Brussels-born medical technology entrepreneur Jean-Paul Rasschaert had been active in the US for more than 20 years, but he returned to his roots after the Walloon region made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. His newest start-up company, Mitral Technologies, was launched in Minneapolis in 2014 and moved to Liège in December last year, with strong support from the region.
Rasschaert co-founded Mitral Technologies to develop a medical device that would enable the treatment of mitral valve regurgitation, a common cardiac valve pathology, using minimally invasive methods. The process leading up to its move to Liège started two years ago when Rasschaert met the honorary consul of Belgium in Minneapolis.
In the meantime, Mitral Technologies has raised €3.2 million, of which about €3 million has come through Walloon funds and the rest through business angels. The start-up team, with Rasschaert as CEO, established itself at an incubator at Liège’s new Val Benoît site.
“Most of the funding is non-dilutive, which means we have a very stable basis to lead the company in the right direction,” says Rasschaert. “We are very happy with the support and now want to give something back, through our approach of thinking outside the box.” Other incentives for the move were the opportunities for scientific collaborations through the Sart Tilman campus of the University of Liège, and the availability of specialised staff.
The potential of Mitral Technologies’ innovation is huge. About four million people in Europe and the US are affected by mitral valve regurgitation, a condition in which the heart’s mitral valve doesn’t close properly, allowing blood to leak backwards into the heart instead of flowing to the rest of the body. The condition may have mild symptoms like shortness of breath but in severe cases can lead to dangerous complications, including heart failure.
“The common treatment is highly invasive open-heart surgery to repair the valve, but about half of the patients, two million in Europe and the US, cannot undergo this surgery because they are already too weak,” says Rasschaert. “Our technology would help them in a non-invasive way, through a catheter inserted in the thigh.”
He says patients undergoing the new treatment will in some cases be able to leave the hospital the next day, instead of having to spend about 10 days there – as is often the case after open-heart surgery. Another advantage of the new technology is that it would work according to procedures that are already used by specialists to treat other conditions, so it would be easy to introduce it.
There is already a similar device on the market, MitraClip, but the innovation of Mitral Technologies would decrease the risks for patients. “The MitraClip works via an artery on the left side of the heart, and the formation of a blood clot there can have deadly consequences,” explains Rasschaert. “Our device would function via veins on the heart’s right side, where clots don’t have such a dangerous impact.” The development and testing of the patented technology will take between four and five years.
Marc Foidart, deputy director-general of public-private investment company Meusinvest in Liège, said in a statement that the project had genuine economic value. “It also reinforces the emergence of a cardiology cluster in the Liège region, in particular following the recent installation of Miracor here as well,” he said. Miracor is an Austrian start-up that is also developing medical devices against heart diseases. It moved to Liège from Vienna at the beginning of the year.
This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine