The path from academia to industry is riddled with obstacles: business plans, funding schemes, market studies… Spin-off companies tread this trail, and hopefully develop a commercial product that exploits the discoveries made by academics. But good science does not necessarily mean fruitful business. And to illustrate this transition we talked with Dr. Veronika Stepankova, CEO of the biotech company Enantis.
At the beginning of its adventure, in 2006, Enantis designed a clear plan of action. They developed and improved enzymatic technologies for decontamination of halogenated compounds: toxic insecticides (like lindane) or chemical warfare agents (like mustard gas). At Enantis, the team worked hard refining and redesigning enzymes to get rid of those compounds, and came up with efficient, carefully designed enzymes. In an academic world, this would have been a success story. But the business world measures success with a different rule. “Even though our enzymes were interesting for academics, they were not so interesting for customers”, explains Dr. Stepankova.
We made a common mistake for spin-off companies. Our employees came from the academic world and we lacked people with business experience.
This was in 2014, a turning point for Enantis. “We made a common mistake for spin-off companies. Our employees came from the academic world and we lacked people with business experience. Moreover, at the time of foundation, Enantis was the first life science spin-off and among the first spin-offs at the University. The technology transfer office had been founded only shortly before, so the options for business consulting to provide the right advice to kickstart a business were limited”, remarks Dr. Stepankova. Instead of giving up, they learnt from their mistakes and took a little detour, to explore new business opportunities. It turned out that all those years spent in enzyme development were not lost. “In the previous years we had learnt a lot about protein engineering”, explains Dr. Stepankova, “and that allowed us to develop a quite nice technology to stabilise proteins”.
We have talked before about how proteins are everywhere: medicine, industrial enzymes, meat substitutes or even textile fabrics. But for these industries to use them, proteins need to be modified. In their original form, some proteins have a short life, in the range of hours. But the Enantis technique allows them to lengthen their half-life, offering proteins that are ready-to-use by medical, cosmetic and food industries. The perfect example of this is their Stable Fibroblast Growth Factors, which are useful in regenerative medicine (to foster the proliferation of cells involved in wound healing), stem cell research (to prevent stem cells differentiation) and cosmetics (to increase skin elasticity and decrease the depth of wrinkles). In their wild state, these proteins retain their biological activity for less than 12 hours at 37°C. Enantis was able to modify them so they retain full biological activity even after 20 days at 37°C, 50 times longer!
These stable growth factors brought along a stable company growth: from the initial 2 founders to the 15 people that work for Enantis today. They are a good example of a successful spin-off company, that was able to take a diversion from their original idea to make the most of new business opportunities.
At RaftsforBiotech we are exploring new paths, both scientific and commercial ones. To avoid making mistakes —or at least learn from mistakes that have already been made—we are glad to count with experienced partners such as Enantis, whose expertise in enzyme engineering and commercial exploitation will help us find our way from the lab to the market.