Innovation Report

 
report Precision Medicine

“Momentum for blockchain in healthcare is growing in Basel”

03.12.2018

Marco Cuomo and Daniel Fritz from Novartis got engaged in blockchain two years ago. Today, their aim is set high: With other pharma companies under the Innovative Medicines Initiative, they formed a “Blockchain Enabled Healthcare” program, due to kick off in 2019. The program that they presented at the Blockchain Leadership Summit in Basel – Switzerland’s largest conference in this field - wants no less than to define how blockchain is applied in healthcare.

BaselArea.swiss: You both work for Novartis that is known for pharmaceutical products but not for technology. How come you started to explore the possibilities of Blockchain in the first place?

Marco Cuomo: We got curious about blockchain and wanted to know which problems we can solve with the technology. A handful of interested people had an informal meeting, we formed a group and basically got to the essence of blockchain. That started two years ago.

What did you find?

Marco Cuomo: First of all we found use cases to learn more about it. This is how the supply chain got on our radar because Blockchain is applicable to tracking and tracing. We involved Dan who is our Supply Chain Domain Architect to build a supply chain from the manufacturer to the pharmacy with LEGO robots…

Daniel Fritz: …where we integrated IoT sensors for temperature and humidity as well as a counterfeit product check. We learned for ourselves about the power of blockchain and what is possible.

Marco Cuomo: Our LEGO demo clearly helped to illustrate our point internally as well as externally. We also quickly realized that other pharmaceutical companies must have the same discussions. So we brought other companies to the table.

Why did you not just develop something on your own?

Marco Cuomo: Of course, you can have for example your own cryptocurrency – and then what? To exchange it, you need other parties who use the same cryptocurrency as you do. No, blockchain is not just a new technology that you learn, implement and benefit from. The key feature is to transfer something valuable from one party to the next. Take the supply chain of pharmaceutical products that involves the manufacturer, the distribution center, wholesale, pharmacy, doctor and hospital. Here, blockchain starts to make sense. 

How so?

Marco Cuomo: With blockchain, you do not have to change any supply management system on your side. Instead, you create a kind of common ground. You do not need an intermediate as blockchain is taking that role. We tend to say that it is a team sport because everybody has to play by the same rules.

What is in it for the life sciences industry?

Daniel Fritz: When we show and explain what blockchain is about, we not only cover the basics. Instead, we also look on what we could potentially design as a solution to build upon the regulatory framework. People think, wait, we can even go beyond the law and uncover some business value. I think most people can quickly see that blockchain offers many benefits over the existing technologies that we have in place.

Marco Cuomo: What is in it is efficiency which comes down to saving money, be faster and more secure. Electronic records can be transparently shown in the blockchain. If something fails in the cool chain, everybody can see what happens immediately. Now you wait till a product arrives at the target to then find out that it is flawed and finally start the process for a resend. With blockchain the flawed product never even has to leave the manufacturer.

Daniel Fritz: With other supply chains it is similar. People want to buy organic food – how do you know it is bio? With blockchain, we can guarantee the provenance of a product and remove or reduce counterfeits from the supply chain. This benefits the industry and the patients.

Marco Cuomo: Speaking of patients: It is the holy grail to bring patients in control of their data. Today the data sits in the different silos, with the hospitals, with physicians for example. With the blockchain, we think there is the potential to open that up so that patients can decide who sees my data.

Where do you see other advantages of Blockchain based healthcare?

Marco Cuomo: Our CEO Vas Narasimhan has the vision to create a medicine based on data only, from real world evidence. Blockchain can help to track and trace the data to guarantee its proper provenance. Another opportunity are data marketplaces where you can offer your data to pharmaceutical companies and researchers. Blockchain could help with that. Where normally it would take time to build up the trust for such an exchange of very sensible and valuable data, there is no need for that with blockchain. Novartis hopes that we can use this data to create new medicine in the future. We are also looking into third party risk management.
How can we make sure that our suppliers comply to our labor and safety rules? Why should we have the same audit ten times a year instead of once? Why should these assessments not be owned by the supplier – if we are guaranteed that the supplier is not manipulating them?

You started two years ago as a small group. Where are you now?

Marco Cuomo: We realized that we need to define certain standards to lay the infrastructural ground for Blockchain in healthcare. That is why we submitted the project “Blockchain enabled healthcare” with the Innovative Medicine Initiative where Novartis is already heavily engaged with more than 100 projects. We convinced eight other companies to join: J&J, Bayer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, UCB, Pfizer, Novo Nordisk, and AbbVie are part of it. The money comes half from the industry, the other half is from the EU, in total 18 million Euro for three years. Applications for the consortium that should include hospitals, labs, patients, SME and universities to work with us closed in October. After that, we will form a project together and start with it late next year.

What is blockchain enabled healthcare about?

Marco Cuomo: The main goal is to define standards to create a governance body that will last longer than the project itself. Like the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium that is defining technical standards of the web, we hope to be the same for Blockchain in healthcare. Take the internet – it also needed someone who defined some standards so everyone could build on that. The same will happen here, hopefully. Imagine if Novartis was to implement their own blockchain and has to convince thousands of suppliers to use it. If the next company does the same, end-to-end product tracking becomes impossible for the parties involved. Why should doctors use our system or the other one? Also, the patient journey does not only include pills from Novartis. You need a standard.

How easy was it to convince the other companies to come on board?

Daniel Fritz: Some of the companies we asked jumped on board immediately. Others needed to understand our vision in more detail. So we had a lot of talks which were very positive as we were able to establish a high level of trust and collaboration within the consortium, which is really what blockchain is about.

In which ways did it help to be in Basel to start this journey?

Marco Cuomo: It started here and Novartis is leading it. All the companies and the academia we talked to form the initial approach to the program are close. It also helps to have a CEO who strongly supports digital initiatives and a CDO who sees the potential.

Daniel Fritz: Momentum for blockchain in healthcare is growing in Basel, in Novartis, and globally. It will benefit patients and the industry, but we have a lot of hard work in the consortium and with public partners to get there.

About

Marco Cuomo is Manager of Applied Technology Innovation and a Senior Digital Solutions Architect with Novartis. He started with Novartis in 2005 as a Business Informatics Engineer and gained a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration.

Daniel Fritz works as the Supply Chain Domain Architect at Novartis. Before that he was an engineer officer with the US Army and a Materials Manager. He studied at the US Military Academy at West Point and gained a Master of Business Administration from Duke University.

report Medtech

«Le grand challenge c’est l’innovation et bien comprendre les besoins des clients»

03.12.2018

report ICT

The Services of the Jura "Economy and Employment Department" are on their way to Digitizat...

09.01.2018

report Production Technologies

Three entrepreneurs, three visions of Industry 4.0

05.11.2018

BaselArea.swiss invited startups and Industry 4.0 projects to participate in the first Industry 4.0 Challenge. A jury from the industry chose three finalists: Philippe Kapfer with NextDay.Vision, Roy Chikballapur with MachIQ and Dominik Trost with holo|one. Learn more about their contributions and visions in the interview. You can meet the entrepreneurs at the Salon Industries du Futur Mulhouse on 20 and 21 November 2018.

BaselArea.swiss: Which problem does your company aim to solve?

Dominik Trost, holo|one: In general, our solutions utilise Augmented Reality to quickly bring know-how to where it is needed. This translates to offering intuitive means of maintenance support, such as holographic checklists or reporting tools, as well as AR enhanced remote assistance for companies to provide electronic information to sites around the globe, alongside common audiovisual calls. We also use holograms and animations as storytelling tools, and are developing an app entirely dedicated to design and presentation purposes. Most of all, we believe in keeping things simple: Our apps concentrate on a core set of powerful features and can all be managed through our browser-based management portal. People should be able to use our apps with as little effort as possible.

Roy Chikballapur, MachIQ: We help machine builders and manufacturers to gain equipment and asset performance. To that end, MachIQ provides a software for machine builders to simplify customer support and to monitor their machines, hence reducing unplanned outages for their customers. For manufacturers, MachIQ created a software that helps with predictive support and that combines useful functions for plant managers, controllers and the maintenance team alike. In short: We bring machines to life.

Philippe Kapfer, NextDay.Vision: We simplify communication between machine manufacturers and their customers and makes them safer. Normally, connections between two contacts are insecure and vulnerable because one or even both sides have to open the connection. This makes them vulnerable. Also, you usually need to interrupt the workflow to validate a partner. Our API is designed to help companies create integrated software. For example, a company can update its machine remotely and integrate the validation workflow directly on the customer side. The customer just logs on to his smartphone. He does so by signing in by hand. Afterwards, the manufacturer can update the machine from a distance. This leads to a traceable and rule-compliant process.

When and why did you found your company?

Philippe Kapfer: NextDay.Vision has been around since mid-2017. Before that, I wrote a book on the security of computer systems as part of my master's thesis, showing how Windows can be hacked – corporate computer systems are easily attackable from the inside. For fear of such attacks, many companies do not use the cloud, for example, and try to keep their systems closed. In discussions with machine manufacturers and their customers, I realized that there is a lack of solutions for this. In the course of digitalization, the question naturally arises as to how we can make connections secure. My company provides answers to that question.

Roy Chikballapur: When I was with Schneider Electric in Paris, I helped to digitalize industrial offers for different companies. However, by talking to the machine builders and manufacturers I learned that they struggled with much more basic problems. One of these fundamental problems is customer support – it simply takes too much time to look up customer and serial numbers and to fix stuff. All the while, the machine is not producing anything and only generates losses for the respective company. I had the idea for my company in 2014, in 2016 I launched MachIQ.

Dominik Trost: It all began with the presentation of the Microsoft HoloLens: We saw the presentation live and knew that AR will be a big thing using head-mounted devices. Soon we got the first device and had lots of workshops with companies from different areas of business. We immediately realized the benefits of this technology and companies saw their AR use cases too. After assessing the market potential in Switzerland, we founded our company just at the end of that year, first concentrating on individual showcases. We soon realized that a standardized approach better satisfies corporate needs, but there was still a lot of work to do: This year, we almost exclusively worked on developing ‘sphere’, our new AR platform that will be released at the end of November.

How did you learn about the i4 Challenge and why did you apply?

Dominik Trost: Markus Ettin, industry 4.0 and automatization manager at Bell Food Group, suggested that we might be a good fit for the i4.0 Challenge and motivated us to look deeper into it. Though having an international outlook, we found it important to strengthen the regional awareness for our technology as well, so we took our chances…

Philippe Kapfer: For me, the Challenge was like another litmus test. I wanted to know how our solution was received. In the Industry 4.0 Challenge, I had the opportunity to have my project reconfirmed by industry experts. At the same time, the jury acknowledged that we were actually bringing something new to industry.

Roy Chikballapur: We were in touch with the BaselArea.swiss team thanks to their support in us relocating from the Canton of Vaud to Basel-Stadt. Sebastien Meunier, who was responsible for the initiative posted about the i4 Challenge on LinkedIn and this is how we found out about it. I believe that the discussions on BaselArea’s LinkedIn community are very relevant to what’s happening in the Industry 4.0 sector and this is what motivated us to apply.

What does the term “Industry 4.0” mean to you and why do you consider the topic significant?

Dominik Trost: To us, industry 4.0 is the logical evolution of industry with the tools and technologies that are available or being developed. Like the ‘4.0’ epithet already suggests, we think that it is the industrial revolution of our generation, adding immense amounts of productivity, safety, and interconnectivity. It is therefore obvious to us that industry 4.0 will remain the hot topic over the following decade, and now is the ideal time to get on board.

Philippe Kapfer: I believe that "Industry 4.0" is often used to sell a new product or service. Often the technology was there before and is merely used differently under the title Industry 4.0. For me, that label first and foremost means that the industry is evolving.

Roy Chikballapur: I think there is more to the phrase. I agree that a lot of focus today seems to be on the technologies that enable the digitalization of processes, the generation of useful data and the algorithms that many expect will replace human beings in several functions on the shop floor. At Machiq however, we focus on the business model transformations that these technologies will bring about when they are deployed at scale and we find few companies are preparing themselves for this.

Here is an example: Most machine builders consider the sale of spare parts and the delivery of maintenance and repair services as their “Services Business”. However, their customers are actually buying the experience of zero unplanned outages. With the improved ability to connect machines and to analyze performance data in real time, outages can now be prevented.
However, in doing so, machine builders will likely reduce their spare parts revenue. Are they ready for this? Not as long as they stick to current business models. But what if they offered a “Netflix of spare parts and services”-contract where the customer instead buys uptime.

What if a yoghurt producer could pay his equipment supplier based on the number of pots of yoghurt produced per month? This would force a shift from a capital expenditure-heavy model to an operational expenditure-based model, even in the machinery industry. The Industry 4.0 model will force suppliers to collaborate with customers and competitors to collaborate with peers. It is our task to accompany all parties to take this transformative journey in a step-by-step manner that does not disrupt the current business models unnecessarily.

Where do you see the development in the region?

Roy Chikballapur: We settled in Basel primarily because of its location at the heart of the machine building industry in Europe. In a 300 km radius we have the largest concentration of leading machine building companies in every important industry. What was also a key attraction was the Canton's focus on Industry 4.0. While there are many startup hubs across Europe, they tend to focus on more “sexy” topics like Fintech, Blockchain and AI. Personally, I hope that the region instead takes up something that is more concrete and “real” as its focus area, capitalizing on its strength as a life sciences hub but also as a center of industry and logistics. We would like to see more collaboration among Industry 4.0 startups to integrate each of our products to develop more comprehensive offers for our customer base. We would also like to increase our collaboration with larger industrial companies in the region. I am certain that such a focus on the i4 theme will accelerate innovation and position Basel as a hub for Industry 4.0.

Dominik Trost: As a software company with a standardized product, our outlook is not as much regional, but rather national or defined by language barriers. Looking at the state of AR in Switzerland and Germany, there are indeed more pockets of development here than in other places, mostly in the form of individual startups and university programs. However, AR is still generally viewed as an experimental technology, despite applications being proven viable and beneficial. There is nowhere near as much drive and competition as in the US or East Asia – both a chance and a ticking clock for us.

What are your plans for your company?

Philippe Kapfer: We currently have customers mainly in the Jura and in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland. In addition to our products, I also offer training and audits on information security systems. In the future, I want to put even more capacity into development. We are targeting both the national and international markets with our security software and API. The cybersecurity market is growing by ten percent annually, but not enough people can respond to this development. NextDay.Vision provides the software that satisfies a need and makes it easier for companies to meet high security standards. We want to anchor cybersecurity in the mindset of the industry. This includes enabling connections between customers and manufacturers without sacrificing data security. We are confident that we will continue to grow with our product and vision.

Dominik Trost: At this point, almost anything is possible. We are actively building up our network of distributors and are also looking across the borders, already promoting our solutions in Germany and exploring our options in other countries. It is very likely for foreign competition to enter the European market, which makes it important for us to act quickly and decisively. We have, however, built a competent team and are very confident in the quality our products, so we are looking forward to what the future holds.

Roy Chikballapur: MachIQ has positioned itself as a neutral, brand agnostic player offering software products that connect machine builders and their industrial end-user customers for asset performance management. Machiq’s software creates the dynamics of a “data cooperative” for Industry 4.0. Common data benefits everyone on the system, but is managed securely so that it does not compromise the relationships that companies have built with their suppliers and customers or the competitive dynamics between business peers. Our vision is to become the “Business Operating System” of the Industry 4.0-enabled world. While many companies aren’t thinking about it, the moment we present our vision to them, they immediately get us and they get what we are trying to do. We are experiencing strong growth in our customer base. Consequentially, we are focusing on hiring the right talent and growing the team fast enough right now.

Text: Annett Altvater

report Production Technologies

"I Was Always One of Few Women in the Industry"

27.09.2018

SOLO Swiss in Porrentruy in the canton of Jura has been making industrial furnaces for heat-treating metals since 1924. The family company with a global presence is developing against the backdrop of Industry 4.0 and is struggling to find the qualified workforce which is indispensable for what it does amid the effects of the strong franc and what are sometimes restrictive administrative regulations. Interview with Anne-Sophie Spérison, President and CEO.

BaselArea.swiss: I imagine that Industry 4.0 is a key area of development for you?

Anne-Sophie Spérisen: Absolutely. Industry 4.0 is understood as the collection of all the data available on a machine to convert them into information or “impetus” for other factors included in the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, for example. It is also about loading and downloading information on preventive or corrective maintenance for a machine. In practice, alerts are triggered if a turbine is gradually approaching the end of its run. This can also be management data which is sent to the control cockpit.

Is there major potential in terms of Industry 4.0 in your company? 

Yes. On our kinds of machines, all the information on each of them could potentially be sent further down the line. Industry 4.0 could also be very useful for maintenance. For example, it would be conceivable to provide our customers with connected glasses so that our technicians could provide instructions from Switzerland while the customer sits in front of their machine in Shanghai, so they can fix the machine themselves. Our objective is to ensure that Industry 4.0 is a real bonus not only for the customer, but also for production, maintenance, monitoring, machine productivity and the management cockpit.

There is sometimes a tendency to bundle everything in with Industry 4.0. But what is it really all about?

It is the extraction and processing of data in a previously unprecedented manner. In Industry 4.0, we are attempting to link new technologies and new processes with exactly this Industry 4.0. At the end of the day, it is almost a question of creating new products and services. That is why we have had an engineer dedicated to this project for two years now, although he is not the only one dealing with it. He needs to have a perfect command of information systems, data processing and emerging technologies (receivers, sensors) – as well as the associated possibilities these offer, since they are evolving all the time. 

What about maintenance?

For us, this is a key issue. In this area, we offer our customers private Internet portals. They can connect remotely from their machines and monitor their production online. We can install sensors all over the machines. They generate relevant information which can then be retransmitted in a form which is coherent, intelligent and comprehensible to the customer as a function of their requirements. Effectively, we need to make all the information available to the customer in the form they want it. For example, a complete log of all maintenance on their furnace.

Still on the subject of Industry 4.0, are you able to find the necessary skills in Jura?

It is not easy. There is a lack of schools providing training. We are primarily looking for IT specialists, specifically specialists in Industry 4.0, but they also need to understand the technology. We need both IT experts and mechanical and electrical engineers. The region here is a centre for micro-technology, which does not tie in with our area of activity.

The future of SOLO lies in…

...perfect mastery of the furnace process, i.e. everything that happens inside the furnace and controls the machine. The customer demands pieces which are perfect after treatment with no reprocessing necessary and a guarantee that they will meet the ever more demanding quality standards of the automotive (CQi9) or aerospace (AMS 2750) industries. The complexity of the parts to be processed, new alloys, new production techniques for metal parts (3D printing), this is our future. It is all about having perfect control of the thermo-chemical processes of our machines. Essentially, it is metallurgy which is controlled by computers.

Will you be able to continue production in Switzerland?

It is a challenge, because we only sell 20% of our machines in Switzerland and we export the rest all over the world because our machines are aimed at niche industries. Added to this is the issue of the strong franc and the problems in finding qualified engineers in Jura, especially as the employment market is so robust. It is a real challenge for us. There is also the difficulty posed by the myriad of standards and regulations, which are coming increasingly complex and onerous at an administrative level. At the same time, however, it is an opportunity for us, as it protects us from competition from low-cost countries who cannot comply with the new and increasingly demanding standards. But remaining competitive at a pricing level is very difficult. That said, the new technologies fortunately give us an opportunity to improve our competitiveness even further.

Are you optimistic?

Yes, I am by nature, even when it’s a daily battle. There are so many parameters which can change very quickly. Luckily, the markets are currently stable, we are seeing good levels of growth from the majority of markets in Europe, Russia and Asia, and we have a range of quality products which are tailored to our niche markets. We also have a fantastic team we can rely on and have some new technical developments in the pipeline. 

What can you say about the Chinese market?

When we started back in the 70s and 80s, we sold furnaces to Chinese purchasing centres. And we also worked with representatives over there. In the 2000s, we entered into a partnership with a local company. Currently, we are working with a production unit in Canton with around one hundred employees. It is a company run by a family who have become our friends. It was necessary, even critical to produce locally for the Chinese market, especially in order to respond to invitations to tender from government companies.

How would you describe the effect of having a woman in charge of the company?

It does not pose any problems personally. I am very much at ease with it. Some people I speak to are put off-balance because a woman is perhaps more direct than a man. We dare to ask questions, we are more stubborn. I grew up being the only girl or one of the few women: there are very few in industry, which I think is regrettable. There are no differences in management styles between men and women. It is more a question of character and sensitivity.

www.solo.swiss

Interview: Didier Walzer

report Life Sciences

“Our business is the most beautiful business in the world”

04.09.2018

Giacomo di Nepi has a successful history: A high level executive in big corporations, he transitioned towards biotech, currently as CEO of Polyphor, which, in May 2018, he led to the IPO. We spoke to Giacomo about serving patients, the timing for an IPO and the people needed in a biotech.

BaselArea.swiss: What do you check first these days – your emails or the stock market?

Giacomo di Nepi: Emails and meetings are still more important on a daily basis. Of course I check the stock market but the volatility is such that I stopped to try to interpret the market in the short term. But of course I look at it in its development and my commitment is clear to have the stock appreciating and increasing the value delivered to the shareholders who put their trust and investment in our ideas, technology and team.

You served in big corporations such as McKinsey and Novartis. What made you join a startup like Polyphor?

Sure, I come from multinationals, but I worked elsewhere, too. My last job was with InterMune, a Californian biotech. I started the operations in Europe from zero, from my home. If the weather was nice, we moved our meetings from the dining room into the garden. This grew into an operation of 200 people, bringing the drug to the patients affected by idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. With a startup, you have the possibility of looking at all the dimensions of a company from a much broader perspective. Therefore, Polyphor was attractive for me, but there were other reasons, too.

Such as…?

… the dramatically fantastic science which certainly is one of the fundamentals. Polyphor is a company that has discovered the first new class of antibiotics against Gram-negative bacteria in the last 50 years. This is radical innovation. Antimicrobial resistance is becoming a huge problem. You have patients that get an infection, then are treated with 20 different drugs and they die nevertheless. This is unacceptable. Pneumonia from Pseudomonas aeruginosa today has a mortality rate of 30 to 40 percent. Also, when a woman has metastatic breast cancer and is in her third line of chemotherapy,  she has very few therapeutic options and her prognosis is devastating. We want to save lives and give more time to patients. This is what for me makes our business the most beautiful business in the world. It is heartbreaking to see these patients.

So you meet with patients?

Sure. Lately, I brought a patient to Polyphor: A fantastic woman with colonization of Pseudomonas took part in the earlier trials. She has great courage and a willingness to fight for life that is really moving and inspiring for all of us. She talked about her experience because I believe that everybody should have a touch of feeling of what we are trying to achieve, such as people not directly involved in development, for example working in units such as in accounting who normally only see the invoices for the trial.

Polyphor underwent a transformation from research to R&D focused biopharma company in the last couple of years. How did the organization digest the change?

When you move from one stage to the next stage, you raise the bar because in development, projects are multi-year, complex projects with big expenditure. It really changes the mindset. Personally, I like change. I am not interested in doing administration. And this particular change was necessary. This being said, we still have a big research operation focused on antibiotics and immuno-oncology, that we want to keep to find and build excellent compounds.

Basel seems to have become a hotspot for antibiotics recently.

Antibiotics have been disregarded by many large companies. But it is like in the Pascal law: if there is an empty space, something will fill it. Smaller, entrepreneurial companies are now taking the lead worldwide – and Basel is one of the key spots. Clearly, we have a very strong science base in Basel. If you want to do R&D, Basel is the best place to do it, in my opinion. And, I would not be surprised if large companies will be back….

Polyphor listed on SIX Swiss Exchange in May 2018 and raised 165 million Swiss francs. Why was an IPO the right option for Polyphor?

If you are lucky, you find a biotech with one product that is one step away from the market. We have two products that are one step away from the market: Our antibiotic Murepavadin has entered phase III while we negotiated a program with the FDA to bring our immune-oncology drug Balixafortide to the market with only one pivotal study. That puts us in a unique position. However, these studies required a lof of capital. Thanks to going public, we have the resources to develop our products and, when successful, bring them to the patients who need them. The IPO was a necessary tool given the stage of the company.

Which conditions had to be met for the IPO?

An IPO is an interesting exercise. It’s a bit like undergoing a complete physical examination. The investors don’t know the company, yet we want them to support our ideas, our vision and our team. That means they need to trust us. To gain that trust you have to be completely transparent and explain in every detail what the company is about, what the opportunities and risks are. In the end, the results were fantastic because we’ve been the largest biotech IPO in Switzerland within the last ten years. And, we’ve been one of the top 3 in Europe in the last three years.

How influential was the timing?

Timing is important, but it is not determining. The first quarter of 2018 was very good for IPOs but the second quarter was not stellar. A dozen IPOs were pulled during that period. It may happen that you have a valid IPO but don’t do it because the timing is wrong. However, you never have a non-valid IPO that you do because the timing is right.

Which reactions did you get towards Polyphor’s IPO?

Internally, we are super happy that we can work towards bringing our drugs to the patients. At the same time, we are very conscious of the responsibility and very committed. Externally, our IPO is a demonstration of the capability Switzerland and particularly the Basel area have in pharmaceuticals. The IPO was a moment of visibility, of public recognition. In a way, an IPO shows how investment-intensive this business is. I hope it’s a good sign for the whole industry that we are capable of starting new companies, making them flourish and bringing new therapies to the patients.

Why did you choose the Swiss Exchange?

We already had quite a large shareholder base in Switzerland, so it was natural to go to the Swiss stock market. We were a known entity. Switzerland is a fantastic market, I am happy with the choice. In fact, I wonder why it is not chosen more often. There are available funds, there are investors that are familiar with pharmaceuticals and that are willing to take the risk.

What are the plans for Polyphor for the next couple of years?

Our vision is clear: We want to become a leader in antibiotics and help fighting and reducing the threat that comes from multi drug resistant pathogens. At the same time we want to advance a new class of immune oncology drugs. We are developing third line therapies for metastatic breast cancer. The women affected by this have very few therapeutic options. However, we believe that the potential of the drug can go beyond this patient population, for example in earlier lines of breast cancer and to other combinations and indications. This would bring us to a much more competitive field.

How do you get there?

We have to make sure that we have the organization and the culture that allow us to perform our studies effectively. We want to make sure that the pieces of the organizational machinery are in the right order and that we have all the competences that we need.

What do you do to achieve this?

I recognize talent as one – if not the – key component of success for a company. Consequently, I dedicate a lot of effort and a lot of commitment to do this task. I interview candidates two or three times, I don’t mind. I also have them interviewed by their future colleagues. When I was at Novartis, I had fantastic experiences with the young high potential. Why? Because they have the brains and the capability. It doesn’t matter if they have little experience because the rest of the organization is stuffed with it. It is different in biotech where you absolutely depend on hiring people with relevant experience since no one else has it in the company.

And how about the cultural changes when transitioning from big pharma into a biotech?

Experience, however, is only part of the story. I met a lot of people who have experience – but are not able of making a photocopy and need three people reporting to them in order to be able to achieve anything. They are not good either. That is why I look for a sort of “schizophrenic profile”: In biotech you need people who have experience, capability and vision while at the same time they need to roll up their sleeves, be practical about their choices and do things on their own.

Interview: Annett Altvater and Stephan Emmerth

report Life Sciences

“Basel has all the ingredients required to host a successful company”

11.06.2018

The physician and pharmacologist Nicole Onetto is a member of the Board of Directors at the Basilea Pharmaceutica AG. In the Interview that was featured in Basilea’s annual report she talks about current challenges in oncology.

Great strides are being made in the long-term treatment of oncology patients. As an oncology expert, what do you find to be the most important advancements in the industry?

Nicole Onetto: We see spectacular results in terms of long-term survival in quite a few diseases where, less than ten years ago, there were no new treatments available. And for many forms of cancer, where previously we had only access to traditional therapies such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, we have been able to take advantage of the new molecular understanding of cancer to personalize the treatment for each patient. This has facilitated the development and the utilization of targeted therapies associated with superior efficacy and reduced toxicity compared to traditional treatments. Finally, in the last few years, we have been able to harness the potential of the immune system to develop new therapeutic approaches which stimulate our own immune defenses to control cancer growth.

What do you see as the next major treatment improvements that may be achieved in the short and mid-term?

Definitely the further development of immune therapies for cancer patients seems more and more important. These new modalities will need to find the right place in the management of patients and will have to be used in combination with more traditional therapies. The cost-effectiveness of these innovative technologies will also need to be evaluated. Another very important topic will be minimizing toxicity of treatments and avoiding over-treatment.

How can companies succeed in clinical development?

With a more personalized approach to cancer treatment, new opportunities do exist to develop drugs associated with high efficacy in well-defined patient populations. However, drug development will always require patience, perseverance and scientific rigor. Many challenges still remain in treating cancer patients, despite the important progress that has been made. Among others issues, drug resistance is a significant hurdle and continues to be in the focus of Basilea. For patients with resistant diseases, not so long ago, the only possible approach was to change to a new drug, often a new chemotherapy. Now we have gained more insight into the mechanisms of resistance. In addition, many researchers all over the world are investigating the best ways to circumvent treatment resistance. Other important factors are collaborations between academia and the private sector such as companies like Basilea, to develop new innovative drugs to benefit patients.

How can this be supported?

The use of biomarkers to help choose the most appropriate treatment regimen and to select the patients with the highest probability of response to treatment has and will continue to have a major impact on the development of new cancer agents. Biomarker data are key to the design of development plans of new drugs and to go/no go decisions. These data are now often incorporated in the approval process and subsequent commercialization of new drugs. This approach, based on scientific evidence to select new drugs, is one of the major advances that are currently transforming the research and development process as well as clinical study methodology.

Do you see advantages for Basilea being located in Basel?

Basel has all the ingredients required to host a successful company: a vibrant research community, an international reputation of excellence in the pharma industry, a pool of talented people and a strong and stable economy. Basel is a leading life-science hub with the presence of an excellent university, the headquarters of established large pharmaceutical companies and many start-ups and innovative ventures. There are many similarities between Basel and the few well established biotechnology hubs in Europe and North America. This favorable environment has already helped Basilea build a very strong company and should continue to support its further success. So I am delighted to have been elected by Basilea’s shareholders as a member of the board and look forward to playing an active role in the Basel biotech community.

report Invest in Basel region

"We will not shy away from taking risks"

05.06.2018

In 2016, Roivant Sciences established their global headquarters in Basel. Roivant founder and CEO Vivek Ramaswamy talked to us about his fast growing company, his priorities for the company and about the role that Roivant aims to play in the Basel life sciences ecosystem.

BaselArea.swiss: You built a company from scratch. What are the crucial ingredients?

Vivek Ramaswamy: In biotech you need three main ingredients to build a great company: good drugs, good people, and sufficient capital. Of course, it is difficult to know which drugs will succeed or fail in advance of conducting clinical research so I started Roivant with the vision of having a broad portfolio—a company whose success would be measured by the number and the quality of the medicines that we deliver to market, but at the same time a company that would not be defined by the success or failure of any given drug. It is my belief that the long term success of the company will be driven by the quality of our people and our cultural principles which include a singular focus on value creation and a commitment to innovation throughout all aspects of our business. This is an expensive and risky industry where you have to invest heavily before you know the eventual result and I am very grateful for the backing of our investors. But at the end of the day, the money we’ve raised is not an accomplishment, it is just an ingredient.

Roivant has grown rapidly. How do you maintain an entrepreneurial spirit within the company?

Maintaining an entrepreneurial mindset is core to our model. Our company is based on the principle that smaller tends to be better which is why we did not organize Roivant as a single, centralized, command-and-control operation. Instead we scale our business through the creation of wholly- or majority-owned subsidiary companies, which we call “Vants.” We now have over 600 employees across our family of companies, and it is fair to say that preserving that initial entrepreneurial mindset is one of my main priorities going forward.

How free are the Vants in finding their own version of entrepreneurial spirit?

Think of Roivant as a parent that contributes DNA to each of our Vants. We also carefully select leaders who contribute their own DNA. Each Vant resembles Roivant heavily but also has its own unique genotype. There are common cultural principles, but there are also important distinctive features and we see that heterogeneity as a comparative advantage.

How do you cope with failure?

We are fortunate that relatively early in our history we have experienced both success and failure. We would not be doing our job if we had only a string of successes insomuch as that would indicate we are not taking sufficient risk to benefit patients. We cope with failure in three ways. First, we acknowledge it as a necessary consequence of our broader strategy. Second, we build a diverse portfolio rather than predicate the success of our business on any single drug. Finally, we own our failures openly and use them as an opportunity to learn. When our drug for Alzheimer’s disease intepirdine failed in phase III, we did not obfuscate or sugarcoat the news. But we also did not overreact and we will not shy away in the future from taking risks in similar areas of significant unmet need. Instead we will embrace the risk of failure as we make calculated decisions across all therapeutic areas.

You chose Basel for setting up your global headquarters. Which aspects did you find most convincing about the location?

It starts with the talent. We believe in diversity of talent and we recruit from both within and beyond pharma. Basel is emblematic in that sense because it brings together a very diverse talent pool from multiple countries and cultures, speaking different languages with varied experiences and educational backgrounds. That mixture makes for a warm, welcoming, and innovative environment which mirrors the culture we seek to build internally at Roivant. At the same time, the legacy of successful pharmaceutical products being developed here makes Basel a place where we wanted to plant a seed early in the life of our company. In addition to the large multinational companies for which Basel is best known there is also a strong scene of young and vibrant companies building on that tradition, and we hope to be at the center of that.

How did Roivant accommodate in Basel for the time being – were your expectations met?

Yes, except in one aspect: Basel does not seem to believe in air conditioning! Joking aside, our expectations were in many ways exceeded. I have found the community to be very welcoming, and we immediately felt at home here. We have been able to recruit talent very effectively, and we have engaged in positive dialogue with several companies in the area. We continue to source new asset opportunities in the region, and we are delighted with how this ecosystem has embraced us and allowed us to thrive. The partnerships we have forged in the region are crucial for us, not least with partners like BaselArea.swiss and its BaseLaunch accelerator program.

We are happy to have you. How do you contribute to the accelerator?

Our business model is to accelerate the launch of new companies in our family so it’s only logical that we would be part of BaseLaunch. We can use our expertise to help other companies accelerate their own launches and scale their businesses. We support BaseLaunch in the process of selecting new projects and we offer advice and mentorship. For us, it is a great way to signal our support for the local startup scene and develop our relationships with other companies in Basel. We are happy to be a part of that.

What are the prospects for the headquarters in Basel?

The short answer is we will grow further. All of the Vants will use Basel as a business hub to develop and maintain partnerships within Europe. We started out as a company focusing on shelved drugs. But we are also keen to accelerate drug development in other companies’ pipelines. Basel is a great place to do that with companies in Europe and its vicinity.

Interview: Annett Altvater

report Life Sciences

“IP protection is crucial for business and research”

08.05.2018

The patent law and attorney-at-law firm Vossius & Partner has been an important partner for BaseLaunch since the inception of the healthcare accelerator in 2016. They advise startups and big corporations alike on IP strategy. Philipp Marchand, patent attorney in the Basel office, advocates to take IP protection seriously.

BaselArea.swiss: Vossius & Partner maintains offices in Munich, Düsseldorf, Berlin and Basel. How do you fit in the Swiss and Basel ecosystem?

Philipp Marchand: Our firm was founded in the 1960s, coming to Basel eleven years ago. We have developed extensive and profound in-house knowledge concerning all IP issues and currently represent clients of all sizes from startup companies to big pharma in Switzerland and all over the world. Basel, as one of the most exciting life science locations, is of particular interest to our firm, which has one of the largest life science groups in Europe.

That sounds a bit sophisticated for startups.

Not at all. Our expertise obtained from representing clients of all sizes is a huge advantage for the startup sector. Moreover, instead of considering IP issues in an isolated way, we endeavour to take all possible future developments of our cases into account. This includes considering aspects from other jurisdictions since, even as a startup, you have to be aware of potential worldwide implications right from the start. In addition, we work with our attorneys-at-law to not only protect an invention but also to provide advice on related aspects such as freedom-to-operate.

You are also involved in BaseLaunch. Why is that?

We entered into a partnership with BaseLaunch in order to be closer to the startup community in Basel and Switzerland. We meet with each of the selected companies and review their IP situation free of charge in order to identify potential ways to optimize protection. We are excited to be able to offer our expertise more frequently to startups because we believe that they genuinely benefit from our full service approach. If they wish, later they can also enter into a client relationship and benefit from our experience right from the start. Of course, we then have to charge for our services. However, we offer a very reasonably priced system for startup companies and universities.

Why is it worth it to spend that money?

IP protection is crucial in all technological fields and in more than one aspect: It is the only reliable means to ensure that you can make a profit in the long run in different markets worldwide. For a startup company working in life sciences, or any other technological field, the most important type of IP is without a doubt a patent right. Specifically, only a patent grants you the monopoly to keep third parties from using your invention. However, further IP topics are relevant at an early stage, too. For example, a trademark protecting the company’s name or its products that are put on the market can be invaluable. Without trademark protection a startup may be forced to change its name or the names of their products, which can incur considerable costs.

What if a researcher has no intention to commercialize his or her invention right-away?

You might think keeping your invention a secret is a good idea. But in the meantime another bright mind might have the same idea and file for patent protection. Today all jurisdictions, including the US, follow the “first to file” principle, which means that you may have missed your chance and you could even be sued for infringement by a third party for using what you thought was your own invention. We therefore strongly encourage inventors and their employers to file for IP protection as early as possible.

What do I need to protect an invention?

We like to discuss everything with our clients in person to fully understand the potential product as well as its market and its customers. Afterwards, we draft the patent claims, which means that we define the invention and the technical problem that it solves. We file the application text with a patent office, usually with the European Patent Office (EPO) as part of the European Patent Organization of which Switzerland is also a member. One year after the first filing, we can prepare a subsequent application, which covers more than 150 states worldwide. The whole process until an application is granted can take more than five years.

Is there a difference in the importance of IP protection in the life sciences sector compared to other fields?

The biggest difference is the longer product life cycle for pharmaceutical products and the stricter regulations compared to, say, short-lived computer hardware. Also, due to the long product life cycles and general development costs in this sector, patent protection is the only way to ensure that the owner of the patent right benefits first from the invention. With a particular focus on the pharma sector, one should also mention the need to build-up an IP portfolio which not only protects, for example, a drug but also the process of making that drug, different formulations, dosage and treatment regimens and so on. At the same time, you should consider using additional IP rights such as trademarks. Take Bayer who invented Aspirin. The patent for the active ingredient acetylsalicylic acid has long expired, which means it may be widely produced and sold. However, the trademark still ensures that people specifically ask for Aspirin.

Are there any reasons to advise against filing for patent?

Yes, of course. There are situations where it may make sense to wait with filing a patent application until sufficient data and support has been collected. For example, it may not always be advisable to file a patent for a research platform to protect a screening method for active compounds. This is because patent applications are published 18 months after filing, meaning that everyone has access to the method. In this scenario, it may make sense to wait for the first molecule that emerges from your platform and file for product protection. However, such strategic aspects should always be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

Which misconceptions concerning IP do you sometimes encounter?

Most researchers are aware of IP protection but the execution could be better. One misconception includes the so-called grace period. There is no grace period in European patent law or in most other jurisdictions with the exception of the US, Japan and Canada. After you publicly disclose your own invention by writing or talking about it, you may not be able to obtain patent rights for your invention.

What may researchers reveal to their peer collaborators?

An invention is new if it does not form part of the state of the art, meaning it is not publicly known. Hence every discussion with a colleague or presentation of a poster at a conference prior to filing a patent application can potentially destroy the novelty. You may think that no one will find out. However, when it comes to money, third parties will leave no stone unturned. Of course, we are aware of the conflict between patent applications and the need to publish academic papers or give presentations. If you are unsure what to do: It is always better to come talk to us before a publication, a poster presentation or any other public disclosure, even on short notice.

 

About
Philipp Marchand heads the Basel office of Vossius & Partner. After graduating in biochemistry at the University in Frankfurt am Main and his PhD studies at a CNRS institute in Paris, he started his career as a patent attorney trainee with Vossius & Partner in Munich. After the bar examination, he transferred to Basel at the beginning of 2017. Recently, he started to pursue a doctorate in law at the University of Basel. Vossius & Partner is a leading patent law firm offering a full-service concept with legal competence from patent attorneys in every technological sector and attorneys-at-law qualified to practice not only in Europe and Switzerland, but also in the United States, Japan, Taiwan and Korea. The firm employs 55 patent attorneys and 20 attorneys–at-law in their offices in Munich, Düsseldorf, Berlin and Basel.

report ICT

“A good network is power”

03.04.2018

Melanie Kovacs was frustrated by the IT teaching she got, and developed her own product – Master21. She attributes her success with this not least to her carefully maintained network, which has continued to grow in Basel. Melanie Kovacs and her fellow campaigners use the technology and innovation network “We Shape Tech” to promote diversity by making women working in the technology and innovation field more visible.

Ms Kovacs, you founded Master21 when you were 28. How did that come about?

As a co-initiator of the Aspire network for women startup owners, I’d met a lot of very interesting women. One of them was Valérie Vuillerat, the managing director of Ginetta. She offered me a job, and I took it. At the agency I was the link between clients and developers. I worked closely with the people from the technical area, but I didn’t speak their language. Then I went back to taking courses at the university. But this was dreadfully theoretical, boring front of class teaching, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was sure that anybody can learn programming, but I felt it had to be done differently.

So what is your company doing better?

We do exactly what I was missing at the time. We put people without a technical background in a pleasant atmosphere and use lots of practical exercises to give them sufficient competences and self-confidence in programming. Most of them are like me – they don’t necessarily want to embark on a new career, they want to work with developers on a solid basis. That’s why at Master21 you learn the fundamental terms and concepts and understand how design, front end, back end and databases fit together. Participants learn HTML, CSS, Javascript and Ruby and try out for themselves how object-oriented programming works.

How did the start-up process work out?

I started a pilot project for Master21 while I was still working at Ginetta. The fluid transition was ideal for me. My co-founder is responsible for the technical side and content, I’m responsible the business aspect. I’m very happy that he gave me the push I needed to start. I’m not sure I would have dared to found a company on my own. A few months ago, we hired a new employee. I find it very motivating if every initiative doesn’t depend on me and I can work with a team.

What do you most appreciate about being an entrepreneur?

I can set my own schedule for the day, I’m learning a lot and I work every day with bright, exciting people. I’m also seeing that my services are directly influencing the students. There have already been two cases where people met on the course and subsequently started a project together. It’s more difficult to find developers who like teaching and are good at it.

What happens next with Master21?

I’m currently participating in the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation’s Accelerator Programme, and I’m also working with a coach. Currently I’m not at all interested in a financing round, because I’d like to continue to grow independently of investors. I want the firm to develop, but at my own pace and with long-term prospects.

The company’s headquarters are in Zurich, you live in Basel. What happens where?

I’m in Zurich when I’m working at the Impact Hub and want to meet people. The courses have also been held there so far. In Basel I work on corporate strategy in my home office and write texts. If things get too quiet for me, I go to the “Unternehmen Mitte” establishment and work there, or I meet someone for lunch at the Markthalle. I think it's because there are so many expats in Basel that there’s a great sense of openness there.

How important is your personal network for the success of Master21?

My network is absolutely central. At the start, I emailed every single one of my contacts, told them about my new project and asked for feedback. I maintain my network by LinkedIn and email, and I go and have coffee with people regularly. I also go to events like TEDxZurich, and I’m active in We Shape Tech.

You’re an enthusiastic networker.

Yes, it’s easy for me. For many people networking has such a negative image. I’m not interested in collecting business cards; I want to get to know people. And I’d much rather talk to one person than quickly give my card to a whole lot of people. I really enjoy networking, because I can learn something from everybody. A couple of years ago I was just everywhere, including to promote my business. Now I find it boring if someone’s just presenting their pitch, and I’m better at choosing where I participate. I find networking particularly valuable if you can share your ideas on a joint topic with others in small groups.

You brought the initiative for diversity, the We Shape Tech network, which was previously already active in Zurich and Bern, to Basel. Why does Basel need this network?

Basel still has a lot of potential in the technology and innovation area. One indication of that for us was the way that we were welcomed with open arms. Our board member Elaine Skapetis is a developer at Adobe. The company supported us generously without hesitation with our first two Basel events. The hall at the launch event was filled to bursting, the response was just unbelievable. We offer people working or interested in the technology and innovation field the opportunity to share ideas and views and learn from each other. We follow a specific format here, where one person tells their story, a discussion is initiated, and there’s time for networking. Our goal is to connect people, communicate knowledge and ensure access to other organisations and partners. Knowledge and a good network are power.

What are the advantages of networks primarily aimed at women?

In Basel men are welcome at We Shape Tech as well. To promote diversity, you need both men and women. However, sadly, only a few men have taken advantage of the opportunity to date. The few men at the meeting have an experience which women often have, namely being part of a minority. If you have a group of just women, the atmosphere is more relaxed. I also see this in courses specifically for women at Master21. If women are just with other women, they trust themselves to do more. They ask questions which they wouldn’t if men were present, say more and are more confident than if there were men there.

About Melanie Kovacs
Melanie Kovacs founded Master21, where people interested in courses with practical relevance are introduced to the fundamentals of programming. Previously, she has founded the women’s network Aspire, and organised start-up weekends. She studied business administration at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration and the University of Madrid and completed a CAS in requirements engineering at the University of Applied Sciences, Rappers. Together with Aileen Zumstein and Elaine Skapetis, Melanie Kovacs brought the network We Shape Tech to Basel. The Movement in Diversity initiative offers a platform and community for people who want to make a difference in the hi-tech and innovation area. The organisation focuses simultaneously on communicating knowledge and promoting the exchange of ideas.

report Life Sciences

“I enjoy thinking about seemingly unsolvable problems”

13.03.2018

Andreas Plückthun continues his research where others stop: 40 employees work in his laboratory on protein engineering. Their results form the basis for three biotech companies: Morphosys in Munich, as well as Molecular Partners and G7 Therapeutics (today Heptares Zurich) in Schlieren. At the Antibody Congress 2017 in Basel, Andreas Plückthun told us why he remains true to his research.

Mr. Plückthun, you co-founded three biotech companies in three decades. How did this come about?

There was always this curiosity in the beginning to discover something – but never the wish to found a company. After we produced artificial antibodies and learned how to mimic the immune system, we established the company Morphosys. Then the next question arose: can we do this with other protein molecules and solve new problems? Out of this emerged Designed Ankyrin Repeated Proteins (DARPins) and a second company, Molecular Partners in Schlieren. The next challenge was then to stabilize receptors by means of protein engineering in order to develop better drugs for these points of attack. Based on this research, we founded the third company, G7 Therapeutics.

Who pushed ahead with the spin-offs each time?

For the first company, it was my research colleagues. I was the more sceptical of us three at the time. The other two companies were traditional spin-offs of my doctoral and postdoctoral students.

How are the companies doing today?

Morphosys now has 430 employees and recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. We also received the first FDA approval for an antibody that is now available on the market. This is one of the few companies that is still doing exactly what we once wrote in the business plan, and successfully too. Molecular Partners has 130 employees, several Phase 2 and 3 studies, and, like Morphosys, is listed on the stock exchange. G7 Therapeutics was sold to the British company Heptares, which in turn belongs to the Japanese company Sosei. In short: all companies are doing well. I don’t consider founding a company to be a particular achievement. The achievement is more that the companies are flourishing and bringing drugs to the market.

What changes have you noticed over the decades when it comes to founding a company?

The climate has changed completely. It was totally against the grain in Europe 25 years ago to found a biotech company. That’s why people went to California. At a symposium in America, I was once introduced as a researcher and a founder with the words; “He’s like us.” It was very common there for a long time to be both a researcher and an entrepreneur. That scepticism has since disappeared here, and founding a company is now judged positively. A venture capital scene has also developed since then. To be fair, I have to say that it helps investors if you’ve already successfully founded a company. The first deal is always the hardest.

You seem to be quite successful when it comes to founding companies. Did it ever tempt you to move to one of your companies?

It was never a question for me to leave the university. It’s an incredible privilege to be paid by the state to do crazy things. I always wanted to think about the next challenge at the university. Not having to account for quarterly profits is the only way forward in this context. In a company that conducts research with money from investors, you simply cannot undertake the type of risky and long-term projects that interest me. But I can say that thanks to the companies that are based on my research, I have repaid my dividends and created many jobs.

So you’ll continue to devote yourself to basic research. Can this be steered towards commercialization at all?

We’ve always wanted to solve a problem that seemed important enough to us. At some point in the research the question arises of how to use the results, what you can make of them. If we hadn’t commercialized the results, the problems would have simply stopped at an interesting point. We would have stopped halfway along. This is comparable to a coming up with blueprint for a computer and then not building it. By founding the companies, we could ensure that the projects would continue.

Is there any collaboration with industry within the scope of your research?

Direct collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and our laboratory has never worked properly. Expectations and time horizons are very different. We develop new ideas and concepts that are often not exactly in keeping with large-scale pharmaceutical research. I don’t think anyone will feel offended when I say that the pharmaceutical industry is very conservative. We do have many contacts but hardly any collaboration. That being said, our spin-offs work very well with the pharmaceutical industry.

Which topics would you like to focus on next?

We are researching artificial viruses that cannot reproduce. The viruses should produce proteins directly in the body that are needed as therapeutic agents. This is so far away from practical implementation that such a project is only possible at a university. But I am absolutely convinced that it would have enormous significance if it worked. I couldn’t sit still if we didn’t at least try. We are once again trying to solve a problem in my laboratory that most people in the field would consider impossible to solve. That’s what makes me get up in the morning. I want to show how it works.

Learn more about Andreas Plückthun between basic research and biotech entrepreneurship at our event on 24 April 2018.

About
Andreas Plückthun (*1956) is a scientist whose research is focused on the field of protein engineering. He is the director of the department of biochemistry at the University of Zurich. Andreas Plückthun was appointed to the faculty of the University of Zurich as a Full Professor of biochemistry in 1993. Plückthun was group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry , Germany (1985-1993). He was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in 1992, and named a member of the German National Academy of Science (Leopoldina) in 2003. He is cofounder of the biotechnology companies Morphosys (Martinsried, Germany), Molecular Partners AG (Zürich-Schlieren, Switzerland) and G7 Therapeutics (Zürich-Schlieren, Switzerland).

Interview: Annett Altvater and Stephan Emmerth, BaselArea.swiss

report Supporting Entrepreneurs

“As an entrepreneur, you have to own up to your decisions”

06.02.2018

Five years ago, Alisée de Tonnac quit her job at L’Oréal and travelled the world to set up the first edition of the startup competition Seedstars World. Five years later, Seedstars is present in more than 85 cities worldwide, runs its own co-working and educational centers and plans to have 15 Seedspaces for co-working and co-living by the end of 2018. BaselArea.swiss sat down with Alisée de Tonnac after her keynote at the Swiss Innovation Forum that took place in Basel last November.

BaselArea.swiss: What was the most compelling argument for you to leave your career at an international corporation and become an entrepreneur?

Alisée de Tonnac: I remember coming across this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I thought: Gosh, I do the opposite. I was complacent (I wonder if that is not the definition of unhappy), my corporate and personal life at that time was not engaging me in the right fashion, or at least I did not know how to engage with it in the right fashion. I did not foresee that entrepreneurship and building something of my own was the necessary change, but it definitely became part of who I am today.

What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

First of all, I think there are different types of entrepreneurs. One builds everything from scratch and does not sleep until his idea transforms into reality. Others, like myself, follow; they support and scale the idea. So, potentially, entrepreneurship is for everyone, depending on your personality traits and of course you would need to be comfortable with uncertainty, taking risks, and self-management. I love about my lifestyle that I decide how my day roles out. It is spectacular. To be honest, one of the main ingredients to my professional and personal success is that I work with an unbelievable team. My co-founders make the difference. I do not know if I would have been able to launch a company on my own. The team is crucial – keep in mind that you spend every day with them.

What do you think is important in a team of co-founders?

My co-founders and I are very complementary. I am an operational person, definitely not a strategist. A strategist looks five years ahead, sees all the obstacles and still heads forward. More importantly though, we made sure that our values are aligned. We asked ourselves whether we would stick together during the highs and lows. Shared values have proven to be our biggest strength and one of the reasons why we are still sustaining, five years later. We want to build good things with good people. We believe that we can build a profitable business and be good, but more importantly we have an underlying foundation of values that keeps us together no matter what – at least until now...

Before you co-founded Seedstars, you worked with L’Oreal. How do you benefit from your corporate experience?

I learned so much in terms of business, culture, teamwork and social pressure. I also know what I do not want to do, which is just as important. It also taught me a lot on how I would want to build the culture within our new structure. The culture is so fundamental in managing and scaling the business. I think you learn while working at corporations what differentiates them and how a uniquely defined and communicated culture makes the difference.

What was the biggest surprise for you when becoming an entrepreneur?

The ownership of your day and actions. Because you really have to own up to your decisions. You cannot bullshit and you cannot hide behind the brand or the cc- emails. It was a bit terrifying initially to be the only person that can start the whole machine – and very gratifying at the same time.

You work with entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries. Which challenges are these entrepreneurs tackling?

In healthcare, we see many digital platforms, like one that allows you to recognize if a medicine is fake or not – which is an issue in Nigeria and other emerging markets. There are telemedicine platforms to connect rural areas with specialists and educational apps for pregnant women, as childbirth is still a huge cause of death in those regions.

Seedstars launched its own trainings. Why was that necessary?

There is talent everywhere, but not every talented person gets the same access to education, network opportunities and infrastructure. With our training, we tap talent that is not yet exposed to such opportunities.

What did you learn from your experience in Lagos?

We are in markets that represent a big part of the world. Exposing yourself to different consumer habits, radical transformations and growing cities helps to understand the world of tomorrow. We are living in a global economy today, the world does not end at the borders of a nation. People who ignore that fact are limiting themselves professionally and personally. Take Lagos, for example: there are 20 million people, the streets are buzzing, everyone is young and you witness a dynamic “everything is possible”- spirit. It is so contrary to coming back to Geneva where we have meters of space between one person and the next. After two weeks, I am complaining when the bus is five minutes late. We are very comfortable and very fortunate – which can also be seen as a problem for innovation. Being comfortable can be a goal, but it is in many ways the opposite of being innovative.

Your company is registered in Geneva. How important is the Swiss headquarters?

First of all, we are very proud of the “Swiss made” brand, which has supported us in successfully scaling the business around the world. The values that the flag carries – like quality, professionalism and neutrality – we aim to represent on the ground. As all partners grew up in Switzerland, we also keep close ties with our private and public network. Switzerland is an amazing hub with strong public institutions like the UN in Geneva or the WEF in Davos that play an important role in the markets where we are present with Seedstars. Many multinational companies residing here are also very interested in these emerging markets, not least in terms of talent acquisition. Moreover, they provide potential solutions. It is crucial to be present in Switzerland as well as in the countries where we have our competitions. Interestingly, we slowly start to see reverse innovation: Safaricom, the biggest mobile service provider in Kenya launched the payment solution M-Pesa. They are now testing their solution in Romania and Albania. I am certain that the usual way of doing business by conducting a product in the north and selling it in the south will blur out eventually.


About Alisée de Tonnac
Alisée graduated from HEC Lausanne and obtained her Masters in International Management at Bocconi University. The French citizen lived in Singapore, Silicon Valley, Switzerland, Italy and in Lagos, Nigeria. She was a product manager for luxury brands at L’Oreal Group and worked at Voyage Privé, a leading European startup. After traveling around the world for a year to set up the first edition of the Seedstars World startup competition back in 2013, Alisée is now managing the company. She has accumulated deep knowledge of trends in technology, social media & consumer behavior in emerging markets. Alisée is a board member of the School of Management of Fribourg and a member of the Swiss National Innovation Council. She was nominated Social Entrepreneur Forbes 30 under 30 in 2017 and was Innovation Fellow of Wired UK in 2015.

About Seedstars
Seedstars is a Switzerland based group with the mission to impact people’s lives in emerging markets through technology and entrepreneurship. Seedstars connects stakeholders, builds companies from scratch with public and private partners, and invests in high growth startups within these ecosystems. Through different activities that range from startup scouting to company building and acceleration programs, the team has built the most powerful network of entrepreneurs, investors, incubators, corporations and government officials from more than 65 fast growing economies around the globe. Seedstars started running its operations in 2013, launching its startup competition model on 20 emerging markets. By 2018, the competition is present in more than 85 cities, and the Seedstars Group will be launching 15 strategic hubs (Seedspaces, co-working activities, acceleration programs and academy centres) around the world. The business model relies on recurring partnership deals with both local and international players seeking to be involved in impact investment in the fields of technology and innovation. Part of the revenue channels also includes a hybrid company building model through which Seedstars launches new companies in new markets, with tested business models adapted to the local environment. So far, Seedstars has invested in 15 startups. Another 10 to 15 investments are foreseen for the first semester of 2018.

report Supporting Entrepreneurs

"We're giving Basel Impact Hub fever"

09.01.2018

Impact Hubs are a real success story. Founded in 2005 in London, there are now over 100 Impact Hubs around the world with more than 15,000 members. Following the lead from Bern, Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne, Basel will be the next Impact Hub in Switzerland. The force behind the movement is Hubbasel, an association founded by entrepreneur André Moeri, sustainability expert Connie Low and lawyer Hanna Byland. We wanted to know why an Impact Hub is more than just a coworking space and how entrepreneurs as well as investors and companies benefit from them, so we talked with Hanna Byland to shed some light for us.

Ms Byland, you have been volunteering at Hubbasel since early 2017. How did that come about?

Hanna Byland: I was invited to the opening of the Impact Hub in Bern and was excited by the concept. So I asked around a bit about whether efforts were being made in Basel to create one and that is how I came into contact with Connie Low and André Moeri. We share the same values, from respectful collaboration and a positive vision of the future to a readiness to get actively involved in the cause. At the same time, each of us brings a different skill set to the table. Connie is well established in the sustainability arena and is a constantly positive driving force. André looks after the company components and has a knack for seeing the potential in people and ideas. I'm the more practical one, keeping an eye on all of the legal and feasibility aspects – it's an ideal combination. We founded Hubbasel at the start of 2017 and at this point there are eight of us in total. All of us have worked tirelessly on making the plans a reality and already everyone's contributions have gotten us a nomination in the global network for the status of "Impact Hub Candidate".

When will the Basel Impact Hub open?

We would like to open in the second half of 2018. At the moment we are set up at Andreas Erbe's Launchlab. It's an ideal location. Really inspiring. But we're still looking for our own space with 1,000 to 2,000 square metres. The space should be laid out so that companies can flexibly grow or shrink depending on the circumstances.

How is an Impact Hub different from a coworking space?

An Impact Hub always consists of three components: Inspire - Connect - Enable. Companies, investors and creative people come together in an Impact Hub to find inspiration and support for their plans. We don't just want to create a workspace, but a networking space. Every Impact Hub is connected to a location, but it also offers the opportunity to access other Impact Hubs all over the world to find like-minded people and in that way generate local ideas with global impact. The people who find each other here want to make the world just that little bit better through their work, their company or their innovations. They are lofty goals, but we have to start somewhere, right?

There are already Impact Hubs in Zurich, Bern, Geneva and Lausanne. Why does Basel need another one?

Geneva is focused on exchange with international organisations. Bern is government-oriented. Zurich is closer to the business world. I'm of the opinion that Basel is a perfect breeding ground for an Impact Hub. We've got a good number of multinational corporations and at the same time the population here has a heightened sense of responsibility. That combination is unique.

How does this sense of responsibility manifest itself in Basel?

In loads of smaller initiatives and in the activities of its many foundations, but also in locations like the Markthalle or the Gundeldingerfeld area. Basel places a lot of value on the sustainable development of the city and its spaces. Food production, nutrition and food waste as well as social justice in terms of equality of opportunity in education and treatment are all important topics for the Basel community. There are a lot of players and projects that are pushing in the same direction. Still, many of these initiatives are single projects. We believe that we can bundle these forces more effectively, even on a global level, through the Impact Hub network.

Who is the Basel Impact Hub for?

We want to get companies in here that are interested in sustainability, give them a place they can call home, and show them that they aren't alone. For companies, the Impact Hub is also a source of new talent. And for investors there is no comparable platform. You have to figure that for investors it's hard work to find good companies in which they want to invest. We can help them with that. Universities are also interested in a place of collaboration. They have the knowledge and the educated people, and then through us they can access real-life applications.

What has the feedback been so far?

It has been very positive. Our communications channels including newsletters, meet-ups and Facebook are all very actively used. Once a month we organise events to find out how our community is developing. There are typically between 40 and 60 people at the events. The exchange is lively and the feedback is really inspiring. In future we would like to offer even more, from workshops, event series and hack-a-thons to accelerators, incubators and fellowships. With the last three ideas, it is really important to us to work with local players. We were able to get the Christoph Merian Foundation, the Gebert Rüf Foundation and the Fondation Botnar to provide us with some initial support. We were incredibly excited about that, of course.

So what is the focus of your events?

We always have entrepreneurs as guests who we then put together with investors and coaches. Typically, we select a certain topic or area that is particularly difficult and focus on that. We find that many of them enjoy offering and applying their skills and support. At this point, we just need a place where we can host those kinds of exchanges and where these ideas can become projects and business ideas. The next public event where we will be working with students from the University of Applied Sciences of North West Switzerland (FHNW) will take place on 13 February 2017.

About Hanna Byland
Hanna Byland is a legal assistant at the law and notary offices of Neidhardt/Vollenweider/Jost/Stoll/Gysin/Tschopp in Basel. She studied law at the Universities of Lucerne and Neuchâtel. Hanna Byland was a member of the Young Liberals in Aargau and has been a volunteer at Hubbasel since the start of 2017.

Interview: Annett Altvater

report Life Sciences

"You should always have something crazy cooking on the back burner"

03.10.2017

When Jennifer Doudna gave her keynote at Basel Life in September, the auditorium in the Congress Center was packed. Susan Gasser, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Basel introduced Doudna as groundbreaking and extremely innovative. The Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley was on top of Gassers wish list for the Basel Life. The leading figure of what is known as the CRISPR revolution among scientists sat down with BaselArea.swiss during her stay in Basel to talk about her lab, flexible career paths and what makes a great researcher.

In your keynote you stated that you always did a lot of basic research. What changed for you and your lab after you published the CRISPR findings?

We are still doing deep dives into CRISPR technology. A lot of our work is about discovering new systems and looking at RNA targeting and integration. These things do not necessarily have to do with gene editing, but are our primal motivation. But there were quite a few changes. We started doing a lot more applied work. That led to all sorts of interesting collaborations with people that I would probably never had the chance to interact with in the past. It has been a great opportunity to expand both deeper and broader.

How do you manage to direct your students and postdocs in your growing lab?

I hire really good people that can focus on both innovative initiatives mixed with projects where a clearer outcome can be forecasted. I give them some guidance and then I cut them loose. We also build teams in the lab which works really effectively. I do not always get it right, but when I do, amazing science happens.

You live in an area where entrepreneurship seems to be some kind of lifestyle. What is your view on the environment in Europe for both doing research and creating companies compared to the benchmark California?

There are some interesting – probably cultural – differences in the way people approach science. At Berkeley, a lot of our students are planning to go into academia. And a lot of students in California not only want to go into industry, but want to start their own company or join a startup. From talking to my Swiss colleagues, it sounds like many students in Switzerland are uncomfortable with that. They want to go to a large company and get a nice salary. Nothing wrong with that. Still, I think that it is good to encourage students to take a risk and to try something that is outside of their comfort zone.

How does that work out in Berkeley?

Two of my students started companies with me directly based on their work in the lab. One company creates new technologies that will be useful therapeutically or in agriculture. In the other case, we are figuring out how to deliver gene editing to the brain. Both students became CEOs and were able to do all the steps it takes to build their company, deal with the legal stuff and funding, conceptualize the business plan and the science. They had to hire people, build a team, and make deals. I always tell those students, I could never do their job.

How do you motivate students to take that step anyway?

I think one of the reasons that we have a lot of entrepreneurship in the bay area is because Silicon Valley is around the corner. That kind of mindset permeates everything. My kid sees young entrepreneurs who are not that much older than a teenager building the next robotics and AI companies. Granted, there is lots of failure for every single success. But teenagers see a successful person and feel motivated to give it a shot.

How can a culture like that be created?

You cannot replicate Silicon Valley culture. But I think you can create a culture that values risk taking and that validates people who do things that are not traditional. If you try something and it does not work out you should not be penalized. Instead, you should be able to go back and get the job at the big corporation. If we encourage our students to see all those options from academia to corporation and startup, they realize that they do not necessarily have to commit themselves to one path for their entire career.

Were you ever tempted to switch sides?

I toyed with it. Back in 2009, I left my job at Berkeley and joined Genentech as a Vice President of basic research. I only lasted a couple of months.

Why was that?

From the outside, it seemed like an exciting way to take my research in a much more applied direction. When I was inside I realized I was not playing to my own strengths. Instead, I realized what I am good at doing and what I really like. It all boiled down to creative, untethered science. I love working with young people and I like creating an environment where they can do interesting work. Not that I could not have done that with Genentech, but it was very different. The process was super painful, but also valuable. I returned to Berkeley and decided to go with the reason why I am in academia: crazy, creative projects that might not be clinically relevant but are interesting science. That was when I decided to expand the work on CRISPR. Had I not made the foray to Genentech and then back to Berkeley, I might not have done any of the CRISPR work.

One topic you are dealing with is the unsolved patent struggle about CRISPR Cas9. Does this effect your work?

I try to look at it very pragmatically. Because ultimately I am an educator. You could say this is my own education. I have learned a huge amount about the patent and legal process, some of it unpleasant. Someday I will write a book about that.

Another jury might be more distinctive on your achievements: You are a hot candidate for the Nobel Prize. How does that make you feel?

I try not to think about it too much. Yet, I feel very humbled. It makes me take a step back and ask myself: What is the purpose of prizes like that? I think they highlight science, the advances that are made and how these might influence people’s lives positively. I did not chose this job to win prizes, but because I really love science.

Is that enthusiasm for science what makes a great researcher – or is there a magic formula?

I think it is a combination of willingness to try new things coupled with a willingness to listen to people. I have seen these extremes both in myself and in my lab. I have real maverick students with creative ideas. But they can never follow a protocol because they are sure they will do better. This often does not lead to good science. The flip is true as well: If you always just follow protocols and never take a step out of the procedures you also do not create the most interesting science. We usually set up one line of experiments that are following a path and where we will surely get some data that are of interest for us. The second project is something that is of interest to the student. This mixture often leads to the best science.Let’s face it: You do not get rich in academic science. The joy in science is the freedom of making discoveries, of finding things out. I tell students: ‘If you stay in academic science, play with that.’ You should always have something a bit crazy cooking on the back burner. That is what makes it fun.

Interview: Alethia de León and Annett Altvater, BaselArea.swiss

report Precision Medicine

"In Switzerland, we often sell promising technologies too early"

05.09.2017

Ulf Claesson is a "serial entrepreneur". During the past 25 years, he has set up companies that have gone on to become firmly established in the market. In 2012, he joined Clinerion as CEO and shareholder. Since then, the company has positioned itself in the medical data field and recently entered into a partnership with British company Cisiv. Clinerion's software helps recruit patients for clinical trials run by major pharmaceutical companies – in real time. But the competition never sleeps. A growing number of competitors is now appearing, especially in the USA where there is no shortage of risk capital. In this interview for the Innovation Report, Claesson explains how the Basel-based healthtech company plans to maintain its leadership position.

Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer

Mr Claesson, what was behind your decision to get on board with Clinerion?

Ulf Claesson: Clinerion was originally an IT platform with a complicated name. Its founders hit upon the idea of building a large data hub for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. That was quite an ambitious idea. I reckon that the WHO or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could possibly manage it. But a small company in Basel? As an IT person, I quickly saw how good the core technology was.  What wasn't clear, however, was the problem that the technology was going to solve. So we started working on that and felt our way slowly but surely towards the patient recruitment use case. Today, we are the only company in the world able to identify in real time from millions of patient data records those patients who are suitable for a specific clinical trial.

So you have aligned the company with a particular niche?

Yes, absolutely. When you are building a company, you must concentrate on solving a genuine problem. Our technology gives the customer clear benefits. Finding patients usually takes months, sometimes years. We cut this to weeks, or less. We ensure that a pharma company, hospital or contract research organisation already before the start of a clinical trial knows exactly where candidate patients are located and exactly how many there are. Depending on the goal, the study protocol can then be optimised as required. Because we avoid guesswork and identify genuine patients who meet the study criteria in this very moment, the study design is robust and risk is minimised. Not only that, but a study sponsor knows exactly where and how many of his "sites" he must place. Real-time information is particularly valuable for this. As soon as I activate a study protocol, the doctors involved are notified and can call their patients in.

Is it easy to convince hospitals to collaborate with Clinerion?

We were rather naive about this at first. From an IT perspective, it makes sense to do everything in the cloud. That is exactly what we tried to do, but most people were negative about it. We also found that attitudes to data protection, as well as the regulations themselves, vary considerably from one country to the next. These factors make a cloud solution virtually impossible to implement. Today, we are installing a hardware appliance within a hospital's IT infrastructure. The data therefore remains exactly where it is collected and it is as secure as all other patient data. We can also only access consolidated and aggregated meta information, which earns us the trust of decision-makers and the people using the system.

What exactly motivates hospitals to disclose their data?

We all basically share the same objective of providing relevant patients with drugs as soon as possible. We play a role in achieving this. The university hospitals are carrying out research to some extent for their own interests. We help them to carry out their internal studies more quickly. The pharmaceutical companies remunerate the hospitals for each patient who participates in a study. The doctors feel that participating in interesting studies is important. In our experience, the number of studies that hospitals are offered increases significantly as soon as they start working with us.

How many patients do you currently have access to?

We have access to 35 million patients via the hospitals. And we certainly need that many. The numbers can start dwindling rapidly depending on the symptoms you are searching for.

You operate mainly in emerging markets such as Brazil and Turkey.  Why is that?

With the exception of the UK, Europe is more cautious about taking part in clinical trials. By 2020, Turkey expects to have increased the EUR 50 million turn-over in clinical trials in 2014 to EUR 1.5 billion. In Brazil, they are even changing the law to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies to carry out more studies in the future. In clinical trials, it is important for all participating patients to receive the same standard of care. Participants in trials might therefore receive better care than usual. This applies to some countries in Eastern Europe, for example. For some patients, this can be an incentive.

Does your data acquisition prioritise emerging markets?

No, not exclusively. We are also well positioned in a number of European countries. But we can certainly do better. We would also like to expand our presence in India and Taiwan, for example. Great Britain is a key focus for us and our partnership with Cisiv will help here. We recently entered into a partnership with this UK company. Cisiv’s platform complements our screening programme perfectly.

It sounds like a data contest. How close is your main competition?

There are three competitors. But we are the only ones able to provide real-time results. Our competition in the USA, however, has access to much more capital. At the last investment round, one of our competitors raised 32 million dollars.

Do you find it difficult to compete with that?

It is certainly difficult for an ICT start-up in Switzerland to obtain those kinds of amounts. We are not completely dependent on external investment, however. We have a very loyal shareholder base and have sufficient funding, even though we are still a long way from being profitable.

Could a sale be on the cards?

Our vision is to provide patients with medicines. If we see that we can achieve this goal more quickly, we would be willing to consider it. But selling is not currently under consideration. I have already founded a number of companies. Some were sold too early, even though we could still have helped them progress through one or more growth phases. I am convinced that Clinerion will succeed in that regard.

Do you consider the lack of growth financing to be a problem for the Swiss start-up scene?

Most certainly. Good technologies tend to be sold off too early because their owners cannot find the money they need for the next major milestone, typically for the global expansion phase.  

What do you suggest?

Imitating Silicon Valley will get us nowhere. Also because costs there are unacceptably high at the moment. We really need to focus on our strengths. Just to give you one example: twice as many startups are established at ETH Zurich each year than at UC Berkeley. When universities foster a supportive environment, a start-up community develops all on its own. The students I meet at ETH are ambitious and full of energy. I also note, however, that many Swiss students prefer the security of working in a large corporation. We need a greater willingness to accept risk. We need to work on it.

How do you see innovation hub Basel?

We have good access to the sector here, and we can also recruit staff from neighbouring Germany. The labour market is therefore less competitive than in Zurich for example. We feel right at home here in Basel.

Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer and Annett Altvater

About Ulf Claesson
Ulf Claesson studied production technology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg and also gained a management degree at the University of St. Gallen. He worked for IBM and Hewlett-Packard, established spin-offs for various companies, and founded his own start-ups. In his lecture on "Technology Entrepreneurship" he passes on his experience as a "serial entrepreneur" to students at ETH. He is a member of the board of directors of various companies, the Foundation Board Director of the AO Foundation, and has been the CEO of Clinerion since 2012.

report BaselArea.swiss

"I want to turn innovative research into new drugs"

04.07.2017

Each year some 250,000 patients develop a type of cancer because of faulty communication between cells. This malfunction occurs in what is known as the NOTCH signal path. There are currently no effective treatments – but this is set to change. Cellestia Biotech AG is developing an innovative drug against this type of cancer by using a novel active ingredient that selectively attacks the malfunctioning cell communication. The drug could be used to treat leukaemia, lymphomas and solid tumours such as breast cancer.

In 2014 Professor Freddy Radtke and Dr Rajwinder Lehal, who had dealt with this subject in his dissertation, founded the company Cellestia Biotech AG. In 2015, an experienced team of pharmacology and oncology development specialists led by Michael Bauer came on board, investing in Cellestia as co-founders. Bauer and his team had previously spent several years examining various projects in an effort to help shape the development of such a start-up company. We spoke with him about the risks and implications of founding a company.

Interview: Stephan Emmerth

Mr Bauer, how long did you have to look before you found a project you wanted to invest?

Michael Bauer: Over the course of many years and alongside my regular jobs, I and my colleagues examined, evaluated and rejected a number of projects – sometimes more intensively, sometimes less. Some of the projects were great, some being unbelievably innovative. However, something always led us not to pursue a project in the end.

The search did not just cost you a lot of time, but also a lot of money as you have to conduct due diligence every time.

We of course had to put effort into the search. You could say that we identified, examined and evaluated projects acting similar to a small venture fund. Thanks to the make-up of our team, we were able to undertake many of the tasks ourselves, at times bringing in experts. There were many instances when specialists from our network assisted us. There was a considerable amount of good will. To some extent we footed the bill ourselves.

Why did this not work out before Cellestia?

A number of conditions have to be met. The basis is of course excellent, innovative research results protected by patents. Also important are ownership rights to the inventions and reasonable licencing terms. Finally, there has to be agreement on the expectations of the people involved in the project. We have experienced pretty much everything. Many times it emerged over the course of the investigation that, for example, the research data was not quite so convincing as had initially been presented. Or the expectations with respect to the licencing conditions were too far apart. In one project, they wanted to sell us patents that had expired. It often happens that the scientists have unrealistic ideas about the value of their project. One retired professor who had tried in vain for many years to finance his company expected us to try for five per cent of the shares. This is of course not the basis for a partnership.

Juggling research and entrepreneurship is a big challenge, isn’t it?

It is necessary to develop an understanding of the relations and contributions of the various partners involved in such a project, each of who have very different personal risks. On the one hand, there is some 20 years of basic research behind Cellestia, 11 of which were at the EPFL. Rajwinder Lehal has been working concretely on this project for the past nine years, initially as part of his dissertation, then as a post-doc and since 2014 as Chief Scientific Officer. We respect this history from the management team and are happy to have access to the resulting knowledge. At the same time, the inventor’s side has to have regard for the entire expenditure: some five million of public funds were invested over the years at the EPFL. However, it could take hundreds of millions until a product comes onto the market. Moreover, the path from the first successful experiment in lab animals until a drug is approved for human use is long. Altogether, the cost of research could be marginal in comparison to the development and marketing, amounting to only a few per cent. And the development costs are paid for by the investors, who need the investment to pay off. All of these factors have to be considered and respected in a partnership. This worked with our team.

You have many years of industrial experience. What attracted you to the entrepreneurship?

The challenge of turning ground breaking inventions into products attracted me. I consider myself a product developer and had wanted to start a company even as a student. Looking back, I have to say that I am lucky to have gained nearly 20 years of professional experience in product development as it is important to be able to understand and appreciate just how complex the challenges are in product development in life sciences and pharma. This wealth of experience also helps you understand where your own knowledge ends and when experts have to be brought on board to be able to successfully advance a project or a company.

What was the incubation from first contact until you joined as co-founder at Cellestia like?

The current Chief Scientific Officer, Rajwinder Lehal, and I had been in regular contact with each other for a number of years. At that time, however, the project was not advanced enough to establish a company. Initially, Professor Radtke, Rajwinder Lehal and Maximilien Murone founded Cellestia in 2014. We met a few times in summer 2015 with the Lausanne research and founder team at i-net, the predecessor of BaselArea.swiss. Things moved quickly from there. In just a few meetings, we were able to evaluate the project and develop a good personal understanding, which for me and my partners was very important if we were to invest in Cellestia. We could agree on matters quickly, more or less by handshake. Then came the necessary contracts and in November we were already listed in the commercial register. Our lawyer and co-founder Ralf Rosenow saw to the formalities. We decided to move the headquarters from Lausanne to Basel but to leave the research activities in Lausanne, resulting in a sort of transcantonal partnership.

Why move the headquarters to Basel?

For us, the most important argument in favour of Basel was access to talent and resources for product development, resulting from the proximity to leading pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis, Roche, Actelion and many others. Such access to experienced development specialists is more difficult in Lausanne. In addition, our co-founder Roger Meier and other colleagues already have an active investor network in Basel with an affinity to the sector and Basel itself. We did not have such access in Zurich or Geneva at the beginning. I personally also like the quality of work and life in Basel. The city is of a manageable size yet international, with diverse cultural offerings. Furthermore, the Basel airport has excellent connections – you are in the middle of Europe and in just one to two hours you’re practically anywhere Europe, be it London, Berlin or Barcelona. Lausanne, on the other hand, has in its favour the outstanding academic environment with the EPFL and the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research. Here, too, there is an excellent environment for start-ups, but in our opinion more toward engineering and technical disciplines or medicine technology. Many companies are founded each year at the EPFL and the innovation potential is enormous, but Cellestia is the first company founded at the EPFL that seeks to bring a drug to clinical development. We are happy to be able to combine the positive elements of both regions via what is now an established approach with two locations.

Which pre-conditions were decisive enough that you ended up collaborating and founding the company?

Actually, everything was right from the very beginning. First of all, the personal atmosphere between the people involved has to be right. This was also the basis in coming to a fair agreement for all co-founders with respect to understanding the evaluation and allocating the respective shares in the company at the time it was founded. On the other hand, it was of course crucial that the substantive examination of the project – as concerns both the scientific basis and the quality of the data – and the examination of the patent as well as license conditions of the EPFL were positive. Also important to us was that the risk profile is manageable, i.e. there is a good balance between innovation and reference to the research already carried out.

How will Cellestia develop further operationally?

Cellestia already has a long history, starting with the research activities at the EPFL. When the management team was expanded in 2015, other co-founders joined at the same time that I did: Dirk Weber as Chief Medical Officer, as well as the already mentioned co-founders Ralf Rosenow and Roger Meier. Cellestia now has six employees. Then there are the numerous service and consulting mandates, which complement our internal resources as needed. If you take into consideration external services, I reckon there are now well over 100 people involved in Cellestia. We expect that we will continue to grow in the direction of clinical development as our first project progresses and further expand the team. Moreover, we would like to develop additional products in our pipeline as soon as possible. This will definitely require additional financial resources. The Board of Directors will also develop further, expanding and adapting with each financing round in order to properly represent new investors. Research work is increasingly being carried out by external services providers, and at the same time continuing in the laboratory of Professor Freddy Radtke at the EPFL. We are currently setting up new framework agreements with the EPFL concerning the further use of their infrastructure. The flexibility there is very helpful for us.

What are the next milestones?

A key milestone is the treatment of the first cancer patients. We hope to be able to treat the first patients in October.

How are the clinical studies organised?

The course of a clinical trial for new drugs is strictly regulated. In the Phase I study, the compatibility of the active ingredient is first examined. This is when we treat patients who are suffering from a form of cancer in which NOTCH most likely plays a role. In the following Phase II study, the efficacy of our drug is researched in different types of cancer. This is when we select patients in whom activation of the NOTCH signal path is detected with a Cellestia diagnostic method. The therapeutic benefit for these patients is therefore very likely.

Have there been any surprises so far?

No, not really, because we have considered everything. Or yes, but pleasant surprises: due to the considerable amount of preparatory work, we were already quite certain with respect to the effect mechanism. It has now finally been possible to detect the precise binding mechanism of the drug, which confirmed all former studies. This is also the basis for significantly expanding the programme. We can now build a new platform on whose basis we can generate new drugs for new indications. In addition, it was not that easy to manufacture the drug in large quantities and in a high quality. Innovative steps were needed, which ultimately leads to a patent.

What do you have in mind for the next five years?

We are very optimistic about Cellestia’s prospects for success and are planning the next couple of years in detail. We of course also have a plan for the overall development over the next five years, but as experience shows, such plans always change with the results obtained. This is also the fascination and challenge in medication development – it does not allow you to plan everything in detail, and you have to respond flexibly to new results. This also applies to possible setbacks, of course. It is important to have sufficient reserves to deal with these and resolve them. Thanks to the successful financing rounds that we could close in January 2017, we are in a position to begin with Phase I while at the same time pursue further financing.

Who has invested in Cellestia so far?

The first investors after the deposit of the initial capital were predominantly many of our advisors, i.e. experts who are familiar with the sector as well as private people involved in life sciences and the pharma sector as investors. Around one-third of the shareholders are experts from the pharma and life sciences setting. Over the course of the Series A, B and C financing rounds, larger investments from family offices also came. The first institutional investor, the PPF Group, invested after its own, extensive due diligence that was conducted by experts from Sotio. So far, we’ve been able to mobilise a total of CHF 8 million to drive product development at Cellestia. In preparation of the next financing round, we are in talks with private investors, venture funds and pharmaceutical companies. We are confident that we will be able to win good partners for Cellestia’s next phase. The right combination of partnerships and financing is important. We need strong partners on board to give patients access to our medications quickly.


About
Michael Bauer (born 1966) has been CEO at Cellestia since November 2015. He studied chemistry at the University of Hamburg and completed his doctoral in biotechology from 1994 to 1997 at the Hamburg-Harburg University of Technology. After working in metabolic research at Zeneca in England, he moved to Syngenta in Basel in 2001 where he worked as Global Regulatory Affairs Manager in project and portfolio management. From 2007 to 2009 he was a project leader at Arpida, a biotech firm in the field of antibiotics development. From 2009 to 2012 he was a Global Program Manager at Novartis where he led global development projects in the field of oncology and brought a range of products to clinical development. From 2012 to 2015 he was the Head of Clinical Development at Polyphor.

report BaselArea.swiss

A molecular assembly line to cure the body

08.06.2017

Imagine that certain forms of blindness could be cured. Or imagine that the body itself could produce a cure for some of its own diseases. These may be just some of the results of the National Centre of Competence in Research Molecular Systems Engineering (NCCR MSE). Its long-term goals are to create molecular systems and factories for the production of high added-value chemicals and develop cellular systems for new applications in medical diagnostics, therapy and treatment. Director Thomas Ward is aiming high: He wants to make Basel the leading hub for the next European flagship project. At stake: one billion euro.

Interview: Ralf Dümpelmann

Thomas Ward, you are the director of the NCCR MSE. How did you end up in this position?

Thomas Ward: During my work at the University of Neuchâtel we became curious about artificial metalloenzymes. For instance, we could take ruthenium ion that nature does not have much of at its disposal, and incorporate it in a protein to yield an artificial metalloenzyme. Pursuing this curiosity driven pathway, my group became more and more interested in biological questions. Ultimately I wanted to collaborate with molecular biologists – and this is one of the main reasons why I moved to Basel. When I arrived here nine years ago, the ETH Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) had just moved to Basel. That led professor Wolfgang Meier, then head of the Department of Chemistry at our university, to initiate talks with the D-BSSE which were very productive. In the end, he and co-director professor Daniel Müller set out for a National Centre of Competence and Research that ultimately got funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

What was the goal when starting the NCCR?

Wolfgang Meier and Daniel Müller saw the opportunity to start a collaboration between biologists who relied quite heavily on chemistry and chemists who can provide the required chemical building blocks to address challenging biological questions. This is scientifically a very unique match. In my view this is also reflected in the most important aspect in the title of our NCCR – molecular systems engineering – namely the systems aspect.

Do you build artificial biological systems with the help of chemistry?

At the end of the road, we want to reproduce the properties and the complexity of a living system. There are two ways to get there. The chemical way is to take a compartment, put objects inside one by one and see what evolves. That is the bottom-up approach. On the other hand, a biologist takes a complex system and knocks out components, one at a time. In doing so, biologists focus on computing a system. And they are doing this very well. They can control things, even without fully understanding the molecular details of such systems. These two approaches meet at some point, and that is where our NCCR comes into play.

What could a potential end result look like? A small golem?

If you take the definition of what is life, there are a few features that we are definitely not trying to mimic. We are rather focusing on an artificial organelle, something that you could introduce into a living system and which would work in a living system, but which does not have all the features of a living system itself. I like to call such components molecular prostheses. It is like an artificial Lego block that fits into living systems. There we are already quite advanced.

Can you explain how the work of the NCCR is structured?

The network is planned to work over twelve years, split in three phases. There are roughly 30 groups associated with this NRCC, with some 20 in Basel. When there is somebody outside of Basel who has a competence that we need, they can be integrated to the network. That might be people in the Paul Scherrer Institute or at the University of Bern, for instance.
We are now approaching the end of the first phase of four years. The first step for us as chemists is to synthesise and assemble molecules into modules, an assembly of several molecules. For example, Sven Panke at the D-BSSE and myself synthesise artificial enzymes. Daniel Müller of the D-BSSE on the other hand manipulates pore proteins which allow to control the trafficking of substrates and products in and out of a cell. The goal is assemble an artificial organelle containing two or three enzymes and to introduce this prosthesis inside a cell. With that we can complement the natural metabolism of a cell with an artificial metabolism to produce new chemicals. At the end of the first phase, we ideally want to have solved the module’s problem. In the second and third phase, we can then focus on creating molecular factories and cellular systems.
Ultimately, a chemical factory could produce something that could be useful and a cellular system could be used to cure a disease. For both of these goals, you need a molecular assembly line, much in the spirit of what Henry Ford developed in the early twentieth Century, but at a molecular scale.

Do you already get a stable system out of these assembly lines?

Yes. The question is, however, how stable and for how long. We have systems that function in a cell for two weeks. Whether this is enough to cure a disease remains to be demonstrated.

What benefits may come out of it?

Our aim is to change the way biology and chemistry work in the long term. It is a risky strategy, but with a potentially high payoff.

What would be the high payoff?

You put a molecular or cellular system in the body and it treats or cures a disease.

When will that be feasible?

There are two systems, which are already very well advanced. Both were initiated and funded by the NCCR. Botond Roska of the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research has developed a system that can be injected into the eye to regain vision. This system will enter clinical trials in Winter 2017. It is based on genetic engineering, where you have to inject DNA so that your eye starts to produce pigments again. The other one is aimed at curing diabetes. Your fat cells are re-programmed into cells that are capable of producing insulin. They are then injected into your body and allow you to autonomously produce insulin when the body needs it.

Will these ideas be used in start-ups?

Yes. There are already two start-ups that were created in the past three years. The diabetes treatment is also seriously being looked at for a start-up. The SNSF wants to see things like that. It wants us to bring our research to an advanced stage.

You are organising the International Conference on Molecular Systems Engineering in Basel at the end of August. What is its main goal?

It is a challenge to organise such a conference because people who attend conferences like to talk to specialists in their fields. In our case, we want to apply our approach to a number of different fields. There will be outstanding speakers, but we have to convince people that it is worth looking at the subject from a broader perspective. The good news is that there are similar projects in Europe, in the Netherlands and in Germany. We will have a pre-conference, where graduate students from these other projects can exchange experience and ideas with students from the NCCR.

Is the conference a step to the European level?

Four years ago, the EU funded so called flagship projects. One of them was the Graphene project in Manchester, the other one the Human Brain project at the EPFL in Lausanne. These flagships have a budget of a billion euro. It seems that Europe will have a second round of such flagship projects in a few years. Our aim is to apply for the funding together with our partners in Germany and the Netherlands which would ensure the development of molecular systems engineering at a European level in the future.

In unique events the conference combines art and research. What is the idea behind this special mix?

It is about communication and ethics. We asked ourselves how we can talk about our research as it is quite complex for lay people to understand. One answer is to interact closely with artists and see if they can show their interpretation of what we do, and hopefully this would speak more to the public. We worked with artists hoping that they might rise interest in our research. Furthermore we can engage the public in a dialogue about ethical questions.

When will this dialogue start?

At our conference the argovia philharmonic will present a composition based on illustrations and videos we have provided them with. On the same day, we will also have a public ethics debate. We have brought in an editor of “Science” who will animate the debate and there will be three people debating. We hope one of them will be a bioethics officer of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the two others will be scientists.

What was for you the scientifically most exciting aspect of this NCCR?

When we started, we had a very broad approach and we had quite a number of curiosity-driven research projects. Without it, we would not have come as far as we did in these three years. For the second phase – we have just submitted the pre-proposal – we are much more focused.

What do you hope to achieve at the end of the NCCR?

If we only get one product in use this would already be a very nice achievement. Imagine, for example, that we could say: This NCCR has cured some forms of blindness.

About:
Professor Thomas Ward, born in 1964 in Fribourg, is the director of the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering. He heads the Ward Group at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Basel. The group’s research focuses on the exploitation of proteins as a host for organometallic moieties with applications in catalysis as well as in nano-biotechnology.
Ward studied organic chemistry at the University of Fribourg. He wrote his PhD thesis at ETH Zurich. He did a first postdoc with Roald Hoffmann at Cornell University in theory and then a second postdoc in Lausanne. He was then awarded an A. Werner Fellowship and moved to Bern where he obtained his habilitation. He moved to Neuchâtel in 2000 and to Basel in 2008. He was awarded a prestigious ERC advanced grant in 2016 and the 2017 Royal Society of Chemistry award in Bioinorganic chemistry.

report BaselArea.swiss

“I see a very innovation-friendly climate in Basel”

12.04.2017

It all began with research resources that were a quarter of a century old. Simon Ittig and his colleagues at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel turned these into a research project – and eventually a start-up. T3 Pharmaceuticals develops new therapies to treat solid tumours.

How did T3 Pharma come about?

Simon Ittig: I completed my doctorate at the Biozentum in Professor Guy Cornelis’ group, which dealt primarily with a secretion system of bacteria. Bacteria require these needles to inject proteins into cells and establish their pathogenesis. My doctoral supervisor discovered this mechanism 25 years ago and had researched it ever since. When I completed my doctorate in 2012 and Professor Cornelis retired, I was able to take over many resources such as bacterial strains and study protocols. As a postdoc in another group at the Biozentrum, I dealt with the question of how proteins can be transported rapidly into cells. This brought me back to my collection of bacterial strains, as they are by nature exactly the same. In a short time, I succeeded in showing that such a protein transport does in fact work – and rapidly, efficiently and synchronously. This potential enthralled my research colleagues and me.

What precisely can this technology be used for?

If you have bacteria that transport specific, for example human, proteins into cells, then you can stimulate these cells as you like. It has long been known that bacteria migrate to solid tumours. Accordingly, we focused on the field of solid tumour oncology and could achieve impressive results in a surprisingly short amount of time. We now have bacteria that grow specifically in a tumour over an extended period of time. We can also now program these in such a way that they produce certain active ingredients and pass them into the cells – precisely to where these substances can take effect. Our technology is very stable.

Was it obvious to you that you could go ahead and start a company with this idea?

Yes, this idea came relatively early. We received the first financial support from CTI, the Cancer League and smaller foundations when we were still just academic researchers. It was already clear then that we wanted to become self-employed with our protein transport technology. Founding our own company was even one of the conditions for further research funding from CTI. The Biozentrum supported us in many ways when we were spinning off. As before, the patents belong to the university, but we have an exclusive global license.

How did you finance T3 Pharma?

In the beginning and also subsequently we received substantial amounts of research funding. However, the funds are generally restricted to salaries and materials. Foundations mainly want to finance the actual research work. At some point you reach a limit, which is why we began to actively look for investors for our company.

With great success. What played a decisive role?

First of all, you have to have the right business idea. Second, you need a good amount of mutual trust. The whole set up should be able to accompany the company for several years. If every couple of years you need a few months to secure the next financing round, then this ties up too many resources, creates a lot of uncertainty and distracts from your research activities. For this reason, we looked – and found – investors who had the financial opportunities and necessary understanding, who believe in us and are ready to go the distance with us.

So were you in a privileged position where you could also turn investments down?

Maybe. I’m convinced that you shouldn’t accept every offer if you don’t have to. We carefully examine the conditions connected to the financing and also want to get a sense of the investors’ intentions. It’s also recommended that you keep your options open. If you become content with something too early, it can become very expensive later on.

You have received over 2 million francs from foundations. Is this unusually large for a start-up?

The effort for such financing is of course also very high, especially at the beginning when you can’t yet show proof of your achievements or have yet to receive any research grants. It’s crucial to bring experienced people on board at an early stage. This gives the foundations the necessary certainty when it comes to the project’s feasibility. It’s also important to appreciate smaller amounts. I’m also very grateful that I could learn a lot about the art of writing applications from an experienced and successful scientist, Professor Nigg. With Prof Nigg from the Biozentrum and Prof Christofori from the Department of Biomedicine, we had formed a professional and interdisciplinary consortium from early on. Without these two experienced professors our company wouldn’t exist in its current form.

How high then was the success rate?

I would estimate that half of our requests have been met with a positive result until now.

You’ve come far with this foundation funding, but you’re taking the next steps with the support of private investors. Is this better than turning to venture capital companies?

We of course looked at both alternatives. Private and institutional investors are not mutually exclusive. But we prefer private people because they are generally alone or in small committees and can decide quickly if they want to invest or not. A second point: it’s also important to me personally that we develop an idea together of the next few years and work towards these goals. The interactions, the shared vision and the sense of similar values bring a great amount of pleasure and confidence. It just has to be ‘right’, professional and personal.

How do you go about finding private investors?

Actually, this only goes via a good network and our experienced consultants. In contrast to venture capital firms, private investors tend to remain discretely in the background. It’s therefore important to think early on about the positioning of your own company, the team and its technology. A well-planned communication also helps. Once the ideas are known, it’s easier to get in touch with the right people. If you win someone over in a discussion, there’s a good chance that a private investor will get involved.

What are your next steps?

The financing of T3 Pharm is secured for the time being. We can therefore concentrate on our research and then validate our technology and prepare for preclinical development. As CEO, I’m working outside of the laboratory for the time being while my four colleagues are focussing fully on the research.

What is your long-term vision?

We want to bring our technology for use in patients. This is the major driver in our day-to-day work. How and when we will achieve this goal, I still can’t say today. And also whether or not T3 Pharma will still be an independent company. Who knows what the future holds. We’re therefore open and focused first and foremost on our research.

How do you see the local ecosystem for young entrepreneurs?

We have a good connection to the university and appreciate the open doors. If you trust people and approach them, you receive a lot of support. I see a very innovation-friendly climate in Basel. Of course the large life science cluster creates an incredibly positive environment for start-ups like us. And how BaselArea.swiss promotes innovation also helps in an uncomplicated way when it comes to meeting the right people.

And yet when it comes to start-ups, Basel lags behind other places. What needs to be done?

Nothing works without self-initiative and perseverance. If you have both, you’ll find the best conditions here in Basel and Switzerland. If I had one wish, it would be to more strongly institutionalise the informal exchange at the university. Earlier input from experienced professionals on a start-up idea could help young researchers gather the self-confidence for the next steps and be more successful in presenting their own ideas to a committee. Rejections can be quite discouraging sometimes.

Are there so many ideas that get buried before they’re even given a chance?

Yes, there are, and I find it a real pity. It’s not a matter of course for many people to stand up in front of others and say “I want this, I can do this, and I’ll do it”. Only a few young researchers trust themselves to overcome such a big hurdle and also pursue a project in the face of obstacles. Many talented young scientists remain on the academic track and continue to publish up until the train leaves for a start-up. It would help if they could discuss their ideas informally, without having to shout it from the rooftops. I’m convinced that there would be even more innovative start-ups. Once this hurdle is overcome, you get an unbelievable amount of support even from professors in other fields encouraging you to continue. This is what happened to me.

And was does your doctoral supervisor say about T3?

He’s extremely happy for us. Guy Cornelis also provides us with scientific advice and helps us where he can. The relationship has also since changed and has become very friendly.

About:

Dr Simon Ittig studied biochemistry and biotechnology at the universities of Bern, Vienna and Strasbourg and graduated from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel in microbiology. The start-up T3 Pharmaceuticals grew out of the research project Type 3 Technologies – Bacteria as a versatile tool for protein delivery.

report BaselArea.swiss

BaseLaunch can take full advantage of the potential of Basel's life sciences ecosystem

15.03.2017

The new accelerator for healthcare ventures, BaseLaunch, wants to link the best start-ups to the Basel region – and in doing so, provide impulses for major players. The project will consistently focus on quality and the concentrated know-how in the region, says Managing Director Alethia de Léon.

Financial support through BaseLaunch can be as high as CHF 10’000 per project. Startups accepted for the second phase will receive grants up to CHF 250’000. Other regions have tens of millions at their disposal. Are you even competitive?

Highly generous programmes in the EU and around the world have shown that it is not enough to distribute a lot of money with open hands. Rather, we have to make sure that the investments go to the most promising projects, namely those with a suitable team likely to effect a successful development from an idea to the market. In short: quality – and not quantity – has topmost priority for BaseLaunch.

What makes BaseLaunch unique?

BaseLaunch focuses on the entrepreneurs. Startups accepted for the programme will receive non-repayable funding, instead of equity financing that has to be repaid. Additionally, Basel is a life sciences ecosystem with one of the highest densities of biopharmaceutical enterprises globally and has an incredible pool of talents and specialists. Our healthcare partners, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and Novartis Venture Fund offer direct access to valuable industry knowledge and experience relevant to develop and boost transformative healthcare solutions. Together, this allows us to give market-relevant advice suited to the needs of every single start-up company.

What types of projects is BaseLaunch especially suitable for?

BaseLaunch is open to all projects in the healthcare field. Geographically, our focus is on Switzerland and Europe. Our laboratories in Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area specialise on therapeutics, but innovative concepts in the diagnostic and medtech fields are also welcome to participate in the accelerator.

Operationally, the accelerator is managed by BaselArea.swiss but operates under a different name. Why such a setup?

BaseLaunch seeks to find the most innovative and promising healthcare start-ups, support them and embed them into the local healthcare ecosystem. This makes BaseLaunch an important part of the core activity of BaselArea.swiss. Due to the different financing and decision-making structures and in line with a focussed market presence and a particular target groups, it made sense to launch the project under a different name.

Is it then the role of the state to invest in start-ups?

No public funds are invested in the projects. The cantons are financing the operational running of BaseLaunch. But what goes directly into the start-ups comes from the private sector. With BaseLaunch, BaselArea.swiss is thus providing the right framework conditions as a neutral partner of industry fostering the emergence of new companies with suitable programmes. And don’t forget that other places are very much on the offensive with public resources. It’s important not to fall behind. We have to remain in the fiercely competitive bid to be an attractive location – without, however, distorting our liberal economic order.

Why do we need more start-ups?

Start-ups are needed first and foremost to create added value from knowledge. If we invest billions into academic research, this also needs corresponding structures to make innovations out of inventions. It’s been shown that start-ups are taking on a more and more decisive role in this respect. In addition, start-ups have the potential to grow rapidly when successful and create a great number of high-quality jobs. Actelion, which began as a start-up, is the best example of this. While BaseLaunch succeeds in working with the best start-up projects, this also generates impulses for established companies and the ecosystem as a whole. BaseLaunch thus contributes toward raising the region’s attractiveness as Europe’s leading life sciences hub.

Is the Basel region even interesting for start-ups? Isn’t the cost of living likely to frighten away entrepreneurs?

Silicon Valley, London or Boston is not more affordable. The unique advantage of Basel’s life sciences ecosystem – its concentration of talent, pharmaceutical decision-makers and capital, which are unrivalled in Europe – ultimately tip the balance in our favour in the eyes of company founders. We have seen that the Basel region scores well in these critical areas – which are “must haves” especially for young companies – that, all things considered, the overall package is more than enough. This can be seen in the steady increase in companies being founded from outside the region in recent years.

For more information about the project, please visit www.baselaunch.ch

 

About Alethia de Léon

Born in Mexico, Alethia de Léon studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School. After working in healthcare investment and product development, she was Global Head of Search and Evaluation, Business Development and Licensing for the Neuroscience Business at Novartis until 2015. In addition to managing BaseLaunch, Alethia de Léon is CEO and founder of the start-up Senes Science GmbH.

 

report BaselArea.swiss

“Basel is well positioned”

09.02.2017

‘Uberfication’ will change marketing and sales in the pharmaceutical sector, says Patrik Frei. This is already seen at healthcare companies, where digitalisation is making inroads. Business angels and family offices are paying an increasingly larger role in awarding venture capital, according to the CEO of Venture Valuation. Venture capitalists are coming aboard only later.

What does Venture Valuation do?

Patrik Frei: We conduct independent assessments of companies in the life sciences sector. Our clients are looking either for capital or investments. We then try to determine a fair value and indicate a range. The price is then, of course, a matter of negotiation.

How do you rate Johnson & Johnson’s acquisition of Actelion – well negotiated or a fair value?

Actelion was already a success story before hand, one of the few biotech companies to have organised its own sale. The commercial part will now be split off while the research and innovation will remain in Switzerland. Generally speaking, this is a highly successful exit and sends an important signal to Basel as a centre of life sciences – irrespective of the fact that additional capital is again flowing into the industry.  

Is it possible to observe a consolidation process, one that could also have undesired effects?

No. While there is a concentration of large pharmaceutical companies at the top, this also creates opportunities for new companies. Start-ups have the advantage that they are faster and more agile. Some of them are acquiring others and becoming medium-sized companies. An example of this is Shire. Others are being acquired by the bigger companies, which in turn feeds new capital into the sector. I think that this innovation ecosystem is fundamentally healthy.

The US seem to profit more than Europe or Switzerland. Is there far more venture capital there?

There is four times as much venture capital in the US than in Europe, it’s true. But the number of companies is similar. In Europe, smaller amounts are usually invested and start-ups have to survive more financing rounds, while in the US extremely high amounts are committed in one go. Incidentally, investors in Asia are far more cautious than in Europe. It should also be noted that the investor landscape is changing in Europe. There are less and less traditional venture capitalists, while corporate venture funds, family offices and business angels are gaining in importance. These are often people who have made their own wealth in the sector. But this doesn’t mean that it has become easier for companies looking for capital; private investors are not only more cautious than venture capitalists, they also tend not to operate openly.

In addition, many institutional Europe investors prefer to give their money to large American venture capitalists, which are more visible and have been more successful in the past. Overall it can be seen that venture capitalists are coming on board later, creating a gap in expansion financing, especially in Europe. 

You had the opportunity to moderate an event in January about the future of the pharmaceutical industry at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference. What came out of it?

One of the main themes was the ‘uberfication’ of the healthcare sector. Today, marketing and sales are firmly in the hands of the big pharmaceutical companies, but this could be challenged in the future by IT companies. We still don’t know how this will look like exactly, but it’s clear that new distribution channels will become possible through digitalisation.

But regulations could also slow this down.

Patients are increasingly informing themselves over the internet, and there are more and more digital diagnostic tools. Over a longer period of time, there could be some development there. But there’s no doubt that this also certainly depends on regulations.

How important is the choice of location for life sciences companies today?

We also discussed this in San Francisco. The trend is towards multiple sites - a presence in the US, development in China or even now in India, headquarters in Switzerland. Smaller biotech companies are also addressing such issues.

Where does Switzerland stand?

Switzerland and Basel are very well positioned. With the two large pharmaceutical companies, the location has widespread visibility. Many people in the sector are familiar with Basel and Switzerland from their own experience and invariably have very positive memories. But the fact is that you cannot simply rely on the past. You also have to actively shape your future.  

And what will this entail?

The keyword is digitalisation and personalised medicine or precision medicine. The trend is that markets will ultimately split off and become smaller. So you will need more products. This is also the reason for consolidation.

Will costs go up when markets become smaller through personalisation?

On the one hand, costs for medicines are rising. On the other hand, fewer medicines have to be tested until something works if they are personalised and actually work. This reduces costs. The likelihood of success of clinical trials also increases when resources are more strongly oriented towards specific groups. We can hope that costs will even fall thanks to personalisation.

Does digitalisation also open up the field for newcomers, particularly from the IT sector?

Definitely. We are noticing this trend very strongly and are increasingly conducting assessments of health tech companies. Health tech is interesting for investors because products are brought faster onto the market and the investments are smaller. This is a challenge for pharmaceutical companies since such health tech companies will be used as the first digital sales channels.

Are we prepared for this in Switzerland?

Switzerland has strong IT companies and even stronger pharmaceutical companies. The potential exists. But you have to better connect both sides, whether in research through an appropriate institution, through events or even a new association. But I am very confident that we will set the right course here.


Biography

Patrik Frei founded Venture Valuation in 1999. The Zurich-based company specialises in conducting independent assessments of start-up companies. Patrik Frei studied business administration at the University of St.Gallen and graduated from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

report Life Sciences

“The Basel region should not simply be part of the transformation, but should be helping t...

07.12.2016

Dr Falko Schlottig is Director of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwest Switzerland (FHNW), in Muttenz. He advises start-up companies in the life sciences and has founded start-ups himself.

In our interview, he explains how the School of Life Sciences would like to develop, why close interdisciplinary collaboration is so important and what future he foresees for the health system.

You come from industry and have also been engaged in start-ups yourself. Is it not atypical now to work in the academic field?
Falko Schlottig*:
If it were atypical, we would be doing something wrong as a university of applied sciences. Many of the staff at the FHNW come from industry. That’s important, because otherwise we could not provide an education that qualifies students for their profession and because through this network we can drive applied research and development forwards. With our knowledge and know-how we can make a significant contribution to product developments and innovation processes.

Is this how the FHNW differs from the basic research done at universities?
It’s not about making political distinctions, but about a technical differentiation. As a university of applied sciences, we are focused on technology, development and products. The focus of universities and the ETH lies in the field of basic research. Together this results in a unique value chain that goes beyond the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland. This requires good collaboration. At the level of our lecturers and researchers, this collaboration works outstandingly well, for example through the sharing of lectures and numerous joint projects. On the other hand, there is still a lot of potential in the collaboration to strengthen the life sciences cluster further, for instance in technology-oriented education or in the field of personalized health.

Does “potential” mean recognition? Or is it a question of funding?
Neither nor! The distinction between applied research and basic research must not become blurred – also from the students’ perspective. A human resources manager has to know whether the applicant has had a practice-oriented education or first has to go through a trainee programme. It’s a question of working purposefully together in technology-driven fields even better than we do today in the interest of our region.

Are there enough students? It’s often said there are too few scientists?
Our student numbers are slightly increasing at the moment, but we would like to see some more growth. But the primary focus is on the quality of education and not on the quantity. What is important for our students is that they continue to have excellent chances on the jobs market. Like all institutions, however, we are feeling the current lack of interest in the natural sciences. For this reason, we at the FHNW are committed in all areas of education to subjects in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics - or STEM subjects.

You have now been head of the School of Life Sciences at the FHNW for just over a year. What plans do you have?
We want to remain an indispensable part of the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland. We also want to continue providing a quality of education which ensures that 98 percent of our students can find a job after graduation. In concrete terms, this means that we keep developing our teaching in terms of content, didactics and structure and follow the developments of the industrial environment and of individualization with due sense of proportion. In this respect, we’ve managed to attract people with experience in the strategic management of companies in the industrial field and people from institutions in the healthcare and environment sectors to assist us on our advisory board.
In research, we will organize ourselves around technologies based on our disciplinary strengths and expertise in the future and will be even more interdisciplinary in our work. We will be helped by the fact that we are moving to a new building in the autumn of 2018 and will have one location instead of two. In terms of content, we will establish the subject of “digital transformation” as an interdisciplinary field in teaching and research with much greater emphasis than is the case today. Finally, we should not simply be part of this transformation, but should be helping to shape it.

Apropos “digital transformation”, IT will also become increasingly important for natural sciences. Will the FHNW train more computer scientists?
Here at the School of Life Sciences we are successfully focused on medical informatics; the FHNW is training computer scientists in Brugg and business IT specialists in Basel. But we also have to ask ourselves what a chemist who has attended the School of Life Sciences at the FHNW should also offer in the way of advanced IT know-how in future – for example in data sciences. The same applies to our bioanalytics specialists, pharmaceutical technology specialists and process and environmental engineers. Nevertheless, natural science must remain the basis, enriched with a clear understanding of data and related processes. Conversely, an IT specialist who studies with us at the School of Life Sciences also has to come to grips with natural science issues. This knowledge is essential if you want to find a life sciences job in the region.

Throughout Switzerland – but also especially in the Basel region – there is a lot of know-how in bioinformatics. But from the outside, the region is not perceived as an IT centre. Should something not be done to counteract this perception?
We do indeed have some catching up to do in the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland. The important questions are what priorities to focus on and how to link them up. Is it data mining – which is important for the University of Basel and the University Hospital? Or is it the linking of patient data with the widest variety of databases in order to raise cost-effectiveness in hospitals, for example? Or does the future lie in data sciences and data visualization to simplify and support planning and decision-making, which is one of the things we are already doing at the School of Life Sciences? The key issue is to know what data will serve as the basis of future decision-making in healthcare. Here it is also a question of who the data belongs to and both how and by whom the data may be used. This is one of the prerequisites for new business models. Since we are engaged in applied research, these issues are just as important for us as they are for industry. This hugely exciting discussion will remain with us for some years to come.

The School of Life Sciences at the FHNW covers widely differing areas such as chemistry, environmental technology, nanoscience and data visualization – how does it all fit together?
It is only at first glance that these areas seem so different – their basis is always natural science, often in conjunction with engineering science. The combining of our disciplines will be even better when they are all brought together in 2018, at the very latest. You can see it already, for example, in environmental technology: at first glance, you wonder what it has to do with bioanalytics, nanoscience or computer science. But the School of Life Sciences is strong in the field of water analysis and bioanalytics, and one of the biggest problems at the moment is antibiotic resistance. To find solutions here, you need a knowledge of chemistry, biology, analytics, computer science and also process engineering know-how. As from 2018/19 we will have a unique process and technology centre in the new building, where we will be able to visualize all the process chains driving the life sciences industry today and in the future – from chemistry, through pharmaceutical technology and environmental technology to biotechnology, including analytics and automation.

You’ve been - and still are - involved in start-ups. Will spin-offs from the School of Life sciences be encouraged in future?
We are basically not doing badly today when you compare the number of students and staff with the number of start-ups. But we do like to encourage young spin-off companies; at our school, start-ups tend to spring from the ideas of our teaching staff. Our Bachelor students have hardly any time to devote themselves to starting up a company. On the other hand, entrepreneurial thinking and engagement form part of the education provided at the School of Life Sciences. After all, our students should also develop an understanding of the way a company works. A second aspect is entrepreneurial thinking in relation to founding a company. The founding of a start-up calls for flexibility and openness on our part: How do we deal with a patent application? Who does it belong to? How are royalties arranged? Our staff have the freedom to develop their own projects. Our task is to define the necessary framework conditions. We already offer the possibility today of a start-up remaining on our premises and continuing to use these facilities. We have reserved extra space for this in the new building. We also make use of all the opportunities that the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland offers today. This includes, for example, the life sciences start-up agency EVA, the incubator, Swiss Biotech, Swissbiolabs, the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area, BaselArea.swiss and also venture capitalists, to name just a few. We are well-networked, and here too we are doing what we can to help foster the development of our region

Why do you think it is apparently so difficult in Switzerland to establish a successful start-up?
There are two factors in Northwest Switzerland that play a part: a very successful medium-sized and large life sciences industry means the hurdles to becoming independent are much higher. When you found a start-up, you give up a secure, well-paid job and expose yourself to the possible financial risks associated with the start-up. The second big hurdle is funding, especially overcoming the so-called Valley of Death. Compared with the second step, it is easy to obtain seed capital. Persevering all the way to market with a capital requirement of between one and five million francs is very difficult.

That should change with the future fund.
It would of course be fantastic if there were a future fund of this kind to provide finance of between one and two million francs. This would finance start-up projects for two or three years. In this respect, it is incredibly exciting, challenging and moving to see the whole value chain from research to product in use, to be familiar with networks and to be involved. Today this is almost only possible with a start-up or a small company. But in the end, every potential founder has to decide whether he or she would prefer to be a wheel or a cog in a wheel.

Will the healthcare sector look dramatically different in five or ten years?
Forecasts are always difficult and often wrong. The big players will probably wait and see how the market develops. The healthcare sector may well look different in five to ten years, but not disruptively different. We will see new business models, and insurers will try exploring new avenues. This may lead to shifts. At the moment we are experiencing the shift from patient to consumer. On the product side, the sector is extremely regulated, so it is not easy to launch a new and innovative product onto the market. In my view, many regulations inhibit innovation and do not always lead to greater safety for the patients, which is actually what they should do.

How could this transformation be kick-started?
I believe that we at the University of Applied Sciences in Northwest Switzerland have a major contribution to make here. For example, we take an interdisciplinary and inter-university approach collaborating on socio-economic issues based on our disciplinary expertise within strategic initiatives. In this way we are trying to our part to help find solutions or answers. Switzerland and our region in particular have huge potential in this pool of collaboration. This now needs to be exploited.

Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer and Nadine Nikulski, BaselArea.swiss

*Prof. Dr. Falko Schlottig is Director of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) in Muttenz. He has many years of experience in research and product development and has held a variety of management positions in leading international medical device companies. Falko Schlottig has also co-founded a start-up company in the biotechnology and medical devices sector.

He studied Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry. He holds an Executive MBA from the University of St Gallen.

 

report Production Technologies

“I find it motivating to succeed together with others”

02.11.2016

Patrick Vergult is managing director of Actemium Switzerland Ltd, a provider of networked industrial and building automation with headquarters in Basel and five other sites in Switzerland.

In our interview, the native of Belgium explains what brought him to Switzerland, what objectives Actemium is pursuing and why he believes that, while Industry 4.0 will result in a revolution, we will only see an evolution in terms of the technology.

Your story sounds fascinating: you are Belgian, came to Switzerland in 1991 to work for Cern and are now the CEO of Actemium Switzerland – how did that come about?
Patrick Vergult*: In 1991 I arrived at Cern in Geneva as a freelance software engineer commissioned by ABB. At Cern I programmed cryogenic systems that could be cooled to minus 269 degrees Celsius. These systems are used to cool the magnets in the long ring of the particle accelerator until they reach the superconducting state. These magnets, which are as big as 10-storey building, detect the particles that arise when accelerated positrons and electrons collide. Actually my plan was to return to Belgium after six months, but then I stayed in Switzerland and have steadily extended my network. At that time, I was also co-founder of a company in Belgium called Iproco. The business was going very well here in Switzerland and so in 1998 we decided to establish a branch of Iproco in Switzerland. In 2001 this gave rise to Else Automation. Actemium came into being in 2013 as a result of the merger of Etavis Engineering, Controlmatic and our company, Else Automation.

What exactly does Actemium Switzerland do?
Actemium is basically a product-neutral automation company. We do not develop any products of our own, but integrate various automation and IT systems for our customers. In short, with our six business units we offer electrical, automation and IT technology for networked industrial and building automation, as well as overarching production management. Our objective is to remain with the customer from consultation, planning and implementation of a project right through to maintenance of the systems. After all, we have a strong connection with the products that we use and are very familiar with our customers’ processes.

What excites you about working for Actemium?
I find it motivating to create something together with other people and to be successful together. Actemium enables people like me, who have a very entrepreneurial spirit, to remain entrepreneurs, even though we belong to the large VINCI Group. Actemium is a network with a decentralized management structure. That means that, in this large entity, there are various small organizations – so-called business units – that operate as autonomous and agile players on the market. All our BUs are highly segmented, so that there is no competition between them.

Why was it decided to opt for Basel as headquarters?
The companies from which Actemium Switzerland emerged in 2013 already had a presence in the region. So in 2013 everything ultimately came together in Basel-Stadt. Originally we were competitors, if anything, which meant that our business units had to be well segmented. For us the pharmaceutical and chemical industries were and are hugely important. The pharmaceutical industry in particular invests a lot, Switzerland is an attractive hub and, above all, the Basel region has a very stable market.

Is it not difficult to prevail against the competition in the pharma hub of Basel?
Our competitors of course have a similar strategy. We try to stand out through other factors: The Actemium University offers training for customers and staff, and we also cultivate an internal network of talents for staff under 30 years of age known as Young at Actemium. Our young employees give presentations on the company from their own perspective at graduate fairs or universities – without the presence of a member of management. Trust is very important to us. This year we also introduced a Talent Award, for which theses can be submitted once a year by technicians and engineers. This annual prize will be awarded by us and external jurors from our customer base – for example from Roche, Novartis or Endress+Hauser. The aim of this award is to foster greater contact with universities and develop our own talents more. As part of this effort, we also train 20 apprentices every year and offer dual education studies for five or six students.

Is the strength of the franc a problem for Actemium?
We are fortunately heavily engaged in the pharmaceutical sector, where the strong franc only plays a minor role. Many pharmaceutical companies also export in dollars, a currency that has appreciated in value – which has offset the weakness of the euro to some extent. In fact, despite everything, we have steadily grown more than 10 percent in the last few years.

Aside from Switzerland, Actemium also has sites in Alsace and in Southern Germany – does this lead a trinational exchange?
It’s very important to us that our regional network is cultivated. The advantages of this to our customers and employees, however, depends heavily on their own personality. Some make intensive use of the opportunities, while others are perhaps a little more introverted and do not set as much store by networking. Beyond the three-countries corner, Actemium has business units in a further 35 countries. We are thus ideally positioned to service our customers; there are international working groups that share ideas and information on various issues. Recently, for example, a meeting took place in Paris on the topic of Industry 4.0. In the Basel region, we have established a three-countries corner network that meets three times a year to pool their strengths. We have already seen the first successes: a project in French-speaking Switzerland, for example, could only be tackled in the first place thanks to the pooling of knowledge by mechatronic experts from France and automation experts from Switzerland. This offers our customers huge added value of course, because they get everything from a single source. Actemium in Switzerland goes a step further: we have developed our own CV database, in which each of our 215 employees has posted his or her CV and expertise. The information is updated once a year at the performance appraisal interview with employees. In this way we can easily search for experts internally – regardless of whether we are looking for language skills or other expertise. And in fact we usually also find the skills we are looking for. Not the global Actemium network is expressing a strong interest in this solution. Digitalization continues its advance, and everyone is talking Industry 4.0.

How will this impact the work of Actemium?
We notice how the subject of Industry 4.0 tends to confuse our customers, because most of them don’t know exactly what it means. Industry 4.0 is not a ready-made solution that you can take out of a drawer – it differs from one customer to another. For this reason we will usually first get customers to explain what Industry 4.0 means for them – and then explain what we understand by it. In this way, we arrive at a shared understanding and a good starting point for successful projects. It’s not only about networking objects and gathering data in the Cloud – that’s just the beginning! When the data is in the Cloud, it requires smart conversion for the customer in order, for example, to improve the value chain. Industry 4.0 per se is not a revolution: technologies are used that have already been around for years. But it will lead to a revolution.

So it will take some time yet?
I believe so, because a lot of customers don’t yet seem ready to completely embrace the subject. Take a meat producer that organized a workshop on Industry 4.0, for example. The talk there was almost exclusively about SAP. The fact that the weather, for example, can influence people’s meat consumption and the production of meat could be rescheduled early on as a result did not register. In the future, visionaries who can show customers business opportunities in the area of Industry 4.0 will be in demand – I see great potential here. The strengths of the systems and technologies used have also not yet been exploited to the full by any means. There is still a lot of upward scope in the next 20 years.

What other trends do you see besides Industry 4.0?
We set great store by robotics, manufacturing execution systems and energy efficiency. As regards the latter in particular it is still early days. Our customers have so far had little incentive to invest in energy efficiency – this will probably not come about until there are legal requirements in place. I firmly believe that you always have to step outside your comfort zone, reinvent yourself and adapt in order to survive in the future. And I try to apply this philosophy at Actemium – so that the staff and thus also the company do not remain seated in their comfort zone for too long.

What do you expect from BaselArea.swiss and what would you like to see from the promotion of a region and innovation?
I think it’s great that there are neutral platforms like BaselArea.swiss. For when companies organize such events themselves, then it always happens for reasons of a concrete benefit that the company expects to derive from it. So neutral platforms are an advantage because they can also link up different networks.

What does Actemium want to achieve?
The basic values of the Actemium network place the focus on people. We invest an annual three to five percent of the payroll sum in further training for our employees. We cultivate the network and generate our own talent through the training of apprentices and the dual education system. But of course we also want to grow further – in order to establish a nationwide presence in the longer term. To make sure we remain sustainable, each business unit should occupy an innovative and future-oriented business area aside from its core expertise. But regardless of whether we are talking about employees, customers or shareholders, everyone should be happy. And we try to achieve this through healthy, stable and profitable growth.

And if you could wish for something for your company?
Then I would wish that we become the best automation company and the best employer in the field of automation nationwide. And we are well on track. If we achieve that, we can achieve anything – and we enjoy working hard on this every day.

Interview: Sébastien Meunier and Nadine Nikulski, BaselArea.swiss

*Patrick Vergult is the CEO of Actemium Switzerland Ltd., a company that offers solutions and engineering services in the field of industrial and building automation. Actemium sees its mission as helping its industrial customers to modernize their factories and buildings and increase their profitability.

In 2001, Patrick Vergult was co-founder and major shareholder of ELSE Automation Ltd. The company joined the VINCI Group in May 2011 and became part of the Actemium network of VINCI in 2013. In addition, he founded curaVer Business Support, a company that provides consulting and support services mainly to foreign companies settling up business in Switzerland. He was also successfully involved in the restructuring of travel company Venture Europe, where he underwrote the financial risk.

Discover Actemium Switzerland

report Medtech

“This is the century of biology and biology for medicine”

05.10.2016

Andreas Manz is considered one of the pioneers in the field of microfluidics and at present is a researcher at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Saarbrücken (KIST Europe) and professor at Saarland University.

In our interview, the successful scientist explains the motivation that drives him to research and what it means to receive a lifetime achievement award from the European Patent Office.

You are known as a pioneer of microfluidics. How did you come to start researching in a completely new field?
Andreas Manz*:
Even as a child I was really fascinated by small things. They were mostly stones, insects or bugs that I took home with me. This interest in small things stayed with me, and eventually I went on to study chemistry at the ETH Zurich. In my PhD thesis I examined the natural law of molecular diffusion. If you entrap two molecules in a very small volume – rather like two birds in a cage – they cannot get away and become faster. I was instantly fascinated by this acceleration. My professor Willy Simon, an expert in chemical sensors and chromatography, talked in his lectures about processes can also get very fast when they are reduced in size. And that instantly fascinated me.

But so far you have been talking about pure chemistry – when did you get the idea of using chips?
I started working for a company in Japan in 1987. That’s where I first came into contact with chip technology. I was part of the research department myself, but I kept seeing colleagues disappearing into cleanrooms and coming back with tiny chips. That inspired me and got me wondering whether you could not also pack chemistry onto these chips instead of electronics. After all, even the inner workings of the tiniest insect involves the transportation of fluid, so it should also work on a small chip. At Hitachi I was eventually able to get my first microfluidic chip produced for test purposes.

From Japan your journey then took you to Ciba-Geigy in Basel. What prompted that move?
Michael Widmer was then Head of Analytical Chemistry Research at Ciba-Geigy in Basel. This brilliant fascinated me from the word go: he had the vision that you should also integrate crazy things in research and not only look for short-term financial success. Industry should allow itself to invest in quality and also develop or promote new methods in the research activities of a company if it could be of benefit to the company. So Professor Widmer brought me to Basel, where it was my mission to pack “the whole of chemistry”, as he put it, on a single chip. While Michael Widmer did not yet know what to expect, he had a feeling that it could be worthwhile.

How did you go about it?
At that time, chips were very new and not entirely appropriate for the world of pharmaceuticals. Ciba-Geigy, too, was not enthusiastic about the new application initially. There was no great interest in making changes to existing technologies and processes that worked. But in my research I was able to try out what might be possible. I found, for example, that electrophoresis – a method for separating molecules – could work. It would be relatively easy to miniaturize this method and test it to see whether it also speeds up the process. And the results were very good: We were able to show that a tenfold miniaturization of electrophoresis makes the process 100 times faster without compromising the quality of the information. This realization was really useful for clinical diagnosis and the search for effective molecules in drug discovery. At the same time, we were also testing different types of chips that we sourced from a wide variety of producers.

When did the time come to go public with the new technology?
At the ILMAC in Basel in 1996, Michael Widmer organized a conference in the field of microfluidics – which proved to be a bombshell. We had planned for this effect to a large extent, because in the run-up to the meeting we had already invited selective researchers and shown them our work. This hyped things up a little, and at the conference we were eventually able to mobilize researchers from Canada, the USA, the Netherlands, Japan and other countries to present the new technology of microfluidics.

Although the attention was there, Ciba-Geigy nevertheless later brought research in this field to an end. Why was that?
Basically we lacked lobby groups within the company and a concrete link to a product. Our research was somewhat too technical and far ahead of its time, and within Ciba-Geigy they were simply not yet able to assess the potential of the technology. Added to which, we had not given any concrete consideration to applications; we were more interested in the technology and experiments than in its commercial use. When a large picture of me then appeared in a magazine with a report on microfluidics, and the journal pointed out on its own initiative that Ciba-Geigy was not adequately implementing the technology, the research was stopped. I was quite fortunate under the circumstances: Since the company had terminated the project, I found that – despite a non-compete clause – I was able to follow the call to Imperial College in London within a short time, where I could continue research in microfluidics with students. In addition, I joined a company in Silicon Valley as consultant.

Is it not typical that a large company fails to transform a pearl in its portfolio into a new era?
You should not see it so negatively, because microfluidics was a pearl not for the pharmaceutical industry, but rather for environmental analysis, research or clinical diagnosis. The pharmaceutical industry dances to a different tune. It prefers to buy in the finished microscope at a higher price than get it constructed itself for relatively little money. Michael Widmer and his team in research and analytical chemistry at Ciba-Geigy developed many things in a wide variety of fields – with which were far ahead of their time.

Microfluidics is an established field today. What are the driving forces now?
To my mind there are two driving forces: firstly the application and the users and secondly academic curiosity as regards the technology and also training. The first of these is the stronger driving force: there are cases in which the application of a microfluidic solution is not absolutely necessary to do justice to the application. Take “point of care”, for example. The objective is to analyse a patient directly at the place where he or she is treated – for example, in intensive care. The patient is evaluated, blood and respiratory values are analysed, and it is possible to assess immediately whether the measures taken are having an effect in the patient. Another possibility is to integrate the widest variety of analytical options in smartphones – similar to the Tricoder in Star Trek. I’m pretty sure that something like that is feasible. But at the moment the hottest topic in the commercial sector is clinical diagnostics. This came as a surprise to me, because you cannot reuse a chip that has come into contact with a patient’s blood. You need a lot of consumable material, which is also reflected in the price. But perhaps new funding models can be found in which, for example, the device is provided, but the consumable material – i.e. the chips – are paid for separately, rather like a razor and razor blades.

Where do you see opportunities for Switzerland in this field?
The education of qualified people is important. Here the ETH and EPFL play a particularly important role for Switzerland, because they attract students from all over the world. They hopefully leave Switzerland with good memories and could possibly campaign later for the commercialization of technologies. That could be a huge opportunity. Of course there are also generous people within Switzerland, but there is a tendency here to economize and think twice before deciding whether and, if so, where to invest one’s money. It’s a question of mentality and not necessarily typically Swiss. It’s also not a bad thing, because in precision mechanics, for example, reliability and precision are essential – and this technology fits with our mentality. “Quick and dirty” works better in Silicon Valley and Korea – but the products then often fail to ensure up to the quality standards here. As a high-price island, Switzerland offers little, opportunity for cheap production, which is why the focus is on education and existing technologies. This too is very important and has a good future.

Will microfluidics one day become as big as microelectronics is today?
I don’t think so, because it is limited to chemical and cytobiological applications and is also not as flexible as microelectronics. At most, I see the new technology being used on existing equipment or processes.

But most of the systems on the market today are very much closed, so it is difficult to integrate new technologies here.
Yes, but that’s only partly true, because existing devices also have to be upgraded. Take a mass spectrometer, for example. You can buy one of these, and there are certainly many companies that sell this equipment. But if ten companies offer something equivalent, you have to stand out from the mass. So if a “Lab on a Chip” is added on, then this mass spectrometer enjoys a clear advantage. While the company makes money from the sale of the equipment, it is the microfluidic chip that gives the incentive to buy – and there is certainly a lot of money to be made from this. You see, we are living in the century of biology and medicine and are only just beginning to takes cells from the body to regenerate them and then perhaps re-implanting them as a complete organ. When you see what has been achieved in physics and electrical engineering in the last century, and translate that into biology and medicine, then we have an awful lot ahead of us. Technology is needed to underpin these radical changes. SMEs in particular are very good at selling their products to research; that’s a niche. In most cases, small companies use old technology and modify it – such as a chip in a syringe that then analyses directly what the constituents of a fluid are when it is drawn up into the syringe. This opens up many opportunities.

You have also co-founded companies, but describe yourself mainly as a researcher. How do the two go together?
Actually I was never an entrepreneur, but always just a scientific advisor. I preferred to experience the academic world instead of becoming fully engaged in a company. Deep down, I’m an adventurer who comes to a company with wild ideas. Money is also never a priority for me; I always wanted to improve the quality of life or give something to humanity. It is curiosity that drives me. When I see a bug that flies, that drives me to find out how it works. There are ingenious sensors in the tiniest of creatures, and as long as we cannot replicate these as engineers, we still have work to do. This inspires me much more than quarterly sales revenue and profits.

But money is also an important driver for research.
Yes, it’s all about money, right down to university research. Research groups are commissioned by companies because of the profit they hope to gain. Even publicly funded research always has to show evidence of a commercial application. Curiosity or the goal of achieving something of ethical value is hardly a topic in the engineering sciences. Of course it’s important that our students can also enter industry; after all, most of the tax revenue comes from industry. But if I personally had the freedom to choose, then I would prefer to pursue work as a form of play – which can by all means result in something to be taken seriously. Take electrophoresis on a chip: That was also quite an absurd idea to begin with, and it led to something really exciting! A lot of my work therefore has a playful, non-serious aspect to it – for me that is exactly right. You see, I can produce a chip which deep inside it is as hot as the surface of the sun, but which you can nevertheless hold in your hand. It’s crazy, but it works, because only the electrons have a temperature of 20,000 Kelvin. The glass outside does not heat up very much as a result, and the chip does not melt. And suddenly you have plasma emission spectroscopy on a chip as the result of a crazy idea. I feel research calls for a certain sense of wit, and I often like to say that, with microfluidics research, we take big problems and make them so small that you can “no longer see them”.

You have covered so many areas of microfluidics yourself – are other researchers still able to surprise you with their work?
Admittedly, I am rather spoiled today by all the microfluidic examples that I have already seen. Sometimes I feel bored when I go to a microfluidics conference and see what “new” things have emerged – I somehow get the feeling I’ve seen it all before. The pioneering days, when there was also a degree of uncertainty at play, are probably definitely over. Today you can liken microfluidics to a workshop where you get the tools you need at any given time. This means of course that the know-how has also become more widespread: Initially I possessed perhaps a third of all knowledge about microfluidics worldwide; today it is much less. So I now enjoy casting my research net further afield.

You received a lifetime achievement award from the European Patent Office last year. What does this award mean to you?
You cannot plan for an award – at most you can perhaps hope for one. When you then get it, it brings a great sense of joy. The award process itself was also exciting: as with the Oscars, there were three nominees: a Dutchman who developed the coding standard for CD, DVD and Blu-ray discs, which is still used to this day, and a researcher from Latvia who is one of the most successful scientists and inventors in medical biochemistry with more than 900 patents and patent applications. Faced with this competition, I reckoned I did not have much chance of the award and was absolutely astonished when I was chosen. The jury explained that its decision was down to the snowball effect: citations almost always refer to my patents at the time with Ciba-Geigy.

Interview: Fabian Käser and Nadine Nikulski, BaselArea.swiss

*Andreas Manz is a researcher at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Saarbrücken (KIST Europe) and professor at the Saarland University. He is regarded today as one of the pioneers in microchip technology for chemical applications.

After positions in the research labs of Hitachi in Japan and at Ciba-Geigy in Basel, he took up a professorship at Imperial College in London, where he headed the Zeneca-SmithKline Beecham Centre for Analytical Chemistry. In the meantime he was also a scientific advisor for three companies in the field of chip laboratory technology, one of which he founded himself. In 2003, Manz moved to Germany and headed the Leibniz Institute of Analytical Sciences (ISAS) in Dortmund until 2008.

Around 40 patents can essentially be attributed to him, and he has published more than 250 scientific publications, which have been cited more than 20,000 times to date.

report Micro, Nano & Materials

«If a scientist doesn’t know how to recognise commercial potential, he won’t found a busin...

02.12.2015

Robert Sum and Marko Loparic are both entrepreneurs with a scientific background. In the i-net interview, they tell the stories of Nanosurf and Nuomedis, explain why the Basel region is a great place for their startups and what could be done to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the scientific environment.

Robert Sum, you co-founded Nanosurf in 1997, just shortly after completing your thesis. What motivated you to create your own startup?
Robert Sum*: I was motivated by the possibility of using my knowledge from university in a practical way. Towards the end of my thesis in 1995, I had the good fortune that Hans-Joachim Güntherodt was the rector, and together with the department of economic sciences he created a seminar for PhD students. The seminar was called «Start-up into your own company». My friend Dominik Braendlin and I registered for this innovative format. We had already worked together on research projects and we felt the need for a concrete application. Another good friend, Lukas Howald, approached us with the idea of Professor Güntherodt to design a simple and easy-to-use Scanning Tunnelling Microscope for schools. We liked the project and started to work on it. Luckily, the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) launched its startup initiative shortly after this. Thanks to the coaching, we were able to write our first real business plan and CTI decided it was worthy of support. Nanosurf is the only company from the first CTI support round which survived. I stayed with the company until 2014, but in 2009, I stepped back from operational management.

The next project followed immediately: Nuomedis.
Robert Sum: After Nanosurf, I started to work intensively with universities on scientific projects. This is how I met Marko Loparic. We worked together on two projects for a specific application in tissue diagnostics, which again was supported by CTI. In the end, we decided to found a «spin-out/start-off» company from Nanosurf plus the University of Basel, which became Nuomedis.

Marko Loparic, did you have any entrepreneurial background?
Marko Loparic*: I’m a medical doctor by profession. During my PhD at the Biozentrum, University of Basel, I worked with atomic force microscopy, AFM, and immediately realised that this nanotechnological device had very high potential for resolving crucial clinical questions. We saw not only great scientific potential - for example for understanding not only the mechanisms of tissue engineering, cancer development and metastasis, as well as drug activity, but also the diagnostic applications, such as early detection of osteoarthritis or cancer diagnosis. AFM helped us to explain biological functions because at the very first phase of a disease, the alterations in tissue are occurring at the nanometre scale. However, it was time consuming and very complicated using the microscope. So we developed little innovative algorithms which automated, simplified and enabled AFM applications in life sciences and clinics. At the end of my PhD studies, I spoke with my supervisors about how to commercialise all the simplifications when the collaboration with Nanosurf was initiated and the creation of the easy-to-use, AFM «Automated and Reliable Tissue Diagnostic», «Artidis», began.

What steps are planned next for Nuomedis?
Marko Loparic: We plan to take «Artidis» to the next level. From its use in physics, biology, chemistry and science, our next step is rather a big jump: to be the first company to introduce AFM technology into clinics.

This almost sounds like you had no choice but to found a company.
Robert Sum: We found an ideal situation: I had the experience to build up a company, combined with experience in technology development and knowledge of the startup environment; and Marko brought vast scientific and clinical experience at a high level. We started by thinking about the possible need and how to do business with it. Out of these ideas, we created a deck of PowerPoint slides – a lean business plan so to speak. It was clear to us that there was huge business potential which we wanted to realize.

Marko Loparic: From the start in 2005, working on the project was great, as the whole team was fully motivated. Everything developed very smoothly and nicely. Supporters even became investors, and we still enjoy a strong scientific collaboration with the Biozentrum. It’s great that the main patents are now granted worldwide – this is very important and will help us to attract further investors. Currently we are focusing on the transformation of the «Artidis» device into a clinical in-vitro medical device.

In fact, you have to create a demand among doctors and oncologists, don’t you?
Marko Loparic: At the moment, our main focus is on introducing to clinicians the breakthrough technology of nanomechanical profiling and the benefits which it brings to clinicians, hospital and patients. Our prototype is currently being evaluated and used in ongoing clinical studies at the Pathology Department of the University Hospital Basel. In the near future, we aim to confirm its effectiveness for breast cancer prognostics in order to reduce the problem of chemotherapy overtreatment. Nowadays, markers are not specific enough to distinguish with a high degree of probability which patients will benefit from chemotherapy and which will not. If we could reduce chemotherapy treatment just a fraction, we could make a big difference. Our main hurdles to entering the market are now regulatory obstacles, which we plan to overcome in the next two to three years.

How does your experience in founding Nuomedis compare with founding Nanosurf 18 years ago?
Robert Sum: Many things have changed regarding the environment. When we founded Nanosurf, the university was not focused on commercialising an idea. Business was perceived as something strange, and science was sacrosanct. This has changed dramatically. The word startup is almost a must nowadays for PhDs. Additionally, through TV shows and articles in the media, people are more aware that startups are a culture which needs to be fostered. However, starting a business is a lot of work, which has to be done with care. It is easier for me today, as I have some experience and won’t make the same mistakes again.

You support a lean startup approach – are business plans not needed anymore?
Robert Sum: I think there is a big misapprehension regarding the idea of the lean startup. A business plan is still needed - it’s essential that you know what your plans are. You need a concept, but it doesn’t have to be a book. You still need to know the basics at the very least, for example what the product is, who the customers are, where you see risks, how you produce or how you finance – to mention only a few. What lean startup means to me is that you should focus on the market and keep the customer in the centre.

Is it at all possible to use the lean startup method in the complex healthcare environment of Nuomedis?
Robert Sum: The problem in healthcare is that you don’t simply have a customer and sell a product. We are facing a complex health insurance environment based on a solidarity principle, and we have many stakeholders influencing the system, such as the hospital, the clinicians, other healthcare institutions, society or the company itself. It is indeed much more difficult to use the lean startup approach here.

Marko Loparic: Our major focus is on clinicians, and we use the experience we have in science and clinics to create awareness. Nevertheless, we are actively cooperating with other key stakeholders, such as hospitals, patient organisations, health insurers, clinical societies or government bodies, to facilitate accelerated development and keep the time to market as short as possible. Finally, at our demo site in the Pathology Department of the University Hospital Basel, we learn how the clinicians and hospital system operate, which is important to help us shape the device to match their needs. Hence, proximity to measurement site is key for the successful development and acceptance of technology, and our plan is to relocate in order to be as close as possible to the hospital.

Robert Sum: This is the typical process of understanding the market – and I think this is where Nuomedis has benefited from the lean startup approach.

How important was it for you to be in the Basel region? How does it foster your business?
Marko Loparic: Basel is a centre of nanotechnology and especially AFM, since Professor Christoph Gerber, who built the first AFM, is still active here together with many distinguished professors who are making great use of the technology to boost their scientific output. For us, Basel has all the ingredients for success: We have a city where technology is well supported and hospitals which are open-minded and ready for new technologies. Not to mention the Biozentrum and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, which offer great expertise and facilities for innovative projects.

Robert Sum: Another aspect is the economic environment of Basel with many pharma and medical technology companies. There is an entrepreneurial environment here with investments available. Not to mention the role of government: Basel-Stadt and Baselland collaborate very closely and, if we need some support for administrative issues, they are extremely open-minded and helpful.

What makes Basel a startup-friendly environment?
Marko Loparic: Positive factors in the region are its good infrastructure, both a national and international network, and its spirit of entrepreneurship. If you work in Basel, there are many options for learning how to commercialise your idea. This is true for the whole of Switzerland by the way. There are dedicated organisations and funds for each step you have to take in developing a business, ranging from CTI to investors and incubators. The i-net Business Plan Seminar was very important for me. In only one day, I learned a lot about how to construct a business. In my opinion, there is still a big gap between basic research and translational science.

Robert Sum: Either you are a good scientist or an experienced business person – it’s difficult to be both. This is an art that is nicely managed in Silicon Valley, and successful entrepreneurs become investors. And I guess something could be done here. Organisations like i-net are very important for networking ideas, and you can also find support at EVA or business parks. Not to mention Unitectra, which provides workshops for students on how to exploit intellectual property created at university. Indeed there are many supportive organisations, which can make you feel a little lost. CTI Start-up helped us to get an overview of the whole support landscape.

Marko Loparic: In my opinion, it’s all about education: If a scientist doesn’t know how to recognise commercial potential, he won’t make it. There are seminars to help, but you need an incentive to go to such seminars. What about scientists being approached from the business side? When you apply for a grant, you always need to stress the long-term outcome of your project and sometimes its commercial purpose. It would be great to have an organisation with the skills to read those grant applications and search for business potential. A person or organisation that could offer this could help create a great start-up environment.

Interview: Ralf Dümpelmann and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

*Robert Sum is one of the co-founders of Nanosurf AG and has served in different management positions as CEO, Head of Sales & Marketing and Business Development. During his time working in business development he managed the research collaboration with the Biozentrum for the project «Artidis», which is now the prime project of Nuomedis AG. After 17 years of management experience at Nanosurf Dr. Sum left to found Nuomedis AG with members of the Biozentrum team. Now Dr. Sum serves as CEO and member of the board.

*Marko Loparic, MD, is the key inventor of «Artidis» technology from the Biozentrum University of Basel. He managed the collaboration with Nanosurf for the «Artidis» project, which is now the prime project of Nuomedis AG. Now Dr. Loparic serves as the Chief Medical Officer and member of the board at Nuomedis AG. He is responsible for medical related concerns of the project and its implementation in the clinical setting.

report Medtech

«We will be certificating the world’s first autonomous robotic surgical device»

04.11.2015

The laser physicist and entrepreneur Alfredo E. Bruno is co-founder and CEO of the medtech start-up Advanced Osteotomy Tools (AOT) in Basel. Their surgical robot «Carlo» (acronym for Computer Assisted, Robot-guided Laser Osteotome) is an award-winning project (Pionierpreis 2014 and CTI MedTech 2015). The company will exhibit «Carlo» at the Swiss Innovation Forum 2015 on 19th November.

In the i-net interview, Alfredo E. Bruno explained his roadmap for AOT and what drives him to be an entrepreneur.

You are a laser physicist – what brought you to medtech?
Alfredo E. Bruno*: My younger daughter needed difficult orthognathic surgery to correct conditions of the jaw and face. This brought me into contact with Professor Hans-Florian Zeilhofer and Dr. Philipp Jürgens from the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the University Hospital Basel. I was worried about my child, but the surgeons devoted a lot of time to explain the procedure to us. Their pre-operative approach to surgery fascinated me more and more. I asked the surgeons why they were not cutting bones with a miniaturized laser instead of mechanical tools to best reproduce the software-planned intervention. In another project, I had developed a laser of this kind to cut and drill through nails. At this point, we all realized that we could create something very useful together.

How did you gain your knowledge in surgery?
I had absolutely no idea about surgery until I met the surgeons – despite the fact that my father was a rural medical doctor. Indeed, when I see a drop of blood, I panic. But I wanted to know more about this new type of planned and navigated surgery the surgeons were talking about. I managed to find a good 160 publications and about 20 patents in the field, read them during vacations and became a «theoretical» surgeon. Reading these documents, I noticed that Professor Zeilhofer appeared as co-author in many of these publications and realized that he knew a lot about pre-operative planning and navigation. I started to design «Carlo» from scratch using all available state-of-the-art technology, and trying not to be biased by the robotic surgery products already on the market. What worried me most was the software, which is crucial to integrating the whole system. Hans-Florian Zeilhofer introduced me to Professor Philippe Cattin, an expert in navigation who liked the idea from the outset. He was the «missing link» to the realization of «Carlo».

Was it always clear that «Carlo» would be the goal of AOT?
As an entrepreneur, I made it very clear from the beginning that I wanted to have a product rather than a nice academic idea. Instead of writing a business plan, we first applied for patent protection of the innovations. The business plan came afterwards with a business model in which we at AOT would only focus on core technologies and would outsource the technologies mastered by other companies under contractual partnerships in order to reduce development time.

Were you ever afraid that AOT might fail?
While writing the business plan, I clearly saw that there was a need for our product. We had the right founder’s team, but I was worried about the funding, because there was a global economic crisis and investors had become cautious. Therefore, I decided to talk to a few experts I knew in the start-up media in Switzerland before launching the initiative. They reviewed the AOT case and encouraged me to pursue the project, because it was truly innovative and, for this kind of project, they argued that there are always funds available in Switzerland. And indeed, with our first pitch in BioBAC, we gained a lead investor. Shortly afterwards, we won the three stages of Venture Kick and I was then asked to participate in the Swiss Venture Day of CTI Invest to make a pitch. Despite some doubts I had about the completely new surgical device, many potential private and institutional investors were literally queuing right after my presentation to talk to me about the «Carlo» device and AOT as an investment opportunity.

Why do you think your pitch attracted potential investors?
I think the every one of the technical founder’s team had a remarkable technical record which inspired trust, and I also have a good entrepreneurial record, all of which make up the ingredients investors are looking for to fund new projects. The pitch is key to convincing investors. We cannot afford to devote much time to making «professional» slides, but the audience realizes that we have an unbeatable project and know what we are doing; and they can see during the Q&A sessions that we are very authentic.

In the beginning, you faced some criticism with regard to the feasibility of a complex medical device such as «Carlo». Do you still face negative reactions?
No, not anymore! When I started speaking of «cold» laser ablation, many physicists questioned this paradoxical term. Today, after we assessed the remaining surfaces of the bones and captured the ablation process with thermal cameras showing that this cutting method is even cooler than mechanical cuts, nobody has any doubts about our assertion anymore. Another critical issue raised by some experts was depth control. Some argued that we would never be able to have depth control working in real time. Again, this is no longer an issue.

You recently presented this depth measurement system for the first time. How does it work?
With the help of external academic partners we developed a laser interferometric method suitable for our device that provides not only the depth of the cut but also its width right after every laser shot so its entire profile can be reconstructed in real time. This «probing» laser beam is co-axially mixed with other visible pointing laser beams to ensure that the surgeon can observe the cut on the monitor. There are many computer-controlled processes such as the depth control running in parallel during some of the tasks. They are processed by a microprocessor which sends values that are already calculated to the «Carlo brain» to decide what to do next. With this software technology, we are pushing the envelope in three disciplines: laser physics, data processing and synchronization.

Could this know-how be used for other applications in or beyond surgery?
As pioneers in this field, we encounter many new problems to solve. But on the other hand, once we have found the solution, we file for patent protection and, in this way, we’re strengthening our patent protection. Some of these innovations could be used for other applications, but we have to remain focused on one thing: getting device certification. Once we «put our foot on the moon», we could follow up on other options with the technology we have discovered.

It sounds as if you are not facing any difficult situations anymore with AOT?
Problems are constantly arising, but we have a very professional and courageous team that brainstorms the problems at hand in complete transparency and always comes up with one or more solutions. Although scientists are trained to present nice results in conferences while leaving the bad results aside, we are upfront with the bad news. If a problem appears, it’s immediately brought to the attention of the team so we can find a solution together.

What in your opinion are the key factors for an innovative company?
Everyone knows what the main ingredients for innovation are: You have to have a product that addresses a need, a unique proprietary technology, the right people and the financial means. However these ingredients do not guarantee success, and many start-ups that have these ingredients fail. The causes of failure are often underestimated, but should be addressed in the risk analysis of the business plan. A classical killer of technological innovation is when investors strategically decide to sell the start-up to an established competitor. But the buyer wants to get rid of a potential competitor! A possible antidote is to have a good legal adviser. A lawyer can help you to set clear goals for the steps after the acquisition and implement penalties in the contract. Also, it is good to keep the founders of the company in-house, because these people are part of the success and often the «engine» of a start-up.

What makes Switzerland a good place for you to launch a medtech start-up?
I have worked with people and projects in a few countries. What I find unique in Switzerland is the scientific family: Everybody knows each other and has close relationships. For instance, when the issue of a suitable depth control appeared, we spoke to other scientists who had solved similar problems for eye surgery. They came up with friendly and open advice without speculating on what the benefit would be for them. This is by no means the rule in other countries, where often knowledge is seen as power. But the free flow of information in this country is crucial in ambitious high-tech projects.

Where do you see room for improvement of entrepreneurship in Switzerland?
Switzerland already ranks as leader when it comes to innovation, but I see there are three things that could be changed to foster even more innovation – namely, the no-risk mentality, the fear of failure and the loss of reputation. The Swiss education system teaches students to avoid risks instead of focusing on the possible reward associated with a risk. Indeed, the word risk has a negative connotation in Switzerland, but entrepreneurship without risk is as hypothetical as perpetual motion.
How can we overcome our fear of failure? One recipe for passing an exam is «to do the homework in time to get a good sleep the night before». In a high-tech start-up, this recipe means firstly drafting a comprehensive and realistic business plan and strong IP protection. Failure is part of the game, and the question needs to be how fast you can get back up after getting knocked down, not whether you are going get knocked down.
Regarding the loss of reputation, people look at you with suspicion when you’re trying to build your own company based on an unusual idea. And your employer may think you’re not happy with the job. But large established companies don’t have the framework for promoting new ideas. They should support their employees to pursue their own ideas and get trained on founding a new company.

What drives you as an entrepreneur?
I have always tried to do things I like and am capable of realizing. I have always been a curious person. As a child, I built rockets and blew the fuses in our house with my experiments – for example – to split water into O2 and H2 with 240 volts! My grandfather, who was a full-blooded entrepreneur, also taught me the basics of entrepreneurship. I guess the ideal situation for high-tech entrepreneurship is a «born scientist» with a flair for entrepreneurship, as management skills can be acquired.

Do you have any entrepreneurial role models?
Columbus has always fascinated me since childhood. Only later did I realize that he was an incredible entrepreneur who first had to convince the queen to get funds and had to overcome many odds. He definitely had the intelligence, the passion and the courage required to literally embark on such a project. And although pirates are not exactly good role models, they were excellent start-up entrepreneurs. Pirates planned their attacks rigorously in advance, had to get funding or develop advanced boats with higher masts to sail faster. Their structure was similar to a start-up nowadays, and they even had the equivalent to stock option plans, where the loot was distributed among all the hierarchies in proportion to their performance.

Interview: Fabian Käser and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

*Alfredo E. Bruno holds an M.Sc in Quantum Chemistry and a PhD in Laser Physics from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada). Alfredo came to Munich in 1985 as an Alexander-von-Humboldt fellow followed by a teaching position at the University of Zürich. In 1988 he joined Ciba-Geigy and later Novartis where he accumulated more than 25 years of experience in biomedical, preclinical and clinical research in joint projects with Spectra Physics and Chiron Diagnostics.

At Novartis, Alfredo Bruno invented Transungual Laser Therapy for nail diseases, which was the basis for the spin-off of TLT Medical Ltd in 2004, where he was the sole founder and CTO. After three years of successful operation under his leadership, TLT Medical was sold to Arpida Ltd in 2007, where he became the Head of Antifungals. In 2009, he co-founded FreiBiotics in Freiburg (Germany), where he was CEO until mid-2011. In 2011, he co-founded Advanced Osteotomy Tools (AOT), where he is the CEO. He has published over 35 peer-reviewed publications and holds more than 15 patents and has been on the editorial board of three international scientific journals.

report ICT

«As an entrepreneur you have to be a little paranoid»

07.10.2015

Adrian Bult, the Basel private investor and member of various boards of directors, is an acknowledged expert with an in-depth knowledge of Switzerland’s ICT sector. Since March 2013, he has been engaged on a voluntary basis as head of the i-net Technology Field ICT. In this interview he explains that makes entrepreneur types and why he is convinced that Switzerland could quite easily produce the next Google.

What’s it like being a Business Angel in Switzerland?
Adrian Bult*: Basically I have an exciting life. I am constantly confronted with new ideas and incentives. I have to do with young entrepreneurs, and that is very enriching for me.

Do you also mean that in a literal sense?
Certainly, because I am primarily interested in the content and people. So I also don’t see myself as an investor but as an interested developer of companies.

You invest above all in ICT – are there enough interesting cases?
Yes, in my view there are an awful lot of good ideas in Switzerland and a distinct sense of enterprise. But most is privately funded. In this respect Switzerland is unique. There is probably no other country anywhere in the world where so much in the way of financial resources flows into innovation from private investors or companies. This is also different from Silicon Valley, where enterprise is driven by a highly professional venture capital industry.

So you also have to lower your sights accordingly in Switzerland?
Yes, and Switzerland also has a small domestic market. This therefore begs the question of ambition right at the outset of any start-up. In the B-to-C segment, if you don’t step up to the plate with a global vision, then you usually have little chance from the start. Switzerland is therefore above all a country with lots of interesting niche providers – especially in the B-to-B segment.

What is lacking in most of the cases you encounter?
Switzerland has a distinct pharmaceutical, engineering and chemical culture. But a good sales and marketing culture is also important for the success of a start-up. In this respect, other countries - especially the USA, for example - have a head start. They give much more emphasis to marketing. Young technology-driven entrepreneurs in particular believe the best product will succeed. But that is often just not the case. In most cases it is the product that is marketed best that comes out on top.

But in Silicon Valley aren’t companies still being founded by techies and nerds, not by marketing people?
That’s true, but marketing has the same importance as engineering operations. If you tell someone at a party that you’re a salesman, then the reaction is usually very muted. This has to do with the fact that, in Switzerland, understatement is seen as a great virtue. Self-marketing is nothing like as important as it is in other cultures. That’s something we Swiss have to learn.

Does a start-up founder without salesman qualities have no chance?
Absolutely. How else does he want to attract investors for his project? This is where it starts. And then you also need a certain ambition. There are founders who focus on the global market from the outset. In Switzerland, this is immediately greeted with smiles. But basically this is the right attitude in order to reel in the first customer. This is also a typical approach of many technology-driven start-up founders in Switzerland: pick up the phone and work through a list of leads. Most people feel this is beneath them.

Are there other patterns you often come across in young Swiss entrepreneurs?
Something I always see especially in start-ups is an underestimation of the time that is needed to achieve the desired results. If you underestimate the time and the funding is linked to this time axis, then you have to react in good time when you see that you are going to need longer. Otherwise you run out of steam.

So you should always plan for twice as much time and money as you think?
No, that would be wrong. I’m in favour of setting a tight deadline and keeping funds short. But you have to react in good time if you see that things are getting tight. You need the pressure – otherwise you don’t move.

Can Switzerland and Europe ever produce an ICT giant?
Why not? You always only hear of Google, Airbnb or Uber. But there are also companies that are working very successfully one or two steps below this radar. There are some areas where technologically very advanced solutions are being developed in Switzerland. Such as “Over the Top” internet TV.

Does Switzerland not simply make too little of its opportunities? It is not Zurich but London that is the FinTech centre of the world today.
In Switzerland there have certainly been developments in this direction; for example, companies invested early on in e-private banking, and apps from big Swiss banks lead the field today. But a cluster has not formed around this as it has in London. Why is that? To succeed in the FinTech sector, banks have to cannibalize their own business. Under these conditions it is simply difficult to drive innovation forward within your own organization. This is why I argue in favour of cooperative ventures. Twint from Postfinance is a good example of how this can succeed.

With the coalescence of ICT and Life Sciences, the next opportunity presents itself for Switzerland and the Northwest region in particular. What needs to be done to make sure this opportunity is not missed?
Innovation arises through collaboration. Small companies often lack the know-how and the resources for major roll-outs. Established companies on the other hand lack the agility to achieve the best-possible result with few resources. I would therefore suggest approaching such issues more in project networks. It is typically just a few people in the management of large companies who decide whether an idea is good or bad. A completely different approach is taken in Silicon Valley, where there is a sponsor for any given idea. This sponsor gets together with financial investors and technical experts and interacts with them. If the idea goes down well and there is potential for improvement, then it is on the right track. If the comments are constantly negative, then it is probably the wrong way. The upshot is that, in Silicon Valley, it is the competent people with a competent opinion who are the decisive actors, not an individual in management. It is noticeable that this model is slowly coming to be accepted in Switzerland as well.

And yet Switzerland is world champion in innovation?
I would take the assertion that “Switzerland is world champion in innovation” with a very large dose of salt. Such statements just make you feel comfortable. If an innovation is in the process of redefining a market, then it can never be too soon to notice it. As an entrepreneur you have to be positively paranoid in this respect and should be constantly considering whether you are good enough and what could be improved.

It is often said that enterprise is not highly regarded in Switzerland and the willingness to take risks is given too little regard.
I feel this has changed a lot. In fact I see a lot of young people who set about projects with a very strong appetite for risk. Failure today is also no longer so serious. It is also very valuable for personal development if you have established your own company. I see young entrepreneurs today who are much further on than I was at the same age because they have established their own company.

You said at the start that in Switzerland it is mainly private individuals who invest. What could be done to ensure that even more is invested?
It could be encouraged by giving people the possibility to experience this themselves. For example, instead of investing heavily in training and continuing education, large companies could give management staff the opportunity to invest training money also in a start-up. If an MBA costs 20,000 francs, for example, the company could get the manager to pay up 20,000 francs themselves on top in order to support a small company with this capital. I’m convinced the learning effect in terms of reading balance sheets and profit-and-loss accounts or driving projects is at least as great as it is when compiling a case study at a prestigious university. If you can convey this credibly in a job interview, then this experience is just as valuable as a title.

What do you think of tax incentives for companies that create added value?
Basically I always find it positive when incentives are created for people who are prepared to take a risk. If someone takes a big risk, he should also be rewarded for this. Tax incentives are one possible way of doing this.

Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

*Adrian Bult has worked on an honorary basis for i-net as Head of ICT since March 2013. Bult is an acknowledged expert with an in-depth knowledge of Switzerland’s ICT sector. From 1998 to 2007 he was a member of the group management of Swisscom and from 2007 to April 2012 he was COO of Swiss-based bank software vendor Avaloq. Today Adrian Bult is a consultant and investor. He is Chairman of the Board of Directors at Swissgrid and Enkom Group and a member of the Board of Directors at Adnovum, Swissquote, Regent Beleuchtungskörper and Alfred Müller AG.

Adrian Bult (born in 1959) studied business administration and marketing at the University of St. Gallen.

report Medtech

«Only when it is shared in the team does an idea take shape»

03.09.2015

Hans-Florian Zeilhofer is a surgeon, innovator, scientist and entrepreneur. He has performed pioneering work in many fields of reconstructive facial surgery. Always driven by the goal of improving the situation for his patients, Zeilhofer is constantly initiating new projects that meet with international acclaim – as also with his latest project, Miracle, which his team will present at the Lift Basel Conference 2015.

In this interview he explains why work in an interdisciplinary team is so important for him and why he is convinced that new impulses are being generated worldwide from Northwest Switzerland.

You are a surgeon with an extraordinary background – how would you describe yourself?
Hans-Florian Zeilhofer*: Above all I’m an inquisitive person who likes to explore new paths. Even in areas where there is no path as yet, and even if I don’t know whether and how I will arrive. It‘s an enriching experience to keep meeting new people on the way and finding the solutions together that will hopefully fulfil their purpose. It’s really inspiring when you approach and arrive at a goal in this way.

You perform surgery, establish companies and are scientifically engaged in diverse areas. How do you manage with your work-life balance?
I dislike the term work-life balance. I don’t put my professional life and private life on the scales to make sure they are in balance. You should always do your work with joy and passion and find fulfilment in your work. Then you will also no longer speak of work-life balance. If work is done or has to be done without any consideration of the overall context behind it, then there will be no sense of purpose or meaning. It is therefore important to establish working conditions that help to invest the work with meaning – and that applies in all kinds of work.

You have already done a lot in your life: medicine and dentistry, philosophy, science and management – how do you reconcile all that?
I don’t see my different activities as contradictory, but rather as mutually complementary. Today I can do a lot of things that I could not do five or ten years ago and am constantly trying to appreciate what new perspectives there are and what I would like to keep working on. You never stop learning, and I learn a lot from younger colleagues. That’s very enriching for me in the late stage of my professional career.

Do we live in an age where more Leonardo Da Vincis are needed? Should doctors acquire a broader knowledge?
It’s not absolutely necessary to emulate the universal genius, but a certain knowledge base is extremely important. The oral and maxillofacial surgeon has to study both medicine and dentistry. But that is no longer enough by many means. A budding specialist should acquire a wide variety of knowledge, for example in engineering and the use of computers or media, but knowledge of economics and ethics is also become increasingly important. I also believe that the training has to change. I’m in the fortunate position that I am able to influence developments and guide the youngsters. That’s a really nice experience.

You are a pioneer in many areas of medical technology. How do those famous Eureka moments come about?
My innovations always start out from an everyday problem for which I am seeking a solution. If I find a conventional solution for our patients is no longer adequate or satisfactory, then I start looking for an alternative. Solutions often emerge quite suddenly or spring from a moment of meditative calm.
The idea then comes, for example, when I’m sitting in the train with my eyes closed or in the morning under the shower. It’s working there somewhere in the subconscious and then suddenly an approach to solving the problem presents itself. As a rule it will not yet have clearly defined contours, but will be sufficient to allow me to make some brief notes. Then it is important to have friends and partners with whom I can exchange ideas. For only through this exchange can the idea come into being and take concrete shape. If a partner then asks the right questions, this quickly takes it forwards and you can see what aspects of the idea are still incomplete, where there might be a hitch that has to be considered to ensure the solution will work.

You’re known as a doer – many of your ideas are implemented and you have been involved in many spin-offs. What does the risk of failure mean for you?
The risk of failure is a very serious matter, and it’s always there wherever you go – for surgeons in particular this is a huge challenge every day. When a patient entrusts himself to me, he wants the operation to go well. For me this means I have to plan a lot to make sure the procedure is as safe as possible. And I also have to be aware that Plan A might have to be abandoned in the course of an operation and that an unpredictable moment may spontaneously necessitate a new Plan B.
In the course of my professional experience I have learned to cope with this. We have often tried to learn from other professional groups such as musicians, who also have to improvise. It can only enrich us all to think outside the box and to learn from other disciplines; in my case, that is art and the humanities above all.

And what does entrepreneurial risk mean for you?
This also requires courage. It took me a long time to venture taking this step for the first time. I have often found that outstanding and especially innovative medical ideas have hardly been taken up by industry. There are a wide variety of reasons for this: sometimes it is down to production processes that don’t fit, or there are logistical problems, and the regulatory approval processes are also often too protracted. I came to realize that we doctors and scientists need to find the courage to start companies ourselves if we do not want good ideas to land in the drawer. However, we then take an entrepreneurial risk that brings far-reaching strategies for action with it. For example, I first have to protect my idea before I go public with it. After the patent and the start-up, you then have to develop the product to market readiness and resolve the problems associated with this. Not least, and here lies a more complex part of the venture, you have to find investors who are prepared to provide financial support for a new development. But such investors of course also want to keep the risk as low as possible if they are to come in with several hundred thousand to a million francs. But ultimately, it is precisely the riskier ideas that are the really exciting projects.

Where does your enthusiasm for entrepreneurial risk come from?
You know, as a young doctor in Germany I developed my first idea for a product innovation. And when I presented this to experts, I was told no one needed it. Soon after that I attended a congress on medical imaging in Silicon Valley. There everyone congratulated me and encouraged me to pursue the idea. Eventually I found my partners in related subjects, such as mathematics and engineering. Leading research and cutting-edge technology can no longer be developed today in a monoculture. You need small and flexible, interdisciplinary teams of physicists, computer scientists, biologists, engineers and physicians for creative and quick solutions. There is enormous energy and dynamics here. It’s a culture that we have developed in Basel and taken almost to perfection. This is precisely the secret and the key to our success in the region. Such a culture needs sufficient space and time to develop and does not work as a solo effort – you always need a team.
I see my role increasingly in encouraging others, offering security and trust and also simply being present. Trust always rests on people, and you have involve yourself as a whole person. The partners feel this. I like being described as a door opener, but actually I only support the teams – they open the doors themselves.

And was this also the case with your last two coups: the MIRACLE project and the MedTech Fund MTIP?
Put simply, the MIRACLE project is about minimally invasive, computer-assisted, robot-guided bone cutting. The project is almost like a miracle. We are already world leaders in the use of laser technology to process hard tissue. In the next generation we want to work with flexible instruments directly in the body in order to make the procedures less stressful. I’m quite sure the MIRACLE project will have major significance for our society around 2050. Then there will be almost two million people aged over 65 in Switzerland. Greater life expectancy will bring an increase in age-related diseases due to wear and tear. The treatment of these diseases will require very complex technology and should not compromise the quality of life of patients. We therefore have to develop technologies with specific solutions for elderly people that allow the minimum possible invasiveness and rapid healing. With MIRACLE we will broaden the spectrum for surgical procedures and also make therapeutic measures accessible for elderly patients in relatively poor general health. At the same time, it will be possible to shorten the length of hospital stays and the subsequent rehabilitation phase.
It is our task today to research the basic principles that can deliver satisfactory results for the population in 30 or 40 years.
The special feature of MTIP is that the University of Basel and Basel University Hospital are partners in the fund. Both are sharing the entrepreneurial venture with us. I see this as a commitment that gives us courage and trust in science to continue down this path with industry.

Last year you made a highly regarded impression at the Lift Basel Conference that aroused a desire for more. What can visitors expect on the subject of Surgeon Superpowers this year?
We will present the Miracle project at the Lift Basel Conference 2015 and show the robot in Action. I very much hope that physicians will also be at the event and that we can dispel any reservations they may have about this technology. I believe it’s very important that we develop technologies out of our field, design them ourselves, keep them under our control and don’t place them unconditionally in the hands of industry. We will also present the latest 3D printing at the Lift conference. We already worked with this technology many years ago, when it found use in the automobile industry. I was one of the first to use 3D printing for medicine. Today we can produce individual implants from titanium powder that are better accepted by the body and are adapted to the needs of the patient. A third important issue is Big Data in medicine. We need cross-sectional images through the body for diagnostic purposes. These images contain an awful lot of information and we use only a small percentage of this – if any of it at all. Using today’s computing power we could process this data and use it, for example, for prophylaxis. We therefore intend to pay greater attention to Big Data here in Basel.

What other visions do you have for the region?
My vision is for the structures we are building up now to endure. I call the environment here a Medtech Innovation Hive. Beekeeping has been a hobby of mine for more than 30 years and I‘m fascinated by the way 40,000 individuals live together in a superorganism with a highly complex organization. For me the beehive is a source of inspiration and problem solving. And precisely for this reason I call our environment a hive, because like a bee population we need to be sensitive and flexible in the way we react to our environment. The research structures are like an organism which is in a state of constant change, can divide and grow, but is also vulnerable. In view of the high degree of interdisciplinarity, we need to develop new structures of cooperation. These will have an impact on industry, on the way a company is organized. And I’m sure these structures will also have an impact on universities. There are structures - such as the division into faculties - that are difficult to overcome. In Basel we have had help in resolving this problem with the establishment of departments. But in my opinion that is only an interim solution. At university level we need to find new ways to give structure and support to this form of research and facilitate a sustainable development for the future. And I’m delighted to have the privilege of playing a part in helping to shape this.

You came to Basel from Munich in 2002. Certainly a stroke of good fortune for Northwest Switzerland. And for you too?
I find very open people in Basel with whom I can discuss my ideas. And I appreciate the fact that Basel has a full university. For I believe there is an advantage in this that cannot be overestimated. In the Basel region we have not only a strong university, but also universities of applied science that are doing very good applied research. At the same time, we have very short paths of communication with the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and Lausanne (EPFL) and with EMPA and the CSEM. The triregional metropolitan region lends the Basel region a cultural diversity that we need to put our ideas into practice. I know many places in the world where people are engaged in innovation. And I’m convinced that something like a Silicon Valley for Europe can grow here – with impulses for the world and of similar consequence. And you talk of good fortune: yes, I do see it as a real stroke of good fortune that I can initiate and follow such a process together with i-net, the Swiss Innovation Park Northwest Switzerland, the university and university hospitals – I won’t get another chance like this.

Interview: Fabian Käser and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

*Professor Hans-Florian Zeilhofer heads the clinics for oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University Hospital Basel and the Cantonal Hospital Aarau, as well as the High-Tech Research Centre at the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Basel. After studying human medicine, dentistry and philosophy, he trained as a specialist in oral and maxillofacial surgery and gained his postdoctoral qualification at the university hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar of the Technical University Munich. In June 2002, he joined the University of Basel. In 2004 he established and headed the High-Tech Research Centre at the University Hospital Basel. In 2005 he became the founding president of the annual International Bernd Spiessl Symposium for Innovative and Visionary Technologies in Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery. Since 2013 he has been establishing the Med-Tech Innovation Hive in collaboration with i-net and the Swiss Innovation Park (SIP) Basel. Since 2007 he has been president of the Swiss Society of Maxillo-Facial Surgery. He has received numerous honours and awards for his innovative research work. He holds a number of international patents and has created several startup companies in recent years out of high-tech innovations from university research. Most recently he founded the new innovation platform Med-Tech Innovation Partners (MTIP) as a private public partnership together with the entrepreneur Felix Grisard and the manager Christoph Kausch with the involvement of the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel.

Project «MIRACLE»

Webpage of MTIP

Department of Biomedical Engineering

Video of Hans-Florian Zeilhofer at Lift Basel Conference 2014

report ICT

«If you’re after eight-figure investments, it’s always going to be very tight in Europe»

05.08.2015

With its award-winning Erlenapp, the company known as qipp made both a national and an international name for itself. But with its Allthings platform, success came to the Internet of Things startup in a different market from the one initially in mind. In this interview Stefan Zanetti, founder and CEO of qipp, explains what hurdles the Basel startup had to overcome and ventures a glimpse into the future for qipp.

In the past few months, qipp has reaped a host of startup awards. Does that also do something for the business or are the awards just good for the ego?
Stefan Zanetti*: Of course we wouldn’t have taken part in the competitions if we had not been convinced that they would get us somewhere. There are two considerations here. Firstly, our business idea is pretty abstract. To be successful, we have to package this in a good story. Competitions force us to get to the heart of our own story. Secondly, awards bring not only publicity, but above all also trust. It’s like a third opinion which certifies that we have a promising business idea. The awards have opened doors to investors in particular.

The idea of qipp matured over time. What has changed?
I would put it differently. The basic idea has always been the same: With our Allthings platform, we aim to equip the physical world with digital services. What has changed a lot is the market focus. At first we thought qipp could be interesting above all for producers of high-end goods. Our technology, for example, enables products such as watches, bicycles or kitchen devices to be equipped with digital services so that the producers can deliver their products directly with value-added services. This idea is still what guides us and was also well accepted by producers. Only this is unfortunately a slow-moving market and the sales cycles are much too long for a startup like us, who has to show concrete results very quickly.

So you had the right product, but were on the market too soon?
Yes, the producers we initially had in mind were simply not mature enough for our story. But fortunately another industry got wind of our product: the real estate sector. It was above all the initiative of a partner, namely the general contractor Losinger Marazzi, who wanted to explore new avenues for the Erlenmatt estate. And so we developed the Erlenapp on Allthings. Everyone who moves into an apartment in Erlenmatt is given access to this app, which covers all the services relating to the apartment and the estate: from the apartment documentation, a local social network where users can exchange their views or interfaces for reporting damage to the visualization of energy data. So far, 92 percent of the apartments have downloaded the app and use it on average every other day. These are fantastic values.

So is that now the breakthrough?
Since launching the Erlenapp, we have indeed been bombarded with queries. These come partly from the real estate sector and also from other sectors.

How are you coping with this rush?
At the moment we are working at two levels. Besides the further rollout of real estate apps, we are also working flat out on the publication of our API, which will then also open up the Allthings platform for third-party providers outside the real estate sector.

Can this balancing act work in the long run? Will you not have to decide at some stage: «World Leading Real Estate App» or horizontal platform for Internet of Things applications?
That’s a valid question. The real estate market is actually huge. And it’s not only about the market for apartments; a very attractive option of course is also the office segment, not least in view of new forms of work, such as shared desk and co-working, which are a growing feature of offices. There is huge potential in the real estate sector for micro-applications that can then be offered by third parties via our platform. This shows how crucial the local graph is - whether you want to get rid of the surplus food in your fridge before you go away on vacation or the local pub invites you to a BBQ evening.

So qipp positions itself as a sales and service outlet?
I could well imagine apps comparable with the Erlenapp in future being offered as basic infrastructure by cities, municipalities or districts. But at the same time you have to watch out that you don’t find yourself drifting out too wide, because a lot of things are possible, but not everything really makes sense. So it will be important to get the scalable core to crystallize out even more clearly in the coming months together with our partners.

You have been to Silicon Valley on various occasions. Will qipp have to move to the ICT mecca at some stage? Or to put it differently: can you also live out your ambitions in Basel?
If the success lasts, then the day will come when we have to touch ground in Silicon Valley. But we cannot and don’t want to take this step right now. We are also aware that there are hotspots like London and Berlin, where things are taking off at present and a European startup eco system has emerged. But you can also profit from this if you travel there now and then and actively network. You don’t necessarily have to locate your headquarters there. Conversely, a location like Basel also has advantages. For example, when you see how companies in London and Berlin poach developer talents off each other, then this is not something you necessarily want to get involved in. I can count on people here who above all are convinced of the qipp idea and find it exciting to develop this further. There are also top developers who don‘t desperately want to live in the most hip places in the world.

Is that not rather too defensively minded?
If you’re after big investments running to eight-figure sums, it’s always going to be very tight in Europe and you will also seek your fortune Silicon Valley. But no one there is waiting for a company from Europe and conversely no US venture capitalist invests to any substantial degree outside the US. Establishing a startup in Europe is fundamentally different from establishing a startup in the US. Take Nextdoor. This startup is doing something very similar to us in the US, but the approach is quite different. First it is all about conquering territory. The business model and sales don’t play any role. For as soon as you have the masses on the platform, these things then develop of their own accord. You can’t operate like that in Europe. You have to earn money from the outset. But this only works if you know your market, and the market you know best is where your home is.

So you can finance qipp yourself?
I have already built up two companies that were completely organically financed. To date qipp is also self-financed and could also continue to develop further organically. But the question is whether we would then risk missing out on great potential. For this reason we will hold our first external round of financing in the autumn.

How much capital is needed?
We will conduct an initial round among business angels, friends and employees and only then open up. And we need additional staff in order to meet the current strong growth in demand. But this will then enable us soon to generate new income, which we plan to use for the development of our platform in order to get third-party providers involved.

Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

*Stefan Zanetti is founder and CEO of qipp, the third company that he has founded after synesix (2005) and careware (2006). Within qipp, Zanetti is focusing on business development and key account management. All the companies he has founded are profitable and manage entirely without external financing. They achieve sales of 2 to 6 million francs a year and employ between 8 and 20 people.

Website of qipp

Video about qipp's Erlenapp

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