Scope Biosciences: Molecular diagnostics for the Agri-Food sector

Published on
February 2, 2023

In just four years, the start-up Scope Biosciences has developed from an initiative by four students of Wageningen University & Research into a player in the field of diagnostics in the Agri-Food sector. They developed a simple test to identify very specific viruses and bacteria rapidly. One of the founders, Nick Savelkoul, discusses the business’ growing pains and future perspective.

What, precisely, does Scope Biosciences do?

We develop molecular diagnostics for the Agri-Food sector. Six years ago, fellow students and I joined the iGEM competition, which provided us with insight into diagnostics, a domain which is always looking for innovations. A few years later, studies in the US proved that CRISPR-Cas technology, known for its applications in genetic modification, can be used in diagnostics. The United States called it a life-changing technology in diagnostics. After a meeting with John van der Oost (one of the leading figures in CRISPR-Cas, Ed.), we began developing our own CRISPR diagnostics system, which culminated in a patentable method within a few months. Our technology proved to be widely applicable, from the medical domain to Agri-Food. We are currently focusing on the Agri-Food sector (see Scope Biosciences) because it is there that we can achieve the most significant impact.

Could you explain what CRISPR-Cas technology is?

CRISPR-Cas is a type of bacterial immune system which protects the cell against intruders by chopping the intruders’ genetic material into pieces. This property, the precise cutting ability, was primarily used in genetic modification. We use it for a different purpose: detecting genetic material.

Our test is relatively simple and requires no complicated equipment. Our CRISPR test (scopeDX) will reveal the presence of the pathogen within twenty minutes. It is comparable to the well-known PCR test, but our test is faster and can be used on-site.

Who could benefit from your product?

Plant breeders are eager to apply this simple but precise detection method. Plant viruses come in many different subtypes with only minute differences. This enables plant breeders to screen for viruses rapidly. The meetings we have with plant breeders are extremely interesting. They are well-versed in the technology and are keenly interested in our product. However, there are many other ways our technology can be applied in Agri-Food, for example, to detect plant properties and in breeding laws.

This technology is also in demand in the medical domain. In 2021, we initiated a collaboration with GenDX, a company in Utrecht that focuses on medical diagnostics for transplantations. They test whether the donor and recipient form a good match. This is a diligent and time-consuming process, but some situations may call for rapid analysis. Together, we developed a ‘proof of concept’. We hope that GenDX will be able to market a medical test with our technology soon.

How many and what type of people work at your business?

We started with four people four years ago. I am now CEO, and Jurre Steens is CTO and is also conducting PhD research in addition to this work. We now have seven employees, all of whom are WUR alumni and a number of advisors, seven of whom work full-time for Scope Biosciences. All of us spend a large portion of the day doing laboratory research. CRISPR-Cas researchers John van der Oost and Raymond Staals are also closely involved in our work.

Developing from a start-up into a spin-off is quite a puzzle
Niek Savelkoul, Scope Biosciences

Who are your clients and customers?

We have a long-standing and pleasant collaboration with various Wageningen University & Research sciences groups. We were, for example, commissioned to develop a test to detect salmonella. And during the covid pandemic, mink became infected by the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). We were able to use the samples from Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) studies to improve our test.

That brought our start-up to a stage where we are now actively seeking clients of our own. In January, we visited an event in the United States, where we were able to pitch our product to an international audience through our stand.

With the increased demand, we must now upscale our production. Our product is not an app that can be produced rapidly. Upscaling costs money and time. Manufacturing our product requires as many as 40 different devices, all of which we have acquired. However, all this equipment needs lab space, and personnel is necessary to develop new tests.

Why did you decide to settle on the campus?

We are all alumni and were initially offered the opportunity to use lab space in the AFSG Laboratory of Microbiology to start our research. Very convenient and close to the source of knowledge. As time went by, we needed more space and moved to Plus Ultra I. We have the use of one of the labs in this building since April 2022.

What are the perks of working on campus?

Lab spaces on the campus are scarce and costly. Still, having a location on the campus provides your business with a boost. Visitors who come to the campus get a different impression of your business than if it were located on an industrial site. And we are close to those we collaborate with. Another advantage is the fact that the labs in Plus Ultra I are suitable for producing our proteins.

Scope Biosciences' lab on the Wageningen Campus
Scope Biosciences' lab on the Wageningen Campus

Do you collaborate with budding businesses in Plus Ultra I?

We don’t collaborate actively with other start-ups, but we are in regular contact. These are all businesses working on Agri-Food and Biotech and going through the same process, such as acquiring knowledge, and drafting employment contracts and intellectual property applications. Being in close proximity to others who are going through the same process and can help is certainly nice.

Is there an overlap or competition with Wageningen University & Research?

I would certainly not call it a competition but rather a collaboration! If we have an issue for which WUR has knowledge available, we know who to contact, and we always collaborate.

Do you have any wishes regarding the campus?

Mostly with regard to lab space. Start-ups like ours generally require the same infrastructure, for example, a lab or kitchen with some standard equipment. Shared facilities in the shape of labs or kitchens for product development that can be rented per square metre would be nice. So yes, a hob with shared lab spaces is something I feel is lacking on the campus and is sorely needed for emerging businesses.

How do you envision the future on campus?

With our new labs, we are able to grow considerably. And we must, as there is a lot of interest in our product. Awards facilitate this growth. Scope Bioscience won the Atlas Invest Entrepreneurship Grant in 2021. Winning awards provides funds for growth. However, real growth calls for investors.