Initium, the scientific innovation incubator

When an innovator meets a university incubator, the result is an entrepreneurial seed that evolves in an ecosystem benevolent enough to help it flourish. This is the case of Romain Lanotte, a doctoral alumnus of the University of Montpellier, whose deeptech startup project, Theralan, is supported by the Initium academic incubator. Meet a passionate young researcher whose ambition is to revolutionize cancer treatment in the years to come.

Initium's coworking space in the Port-Marianne district is the place to be. At the end of this Indian summer-like September, a back-to-school breakfast is being held, bringing together some of the project leaders supported by the incubator. Among them is Romain Lanotte, 34. Last June, his Theralan project was officially approved for incubation. A milestone in a story that began a few years earlier, when he was still a student.

From 2014 to 2018, Romain Lanotte is doing his thesis in health biology at the IRCM (Institut de recherche en cancérologie de Montpellier). He "doesn't count the hours" spent working on a complex subject: " my thesis was dedicated to the study of a molecule present on the surface of cancer cells and how to target it with therapeutic antibodies and potentially make cancer drugs out of it ". Antibodies are large molecules that can target the tumor to destroy it, a process known as immunotherapy. Despite the pressure - her final year of thesis was funded by the Ligue contre le cancer - the results are in, leading to a scientific publication and a patent application for the new molecules developed. And he's already got plenty of ideas in mind: " During my thesis, I said to myself that I could reproduce the process on other molecules ". The young researcher isn't one to jump in on a whim. Preferring to enrich his professional and scientific baggage, he is aiming for a post-doc abroad, preferably on the other side of the Atlantic. But things don't always go according to plan.

Containment and business plans

Instead of going to Toronto, Romain Lanotte is confined to his home because of a worldwide health crisis linked to Covid-19. It's spring 2020, and everything is at a standstill. Instead of gnawing his teeth, the freshly graduated doctor plunged back into his research: " I put my ideas on paper, I budgeted them, I trained myself on the Internet about business plans and entrepreneurship..." His financial situation remains problematic in these times of crisis. "As a young unemployed doctor, I had difficulty convincing certain players in the ecosystem to support me in this entrepreneurial path ", he admits. That's why he accepted a position as research director at Eurofins, next door to his home, where he managed " over 80 studies for pharmaceutical companies and a portfolio worth several million euros ", which reassured him of his ability to manage an entrepreneurial project. He stayed for a year and a half before resigning in January 2023, refusing a permanent contract in the process. He decided to give 300% to his business project, to which he was already devoting a good part of his free time.

i-PhD winner with Pepite Deep tech

When I saw the applications to join the Initium incubator, I was an alumni, so it was perfect," says Romain Lanotte. I was accepted into the Pépite Deeptech program launched as part of the University Innovation Pole (PUI). Why deeptech? Because it's a disruptive innovation, something that aims to transform society, which is exactly what I want to do with the molecules I'm developing. Over a period of six months, his start-up project, named Theralan, developed and things finally got moving: " The incubator gave me the credibility I needed. Thanks to its support, I was able to convince several players in the ecosystem, such as Inserm, CNRS and SATT AxLR, gain access to competitions and training courses on entrepreneurship...". Hard work pays off. In 2023, Romain Lanotte was one of only two winners in Occitanie Est of the i-PhD state innovation competition, both of whom had graduated from the Pepite DeepTech program. He also received funding from the Montpellier Innovation Booster(BIM), enabling him to launch the first stages of research and development.

Making things possible

And the future? As part of Initium's incubation phase, the future entrepreneur continues to be supported in his challenges. In this respect, his journey is a perfect illustration of the chiaroscuro path taken by a deeptech entrepreneur in the healthcare sector. Still registered with Pôle emploi, Romain Lanotte needs to be quickly affiliated with a research institute to benefit from maturation programs commensurate with Theralan's scientific and economic ambitions. I' d like to work with the Institute of Functional Genomics in Montpellier, where I did my Master 1," he says. It's the ideal place to pursue this R&D. "

His project is clearly identified: " We're going to develop a new class of drugs for the treatment of cancers and other diseases, drugs that are more powerful and less toxic than what is currently available. All that remains is to find the financial levers that will make this possible, which is the main challenge of this incubation phase: "We' ll need to raise funds to be able to develop our molecule in the clinical phase, and I'm already several million dollars into the project. Our objective? To enter clinical phase 1 by 2028, to treat the first patient with a brain tumor, and to offer a truly effective therapy that will prolong the survival of these patients. The young researcher from Montpellier will not give up: " It's a real life project ". 

Excellence in incubation

Officially launched in September 2022, the Initium university incubator in Montpellier will take over from UM I-Lab. For the academic incubator, the aim is to strengthen its mission of supporting business creation projects within the I-SITE program of excellence and its three pillars of "nourish, care and protect". These project leaders may be students, alumni, PhD students, young PhDs or research staff working in the five research clusters of the University of Montpellier. Generally speaking, innovative projects are integrated throughout the year in a pre-incubation phase, based on a dossier, and for a period of 6 to 12 months.

A specific Pépite deeptech pre-incubation program is aimed at students, PhD students and young researchers with disruptive technology projects. It takes place on fixed dates over a five-month period, from February to June. The transition to incubation is made on the basis of a jury's
evaluation, and enables the start of co-incubation support with a local structure that is a member of ResO IP+ (the Occitanie region's network of 50 incubators and business incubators, of which Initium is a member), which will take over to provide ongoing entrepreneurial support. A way of benefiting from the strength of the ecosystem following the PUI label (see L'innovation ne peut pas exister sans confiance). Twenty-six projects are currently supported by Initium in pre-incubation or incubation, and others will be integrated as applications are received. As for the Pépite Deeptech program, registration opens on November 13, and a maximum of ten projects will be selected. Now's the time to get involved in innovative entrepreneurship!

Watch the Initium incubator presentation video