Scientists with entrepreneurial spirit
Dr. Brigitte Angres and Dr. Helmut Wurst have been thinking about establishing their own company for a long time. The Californian biotech company Clontech, where the two scientists worked for several years, will serve as their model now that the two scientists have found an excellent environment for turning their business idea into reality. This environment is the NMI in Reutlingen.
Work with cell culture has become an integral part of basic biological and medical research. In vitro cultured cells are also gaining in importance in the pharmaceutical industry, in particular for testing new drugs. However, currently used systems all have a decisive weak spot.
Dr. Helmut Wurst and Dr. Brigitte Angres
At present, cells are cultured in flat dishes where they form a thin cell lawn. "However, in two-dimensional culture systems, the cells often do not behave as they would normally do in the living organism," reports Dr. Brigitte Angres who heads up the Department of Cellular Test Systems and Bioanalytics at the NMI Natural and Medical Sciences Institute (NMI) at the University of Tübingen.
Three-dimensional cell cultivation is a way out of this problematic situation as it can represent the spatial structure of an organ far more accurately. However, suitable carrier materials on which to grow the cells are scarce. Together with her colleague, Dr. Helmut Wurst, Dr. Angres has now achieved a major breakthrough. Their product, an innovative synthetic matrix (hydrogel), which can be individually modified using different biofactors, is already in great demand from cell biologists. "But we believe that there is also a market for our product in the medical technology and pharmaceutical industries," said the two scientists.
The clients’ requirements are key
Angres and Wurst did their postdoctoral periods at Stanford University and have since been partners in both the professional and personal sense. They are convinced of the economic potential of their product and plan to turn their long-standing dream of establishing their own company into reality. “I have always wanted my own company,” said Wurst frankly, explaining that the idea grew on them during their time as research group leaders at the Californian company Clontech. “At Clontech we learnt how to turn an idea into a product,” said Wurst.
Cultivation of renal epithelial cells in a synthetic hydrogel. The gel was modified with an adhesion peptide (© Angres, Wurst / NMI)
Angres and Wurst worked at Clontech with its visionary founder Kenneth Fong for five years. So they had plenty of time to learn the most important rules of successful company foundation as Fong saw it. "He understood perfectly how to communicate his vision," said Wurst, adding "above all, he showed us how to lead and motivate staff." One of the best lessons Wurst and Angres learned is that client requirements must always be key. When this rule is applied to their own product it means that the handling and use of the newly developed matrix must not become too complex. "You should not need a chemistry degree to be able to work with it," says Wurst with a smile. At the same time, the results must be reproducible and the costs must also be kept manageable. These are major requirements that need to be looked at in detail during the product development phase.
Funding period could be longer
At the beginning of the new millennium, Angres and Wurst returned to Germany where they found excellent working conditions at the NMI in Tübingen. This enabled them to turn their business idea, to which they had already given a great deal of thought, into a marketable product. “I started at the NMI with the firm intention of creating the basis for an own company,” recalls Wurst. The NMI not only offers an excellent technological basis for starting an own business, but it also offers start-up companies the professional and organisational support needed during the important seed and start-up phases.
Angres and Wurst received funding through the EXIST research transfer programme to prepare for company foundation. The programme, run by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, provides the two scientists with enough money to pay the wages of three employees for 18 months as well as cover the costs for diverse materials and equipment. “It would be better if this funding period were actually slightly longer,” says Wurst from experience. Although they can be given a one-off extension of the EXIST grant, Angres and Wurst are aware that they have to start looking for additional investors. “We want to grow in the long term,” said Angres. Therefore, the help of a business angel who not only has the necessary industry contacts but also wants to invest in the new company in the long term would be ideal.
Location in Tübingen/Reutlingen
The next step is initiating the production of the final product. In addition, they need to focus on marketing and find suitable distribution channels. The biologists are lucky in that they can fall back on their experience at Clontech. “At Clontech, the scientists were an integral part of production, marketing and distribution activities,” said Wurst. “We therefore amassed valuable experience which is now of great benefit to us.”
Angres and Wurst had also thought about where to set up their new company. “We very much like the economic environment in the region,” said the two in unison. The close vicinity to the medical technology sector might prove to be useful when tapping new markets. Nevertheless, Angres and Wurst sometimes miss the just-do-it mentality in the land of unlimited possibilities. “When you found a company in Germany you often come across people with huge doubts and worries,” says Wurst. The numerous regulations and formalities that have to be taken into account are very time-consuming and continually delay the beginning of production by a few months. “Although these things are important one must be very careful not to become a victim of market dynamics or competitors’ products, just because it takes too long to get products onto the market,” said Angres and Wurst. In order to avoid such an eventuality, Angres and Wurst are working hard to establish their new company as soon as possible.
A contribution from:
Dr. Brigitte Angres
Dr. Helmut Wurst
NMI - Department of Cellular Test Systems and Bioanalytics
Tel.: +49(0)7121 51530-838
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