It isn’t always easy to be a medical tech company located in Central Europe, especially when it comes to finding top-of-the-line scientists with niche competencies.

 A while back, SDS Optic, a fast-growing maker of cancer diagnostics in Poland, went looking for a very specific type of scientist and the search became a long-term endeavor.

“We were not successful in months of research and executive search,” said Mateusz Sagan, Chief Business Officer of SDS Optic. To pivot, the company decided to open a small laboratory in Greater Philadelphia and move that research position there.  “In Philadelphia, it took us five days to find great candidates,” he shared.

It wasn’t just the access to the region’s talent pool and availability of more scientists that led the company to open a two-person facility in Greater Philadelphia. The company also gained access to new potential investors, partners, and customers, and state-of-the-art laboratory space with flexible and practical solutions. There was also accessible transportation and more support for international companies to get a toehold than other states in the region. 

There was also one of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems of companies and universities, all dedicated to the life sciences and supported by the local and state governments, incubators, and guidance from the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia (the Chamber).

Sagan noted that there was also an abundance of kindness.“The biggest surprise was the kindness of the people around Philadelphia and the whole of the ecosystem you have there,” he said. “You have scientific research institutes like University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, The Wistar Institute, and Thomas Jefferson University, (Chamber investors), and they are very kind and very open. They don’t care if we are from Poland or if we are from Texas. That has been very unique to us.”

Advancing Breast Cancer Detection

SDS Optic, based in Lublin, Poland, merges molecular biology, advanced photonic technologies, immunochemistry, and biomedical engineering to create a cancer diagnostic system that is faster, more efficient, and less invasive for patients than a traditional biopsy.

The company’s core product is the inPROBE® HER2 breast cancer detection device. This first-ever fiber microprobe enables real-time breast cancer diagnoses that lead to quicker treatment and can save lives. The use of inPROBE® could reduce, or even eliminate, the need for painful biopsies and speed up diagnoses.

“What we did eight or nine years ago was to merge photonics with molecular biology, chemistry, and biomedical engineering into one single-platform technology,” Sagan said. “We have PhDs and postdocs in physics, molecular biology, and immunochemistry, and we have a large group of biomedical engineers as well. So, putting all of them together is part of the challenge.”

SDS Optic attracted the backing of European investment funds and last year received an investment of up to 10 million euros from the European Investment Bank. The company held an IPO in 2022 and started trading on the Warsaw Stock Exchange (NewConnect ticker: SDS), and its valuation almost tripled within two years of going public.

Given the importance of the U.S. market, the need to find a deeper pool of scientists, and the search for a bigger partner in the pharmaceutical space, it was natural that SDS Optic sought entry into the American market, where it calls Greater Philadelphia home. 

A Meeting in Greater Philadelphia

In 2019, Sagan traveled to the Bio International Convention in Philadelphia, where he connected with James Medaglio, Director of Business Attraction and Expansion at the Chamber, and Jason Hunt, Director of International Business Attraction at the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED), who became trusted resources throughout the relocation process. 

A few months later and with their support, Sagan enrolled in a program run by WorldUpstart, a Philadelphia-based accelerator that helps emerging international companies enter the U.S. market. WorldUpstart helps its clients with the nuts and bolts of running a business in the U.S., everything from HR to legal, operations, and identifying new markets. 

“SDS Optic has a lot of really great, advanced technology, so seeing how they apply that technology to healthcare was absolutely fascinating,” said Karina Sotnik, Founder and CEO of WorldUpstart.

She said what’s even more fascinating is how SDS Optic takes a different approach from other life sciences companies entering the U.S. market. 

“Typically, R&D is done in their own country, and they put the sales and marketing team in the U.S.,” she said. “SDS Optic actually flips it. They do the R&D here, and it makes them unique. And I think that will make them absolutely successful here because of the ability for them to get great talent here and to marry their optics with where the molecular biology is. It is absolutely amazing.”

Still, just as momentum was building to enter the U.S., the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2023, SDS Optic was ready to explore a U.S. expansion again. Sagan said that the company looked at all the usual suspects, mostly up and down the Northeast Corridor. The wealth of specialized talent and lab space were critical factors, he said, in choosing Greater Philadelphia, as was the access to potential M&A partners.

“We very much hope that our Philadelphia presence will support our whole equity story between us and potential investors because our vision is to extend the Philly R&D facility to around 10 people in two to three years,” he said.

Medaglio said SDS Optic’s location experience demonstrates how Greater Philadelphia has emerged as an international hub in the life sciences space.

“We hear it time and time again,” Medaglio said. “Companies need access to talent, facilities, collaborators, and financial partners, and few regions can match Greater Philadelphia in that regard.”

From Typewriters to Test Tubes

Sagan said, in his opinion, there’s something else about Greater Philadelphia that’s attractive to companies looking to locate here: the youthful culture and spirit of innovation that comes from being home to so many universities and start-up companies.

“We are coming from a city that is very much university-based; in Lublin (Poland), every 4th citizen is a student, and we have five large public universities and several private ones,” he said. “So, it’s nice that once I land in Philadelphia and walk around, I can see so many young people, which is not the case in other cities like Chicago or Los Angeles. I very much like the energy of the city and, of course, the history because this is where the whole United States was born.” Notably, a recent study highlighted that Philadelphia leads the nation in its growth of college-educated 25 – 24-year-olds. 

History is on Sagan’s mind whenever he visits the Curtis Building in Philadelphia, where SDS Optic leased space from BioLabs for its laboratory. For over 50 years, the Curtis was home to one of the best-known publishing companies in the world, with titles such as The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and The Country Gentlemen published there. A Tiffany mosaic mural also put the building at the forefront of the art world.

The clacking of the typewriters has been replaced by the penetrating silence of scientists seeking to save lives, but a spirit of adventure and opportunity – unique to Philadelphia – still races through the Curtis’ halls.

“In this building, maybe we can build some new history,” Sagan said.

For more information about how the region and the Chamber can support your company’s location and expansion efforts, visit Select Greater Philadelphia or contact James Medaglio, Director, Business Attraction and Expansion, at [email protected].