SME of the Month - NUMAFERM
Meet NUMAFERM, the SME of the Month November. We interviewed Co-founder & CFO, Philipp Bürling, who introcudes the innovative company from Düsseldorf .
NUMAFERM, a German spin-off company from the Institute of Biochemistry of the Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf that has developed a reliable, cost-efficient technology to manufacture peptides based on well-designed microorganisms that convert simple nutrients to peptides. Peptides are biomolecules with unique characteristics and functionalities – for example pharmaceutical, antimicrobial or adhesive. We interviewed Co-founder & CFO, Philipp Bürling, who elaborates on the need for this innovation and its diverse field of application.
How did NUMAFERM start out?
NUMAFERM is a classical university spin-off. Ten years ago, the foundation for our technology was laid by our CEO Dr. Christian Schwarz during his studies of biochemistry at the Heinrich-Heine-University, Duesseldorf. The core discoveries were related to a type 1 secretion system of E.coli and Christian achieved to efficiently secrete a cargo from inside the cell to the outer environment. This was quite a breakthrough as the supernatant of E.coli is free of proteases and therefore a safe-harbour for peptides, which are very protease sensitive. All in all, accompanied by further developments of the core technology, we managed to create a true platform for the production of recombinant peptides.
In 2015, Christian obtained a grant from the German state called “EXIST Forschungstransfer”, allowing him to assemble a team of scientists and myself for economic matters. Following a period of 1.5 years, we managed quite smoothly to obtain VC funding and finally spun out from the University.
Where do you see the benefits of peptides as a resource and where are the benefits in your application in contrast to chemical synthesis?
Peptides play a very important role in the pharma industry, primarily as active pharmaceutical ingredients (API): 8% of all APIs are peptides and the pre-clinical and clinical pipelines are packed with peptides. In addition to that, peptides have been widely characterized for non-pharmaceutical applications. Nisin, an antimicrobial peptide, is used as conservative for food production. But this particular peptide is - so far - an exception as it can be obtained from natural sources. Now, as we can make peptides accessible much cheaper in larger quantities, the concept of Nisin can potentially be applied to various other products. But for now, our core focus is on pharma, as it is an existing market and the demand for efficient processes, decreased process development costs and high purity is high – all of which are key aspects of our technology.
What makes NUMAFERM unique as a company in your view?
Our technology puts us in a unique position between companies focused on chemical synthesis of peptides and companies focused on recombinant production of larger molecules (proteins). We combine the advantages of both worlds: quick and reliable production of chemical synthesis and efficiency of a bio-process. This position offers many opportunities but certainly also challenges as it is a paradigm shift. It is always hard to convince a community of a change. Switching from chemical synthesis, which is established since decades, to a recombinant approach of a young start-up company with lacking track record, is not always easy.
NUMAFERM is also unique as a company itself. We have created a very special culture that underlines ultra-high flexibility, enthusiasm and openness. Every single person that joined the university project in late 2015 is still on board. This makes us very proud. For us it’s a proof, that NUMAFERM is a great place to work at.
You finished as a strong runner-up in the 2017 Most Innovative Biotech SME Awards – how did your company do in the past two years and what have been your greatest successes since?
Being the runner-up for the in the 2017 Most Innovative Biotech SME Awards was a great chance for us to gain visibility. This award was complemented by more prices in 2018. We were even voted #1 start-up in Germany in 2018. This is particularly notably when considering that we are a very specialized company and many people outside the life-science sector do not know what peptides are. So, during the past two years we definitely managed to create a strong branding for NUMAFERM but more importantly, we convinced our customers. Projects that have started in 2016 have passed the proof-of-concept phase and are now in the scale up. We have even given out the first technology license.
As an innovative SME in Europe – where do you see the main barriers starting a successful biotech business in the EU?
Well, we never had the feeling that being a start-up in Europe is a disadvantage over being a start-up e.g. in the United States. The challenges lie in the nature of the industry: development cycles are long and supply chains are complex. But this is not limited to Europe. However, we understand that for example 8-digit financing rounds may be easier to realize in the US. Available figures speak for themselves. While 23bn € in venture capital were spent in Europe in 2018, it has been 130bn $ in the United States. Everyone knows that. For us, that is not a barrier (yet). We are happy to be here in Europe and to serve clients worldwide.
On the contrary, are there any key points in the development of the company where the biotech ecosystem in the EU was benefitting your company?
In the United States, there are some life-science hot spots: Boston, San Diego and San Francisco. Those hot spots are spread over an entire continent. Europe is a life-science hotspot itself with strongly emerging regions like the Baltics, which are hungry for innovation and willing to attract business. We have the opportunity to attend a massive amount of conferences without major travelling and the same accounts for meeting existing and potential customers. Additionally, there are brilliant instruments for financing your company via grants. It is certainly very bureaucratic to obtain them but here I have to be fair: I do not have the comparison.
We also benefit from clusters like EuropaBio or particularly BIO.NRW, which have strongly supported us from the beginning by giving us access to the life-science network.
How did the background as a University spin-off help starting off NUMAFERM? And where would you see problems in bringing a scientific idea from university to market?
I would say that most start-ups in the life-science sector have a university background, so people are familiar with that. The entire industry is academia driven. It is good to have that background as well. Large corporations have established New Business Development Units or Corporate Venture Funds over the past years and university spin-offs are one of their key targets. This certainly helps to get in contact.
Important ingredients to successfully bring a scientific idea from university to market are entrepreneurial mindset, a long breath and the ability to build up a strong network of financiers, customers and collaboration partners. All of that has to be either there or to be established. I have the feeling that technology transfer in Europe is not as institutionalized as e.g. in the United States. When we go to partnering conferences, we see a lot of tech transfer offices of American Universities that offer assets to the market. We seldom see that happen with European or particularly German Universities.
What are the aspirations for NUMAFERM in 2020 and beyond?
We want to grow and we will grow. We are anticipating first in-vivo studies with material produced by us and we are currently expanding our infrastructure to serve the need for higher quanities. Additionally, we are constantly improving our core technologies and service offering.
Download the full interview below