Spatial transcriptomics visualises molecules in cells and tissues in their spatial context. Flemish startup Aspect Analytics is developing a platform to make this technology more widely available.

Thanks to modern ‘omics’ techniques, more and more knowledge about individual cells is becoming available. However, less is known about how a cell behaves in its natural environment. Swedish researchers developed spatial transcriptomics technology in 2016, in which analyses also include the position of the cell in the tissue. With this, the ‘omics’ domain has taken off, according to the journal Nature, which in early 2022 described spatial transcriptomics as ‘one of the seven technologies to keep an eye on this year’.

Genk-based Aspect Analytics is jumping on this development. This spinoff of the STADIUS research group, part of electrical engineering at KU Leuven, recently obtained a capital injection of €1.8 million to further develop spatial transcriptomics.

Aspect Analytics team

Aspect Analytics team

From left to right: Nico Verbeeck (AA), Marc Claesen (AA), Katleen Vandersmissen (HERAN – investor)

Holistic view

‘During my PhD, I saw a big difference between the academic potential of data analytics and what was available for business in practice,’ founder Marc Claesen says. ‘That’s why I founded Aspect Analytics in 2018, together with Nico Verbeeck and Thomas Moerman.’

The molecular imaging techniques available each provide information about only one specific aspect of a cell or piece of tissue. With mass spectrometry imaging, for example, you can very precisely visualise the distribution of sugars or fats in a piece of tissue. This is often done in combination with histological examination where you can determine cell density. Claesen: ‘We want to provide a more holistic view by combining information on different types of molecules in their spatial context. To this end, we have developed a software platform that allows us to analyse the large amounts of data available from the entire cascade.’

‘Our impact on research is already visible’

This technique allows researchers to better see how cells behave in diseased tissue, for example in the case of cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Another important application of the platform is drug development. ‘Often drugs are rejected because they turn out not to be active in tissue,’ Claesen says. ‘You could discover that earlier by examining the behaviour of drugs at different levels.’

Aspect Analytics’ platform is in high demand. The company can now count big names such as Boehringer Ingelheim and GSK among its customers, as well as several universities and smaller companies.

Out of the comfort zone

The first years of Aspect Analytics were not without difficulties, Claesen recounts: ‘All three of us had a background in software, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Technology was our comfort zone. All the things we had no experience with – sales, contracts, administration – we had to learn by trial and error. After all, you can’t learn to dance by reading a book about it.’

The corona virus also made for a rough start for the company. ‘Not so much in terms of software development – we were already working mostly remotely. But during this first phase, making new contacts was very important. Usually, you do that during conferences. But because those all fell through, we couldn’t meet potential customers face-to-face.’

‘Our platform analyses data from the entire cascade’

Fortunately, the company received a lot of support from KU Leuven during the start-up process, Claesen says. ‘Professor Bart De Moor helped facilitate the start-up and our current chairman of the Board of Directors, Ilse Sienaert, coached us very well from the University.’

Standard solution

Four years after starting the company, Claesen says it now has entered a growth phase. Before the end of the year, he expects to expand the workforce from nine to thirteen people. ‘The impact of our platform on pharmaceutical and medical research is visible. I am certainly proud of that.’

Claesen is definitely ambitious too. ‘I think we can play a role in the further development of personalised medicine and new drugs. I would like to see our platform become the standard solution for in-depth spatial omics data analysis in ten years or so.’

The €1.8 million capital increase is sure to help in this regard. Aspect Analytics chose to partner with Venture Capitalist Heran. This fund is taking 70% of the investment. ‘We chose this partnership because Heran has a lot of specific knowledge and expertise in this sector and can help us commercialise and internationalise the platform.’ The availability of grants and subsidies also help the company in further development. ‘It is very positive that innovative companies can claim contributions from, for example, VLAIO, the Flemish Agency for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.’

Microscopic image of human lymph node

Microscopic image of human lymph node

Beeld: Aspect Analytics

The colourful triangle at the top is a summary of a spatial omics experiment, in which you can see the main structure of (in this case) lipids in one summary image. The figure shows that the molecular contents (colours) coincide nicely with the different morphological structures visible in microscopy.