Campus Health | PhD from UFRGS and founder of the startup
Núcleo Vitro recalls its research trajectory and tells how
it’s the job of a scientist with her own business.
Graduated in Dentistry at UFRGS, Bibiana Matte is an outstanding case in academic research. In 2015, shortly after completing her graduation, she won the UFRGS Young Researcher Award, which gave her a free pass to the doctorate. Four years later, with a doctorate degree and a startup created, she won, last year, the Doctor Entrepreneur notice of the Foundation for Research Support of the State of Rio Grande do Sul (FAPERGS) for the development of a more “daring research” ”, according to her. Her company, Núcleo Vitro, is trying to develop “cultured meat”.
“The idea of cultivated meat is that you isolate bovine cells, bring them to the laboratory, grow and differentiate them into a product similar to meat for human consumption. So you have a meat product, with flavor, meat nutrients, but without the need to actually slaughter animals.”
It would be quite a find for the company, which has been concerned with animal welfare since the beginning. Núcleo’s main activity – portfolio research, as they are called – is to assess the safety and efficacy of products from other companies, based on tests using in vitro methodologies, that is, without the use of animal tests. “We took a stand from the beginning with in vitro tests, which are alternative methodologies to the use of animals”, says Bibiana. Núcleo’s website states that its mission is “to unveil what is happening in the cells with the contact of products and bring this information to the companies”.
The principle of Bibiana’s research, while still in her doctorate, was the development of skin and oral mucosa models in a laboratory environment. The intention was to understand the processes. “We started by developing models of the two main layers of the skin, the dermis and the epidermis. From them, we have also developed pigmented skin, to understand how the products can affect the issue of melanin production in skin cells”, she says. Currently, Núcleo Vitro seeks to develop a model of aged skin and a bioprinter.
The company’s founding took time, but the origin was in Bibiana’s concern about what would be her future after her doctorate. His main interest was in routine laboratory, cells and research; her teaching career did not interest her so much. Hence the decision to undertake in the field. “From the contact I had in the Entrepreneurship Marathon [in 2016], I began to understand what steps would be necessary to make a desire for something concrete viable,” she says. “Until we really managed to structure a service idea, a business model, which came into being in 2019.”
The startup, which is also linked to the Zenit Science and Technology Park, from UFRGS, serves companies in Brazil and around the world. Currently, according to its founder, there are more than 120 companies in more than 10 countries.
On social networks, especially LinkedIn and Instagram, Núcleo also carries out educational work. “I had this issue of wanting people to also understand a little of what we understand, and that is super challenging”, says Bibiana. “Marcelo [Lamers, his advisor] always says that knowledge comes from the interface of two different segments.”
“I really believe that by using social media tools, explaining what we do, we can bring more people into the conversation and collaborate at the same time”
That childhood dream of one day becoming a dentist and attending an office ended up losing its prominence throughout graduation. The opportunity for a scientific initiation at the end of the first semester aroused his curiosity for research and opened the doors to work abroad. With a grant from CNPq, she was able, during her graduation, to develop research in the cold at the University of Michigan, in the north of the United States. Later, she did a sandwich doctorate at the University of California, in the warm airs of San Diego, on the west coast of that country.
The beginning of the pandemic, however, strongly affected the activities of the Nucleus. “In the first month, all practical laboratory activities were interrupted, as there was not much knowledge about what was being done, about what was going to happen”, says Bibiana. The anxiety was great to understand what was happening, to seek information about the virus and to know what the scientific community was researching, mainly through preprints. In May, however, the scientist’s acumen did not let her stay away from her work environment. “We ended up wanting to ally to strengthen the fight against the pandemic, but this at a time of great caution, there are always few people in the laboratory. So we started to develop studies aimed at the pandemic, which are antiviral studies, to evaluate products that have this capacity”, says Bibiana.
Although her connection with the UFRGS is still important for her work, she says that, in addition to meetings at academic boards and meals in the UK, she misses the practical classes in histology and pathology. “There, in the health courses, we have benches with microscopes where we look at the slides to understand the tissues, so that we can later understand the diseases in the pathologies”, she recalls.
“If I can mention a more academic moment, it’s definitely these moments in practical classes. To be able to see the tissues and exchange ideas about what a cell looks like, what kind of tissue, this disease is a guy; it has always been something that interested me, that I fall in love with, that is this laboratory world”