Sânziana Foia aims to revolutionise cervical screening through her Papcup start-up, thanks to help from the University of Edinburgh Venture Builder Incubator.

The challenge

As Sânziana Foia crawled back into bed in pain during her period, she was suddenly struck by an idea. One factor holding back the development of non-invasive tests is the small size of blood samples – but could her period blood be used to carry out tests? “I wanted there to be a reason for going through so much pain,” Sânziana explained.

Cervical cancer kills two women in the UK each day, with a further nine receiving life-changing diagnoses. More than 99% of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be detected through a cervical smear test long before a cancer forms.

Yet the number of women taking smear tests is falling, with nearly a third of eligible people not being screened. Surveys have found that embarrassment is the most common reason for not booking a test, with almost two-thirds of women saying they were nervous when they did attend, while a report by charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found a lack of access to screening was also a factor.

The solution

Sânziana saw an opportunity to make screening easier and more accessible for women, giving them back more control over the process and their health. She developed Papcup, a device that is designed to detect HPV in samples of period blood, either at home or as an alternative to a smear test in a clinic.

The blood is placed into a cartridge that’s then inserted into the device. All the user then needs to do is to press a button on the device to get the results of their test. Women will use a fresh cartridge for each test to avoid contamination, with the cartridges being designed to be sent back to Sânziana’s company so they can be recycled, minimising waste and boosting the circular economy.

Sânziana is now gauging interest in Papcup through a website that can take pre-orders. Collecting information about the demand for the product will help to demonstrate the business case for Papcup, both to potential investors and also to the NHS.

How VBI Helped

Studying for her doctorate in bioengineering at Imperial College London – where she’s working on wearable sensors for malaria – has meant that Sânziana could learn from the institution’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as she set up her company.

But, to further accelerate Papcup’s development, she took part in the fourth cohort of the University of Edinburgh Venture Builder Incubator (VBI). Cancer Research Horizons, the commercial arm of the Cancer Research UK charity, supports a number of cancer-related companies to take part in the programme in partnership with VBI.

“Edinburgh blew my mind – it was incredible,” smiled Sânziana. “I loved being there for the in-person parts of the programme and VBI did a really good job of delivering the other parts of the programme remotely for me in London.

“One of the best elements of VBI was that they gave concrete, practical help, as opposed to vague advice. For example, when I needed help with the electronics for Papcup they helped me to find a contractor.

“The networking was also super high quality and they put me in touch with all the right people. They really made the most of our time together.”

The next steps

By the autumn, Sânziana aims to finish creating her minimum viable product (MVP). That first device could then be used in pilot studies or by small user testing groups.

Sânziana also plans to apply for grants to fund further research and development (R&D). If she wants her biosensor to eventually become a diagnostic tool that can be used to make clinical decisions then her R&D will need to expand in order to satisfy the regulatory approvals required for medical devices.

Get in touch!

Want to learn more about Papcup, click below to head to their website.