Despite an innovative business idea, the path to independence isn’t always easy. During the beginning stage of a startup, the main focus lies on the issue of financing as well as on searching for suitable spaces for realizing this idea. The rental prices for office and laboratory spaces then turn out to be costly affairs on the free market, which makes it hard for young entrepreneurs to gain a foothold.
On April 23, 2015, the opening event of the Entrepreneurship Talks for the summer semester 2015 took place. Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Stork, multiple founder of KIT spin-offs, collegial leader of the Institute for Information Processing Technologies (ITIV), and director of the area of embedded systems and sensor engineering at the Research Center for Information Technology was invited as a guest. He talked about his professional career, which impressively combines science and entrepreneurship.
Prof. Stork already began to deal with entrepreneurial thought early on alongside to his pure research activities. His motivation in doing so was his curiosity regarding whether there was a possibility to realize his research results and whether there were already companies on the market that could manufacture products from them. The question about realization or even utilization of research results on the market was not self-evident at the time. It was a novelty and wasn’t viewed very positively. Consequently, Prof. Stork had to initially pursue his project relatively unnoticed.
300MICRONS designs and produces new 3D cell culture systems for the biological and pharmaceutical research and industry. The basic product is a film substrate for 3D cell cultivation. Own production of the film products makes it possible to take individual customer wishes into consideration. The products are ready to use and available in industrial standard formats. We interviewed Eric Gottwald, a co-founder of 300MICRONS, on the idea behind 300MICRONS, its founding period, and future prospects.
What does your company stand for?
Cell culture experiments have been carried out for decades in culture vessels in which cells are grown in two dimensions. One can easily conceptualize that this is not exactly physiological. Although successful experiments with three dimensional cultures had already been carried out in the 1960’s, it was not until the end of the last millennium that the 3D culture systems were broadly accepted. There are different approach methods that can be used for the production of such 3D cultures. Classically, this is done using spherical cell aggregates. This approach however has various disadvantages, for instance, the limited suitability for high-throughput screening campaigns in the pharmaceutical industry.
Our 3D cell culture systems are film-based. The films are equipped with microscopic depressions (300µm in diameter and depth), the so-called micro-cavity arrays. Each depression can take several hundred to a thousand cells. The film products also contain several thousands of micro-cavities in the standard industry and research formats (micro-titer plates) – hence, this not only enables high-throughput screening of 3D cell cultures, but also the excellently automated microscopy of film systems.
The organotypic results could even supersede certain animal tests. A key USP of 300MICRONS is that we developed and patented the necessary technologies for the production of our film products over many years. This enables us to very flexibly and quickly go into the wishes of our customers and lays a very solid foundation for future development of more innovative products for the cell culture field.
Where and how did you get this brilliant idea?
The increasing demand for our systems, triggered by scientific publications, existing collaborations, word of mouth and eventual winning of several start-up competitions prompted us to bring our ideas to the market.
How did your founding team come together?
Roman Truckenmüller and Stefan Giselbrecht developed the technology at the Institute for Micro-structure Technology (IMT) and the Institute for Biological Interfaces. I have worked for more than 20 years on the earlier models of the current 3D-cell culture systems. Peter Haug joined us after the acquisition of Helmholtz Enterprise funding as a founding angel and is now working on the advisory board of the company.
What would you say are the benefits of being your own boss?
Research at the KIT basically entailed working independently. In addition, you have the opportunity to act independently and present your own research findings to a wider audience. Of course, taking responsibility also means having to live with all the consequences.
What do you think are the properties that one should have to be a successful entrepreneur?
When one has decided to establish something, he/she puts in everything that is needed.
What would you term as the hurdles on the way to a successful business? Where did you get support?
Being a team that is purely from the science arena, positions in financial management, marketing, sales, and business development must be adequately filled. Through successful acquisition of Helmholtz Enterprise funds, the opportunity was opened for us to bring on a person for these areas of the company. Furthermore, networks such as those provided by Science4Life or BIOPRO are very helpful.
How did you deal with the large workloads during start-up?
This kind of a perspective somehow releases unimaginable energy and the scheduling and self-management also functions perfectly. In addition, clear division of tasks as well as prioritization of the tasks at hand also helps a lot.
Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs?
Just do it!
For some years now, increasingly more startups in the life sciences sector emerge at the KIT, such as Amcure, Incella, Acquifer, Corvolution, or recently 300Microns. In this area there are highly exciting projects that, through their immediate international focus, have larger growth opportunities than a classic startup but are much more complex and thus also more labor intensive in the design phase.
While a technical or IT-based startup is mainly oriented on the market, a successful life sciences startup must also always act in the scientific field. Only those which are present at conferences and verifiably document results that were generated with the startup technology in scientific publications are perceived in the academic market, which is often the entry market.
The scientific founders therefore often remain in the academic field rather than transferring into the management of the startup company completely, which is otherwise usual. As co-founders, they assist in the advisory panel, the so-called Advisory Board, with product development, shape the corporate strategy, and support the acquisition of customers through their academic network.
The financing of life science startups is also a particular challenge. When laboratory tests for product development or manufacturing are required, the young company is going to incur high costs. Here, the KIT can help by providing for the initial phase of the founding with fully equipped laboratory and office spaces in the KIT’s own high-tech incubator for moderate rental fees.
Last but not least, life science founders need a lot of stamina. Economic success arises much later for them due to the long phases of product development and approval, particularly in the clinical field. In comparison, non-technology-based startups can offer a different product or service on the market after a short startup phase.
Are you currently working on a technology from which a business idea can be developed? Are you toying with the idea of founding a company? Do you need advice on founding? Then use the offers of the KIT Founders Forge and make an appointment with the consultant team of the KIT Innovation Management – we support you in your startup projects.