea forward. The main goal is to get this done. [It’s] not just [about] the money. We want this technology to be harnessed and developed. The message is: I did not give up! I think there is a great potential in the bright young men and women of Egypt who, if empowered and mentored properly, will be able to move forward and help develop Egypt's know-how, [and] its knowledge-based economy.