We founded Nanobiotix in 2003 with one goal in mind—to discover new ways to use the principles of nanophysics to change the practice of medicine. Our original concept was based on my post-doctoral thesis, where we proved that we could “spin” the nucleus of a cell with a magnetic nanoparticle. You can see a visualization of this experiment below.
Our initial aim was to evolve that concept and use magnetic nanoparticles in combination with MRI to kill cancer cells, while still pursuing other avenues of discovery.
With support from early investors, we launched Nanobiotix and began the preclinical work necessary to validate the concept and move toward clinical development. At the same time, we began to explore several other types of nanoparticles, including high Z nanoparticles (particles with a large number of electrons per atom) that could be used in conjunction with ionizing radiation (the type of radiation used in radiotherapy) and nanoparticles that could modulate the flow of electricity. Over the course of our first four years of operation, we saw consistently good data from the original concept in the lab and were preparing to launch a clinical development program that would put us on the path to our first commercial product.
Then we saw the first data from preclinical experiments with the high Z nanoparticles. Although I always felt that we could have an impact on the treatment of cancer with the magnetic nanoparticle, I could not shake the feeling that it was not enough. While the concept was working—attaching magnetic nanoparticles to structures within cells that would then realign and kill the cells when activated by MRI’s magnetic field—the major hurdle we faced was that this application did not integrate seamlessly into the current medical practice. MRI is used in imaging, not as a therapy. If we wanted the product to have an impact, new MDs would need to be trained and it would take a herculean effort to alter the paradigm. The high Z nanoparticles did not have that problem because radiotherapy is already a staple of therapeutic regimens in oncology.
It is difficult for me to describe the feeling I got when the first data we gathered suggested that we could directly kill cancer cells with a nanoparticle activated by radiotherapy. Doing a simple calculation, with the knowledge that radiotherapy is used in more than 50% of cancer treatment regimens, I knew that if we could bring a disruptive innovation to that space, we would take a huge step toward achieving our mission. I remember saying to myself, “We can really do it. We can make a difference for millions of people.” It was in that moment that I knew we had to change everything we were doing.
Somewhat to my surprise, the team understood immediately. We had to scrap development of the magnetic nanoparticle, even though it was working. In business schools and economics classes the world over, they teach you about the “sunk cost fallacy”— the idea that just because you have invested time, energy, and capital into one way of doing things, you should not allow that to weigh on your forward-looking decision-making process. As a concept it seems obvious, but it can be a very difficult tendency to break when you are faced with it in the real world, with real stakes, and real stakeholders. It said a lot about the caliber of people I was lucky enough to work with that each one of us intuitively understood that we could not be shackled by our past.
Our investors, on the other hand, were more uncomfortable with the move—and rightfully so. The prospect of 4 years and millions of euros spent on a product that would never realize value, even though it was working, was a tough idea to swallow. The team and I, however, were steadfast in our conviction that the creation of Nanobiotix was about discovery. What our investors had bought into was not a particular product or application of that product, but rather the opportunity to contribute to the development of practice-changing medicine based on the principles of nanophysics. And this was exactly what we planned to do.
Over the course of the next year, we were able to convince our partners to see the path same pathway to disruptive impact that we did. Nearly a decade and a half later, we have taken that high Z nanoparticle made of modified hafnium oxide—now code-named NBTXR3–and developed it from a simple concept to a product that has received market authorization in Europe for the treatment of soft tissue sarcoma under the brand name Hensify®. We also stand on the precipice of launching our first global phase III registration study, evaluating NBTXR3 for the treatment of head and neck cancer, with first patients expected to be injected in 2021.
My key takeaway from this experience has been that the question you ask will always shape the answer you ultimately find. If your goal is to develop disruptive innovation with the potential to have a tangible impact on the world, you must ask big questions and then commit to following those questions wherever they lead you. If we had asked ourselves the question, “How could we improve radiotherapy?”, we would probably be making machines right now. If we had asked the question, “How do we develop our magnetic nanoparticle into a commercial product?”, we would have seen that idea through to the end. But instead, we asked, “How do we use nanophysics to change the practice of medicine and improve treatment for millions of patients around the world?” By following that question relentlessly, we have invented a technology that we believe could revolutionize radiotherapy and immunotherapy; and another that we believe could change the paradigm of how all drugs are designed and delivered in the human body. Even today, we are confident that we have only scratched the surface of the great ideas to which our question will lead.
If you also feel that perhaps a good idea is standing in the way of a great one, my challenge for you is to rethink your questions.