The female entrepreneur who developed a biotech company based on an EU science competition

Andrea Stephany Diaz is enthusiastic as she talks about how she founded her own biotechnology company two years ago at the age of 24 in an attempt to revolutionize lung cancer detection.

“I have always had a passion for science and human health,” says Diaz, who was born in Venezuela and has lived in Europe for the past 13 years. “Even in high school, I dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and one day setting up my own business.”

EU inspiration

The idea for her biotech startup, called OncoSwab, emerged in September 2022 during an EU event for talented young researchers. Appropriately named EU TalentOn, it was held for five days in Leiden.

The event placed 104 participants from across Europe in teams and challenged them to come up with the best scientific answers to pressing societal challenges, including soil pollution, climate change and cancer.

In short, EU TalentOn was looking for young people who wanted to change the world. Diaz signed up and won an invitation to the final two days of the September 17-18 weekend.

“I had a tremendous desire to impact patients’ lives,” she says. “My life changed after that weekend. My life is before EU TalentOn and after EU TalentOn.”

Road to success

Lung cancer is often diagnosed late, making lung cancer the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Smoking is the main cause.

“I had a tremendous desire to impact patients’ lives.” Andrea Stephany Diaz, OncoSwab

Diaz’s professional path in the fight against cancer is far from direct.

She moved from Venezuela to Madrid at the age of 12. After a degree in biochemistry from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​she began a master’s degree in molecular biotechnology in the city and worked as a research assistant, focusing in part on regenerating blood vessels after stroke.

After joining a German biotech company in Hamburg that developed stem cells for medical research, Diaz began working for herself on science communication projects.

At the same time, she regularly jotted down notes on her phone about business ideas and opportunities that caught her attention in everyday life.

Talent time

Then came EU TalentOn.

With a lively personality and a love of talking, Diaz was chosen at the event to present her team’s idea in the beating cancer category: what if a Covid-like test for lung cancer could be created? The team won the award for the best pitch.

But something else happened: Diaz met like-minded people and – most importantly – Dr. Pablo Lara, a cancer scientist from Leiden University.

She also met others who mentored her.

“I was hungry to create something innovative and after TalentOn, I literally couldn’t sleep thinking about the problem of being diagnosed with lung cancer,” says Diaz. “Pablo felt the same way and we immediately started talking almost every day.”

She describes Lara as a typical genius scientist who comes up with ideas and experiments.

Partnership drive

The partnership proved invaluable in bringing her dream of starting a business closer to reality. Yet it was a tough task to get the company off the ground until well into 2023.

“It was just me and Pablo,” Diaz says. “Those first months were absolutely the worst. We were made to look like crazy. For six to eight months we were rejected everywhere.”

They stuck with it and eventually founded OncoSwab, received funding and began developing their lung cancer screening idea further.

They are now working with pulmonologists in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US to detect lung cancer with nasal swabs. This can determine whether a patient needs a more complex computed tomography or CT scan.

“Our goal is to make lung cancer detection as widespread as breast cancer screening,” Diaz says.

She declined to comment on the company’s technology because it is in the pre-commercial stage.

Now that she is a Spanish citizen, Stephany Diaz feels a sense of both urgency and fulfillment in her current work.

“I literally feel like I’m using every corner of my brain in my business and every skill I have,” she says. “I get to be creative when a problem arises and brainstorm with my team.”

Stephany Diaz recently spoke at the European Research and Innovation – R&I – Days in Brussels and said she is drawn to such occasions.

“I like talking to others, I like networking, I like meeting people and I like listening to other people’s stories,” she says. “And it turns out that that is now somehow part of my job.”

Author: Anthony Koning. This article first appeared in Horizon magazine.