Interview with Ulf Grawunder – Founder of NBE Therapeutics
Ulf Grawunder founded his second biotechnology company, NBE-Therapeutics, in 2012. NBE Therapeutics develops and produces antibody-based medication, “antibody drug conjugates (ADCs)” for the treatment of cancer. The company is headquartered at Technologiepark Basel. Ulf Grawunder is CEO of the firm and vice president of the Swiss Biotech Association.
Mr Grawunder, Switzerland has biotech industry, which is currently looking very optimistically towards the future. What fundamental changes have there been in the biotechnology sector in recent years?
Ulf Grawunder: I believe that the biotechnology sector in Switzerland has remained consistently strong in recent decades and will continue to develop well with the support of good prevailing conditions. For example, the number of Swiss biotech SMEs increased constantly in the last 10 years (from 137 to 207 biotech companies between 2014 and 2015 alone), without any years showing a fall.
In recent years, there have been disappointing developments in the case of a number of Swiss biotech companies that are listed on the stock market, for example, Cytos, Arpida and now Santhera, that led to heavy losses in the market capitalisation of these companies. These circumstances probably at times had a rather negative effect on confidence in the sustainability of the Swiss biotech sector. This effect was further intensified by liquidity bottlenecks among investors during the years following the 2008 financial crisis that was triggered by the American subprime mortgage crisis and the Lehmann Brothers collapse. It consequently became increasingly difficult for biotech companies to find enough capital for development during the early phases.
The subsequent upswing in the financial markets and the low interest policy, first in the USA but then later in Europe, made good market gains possible again, along with numerous, high-value IPOs (initial public offerings) for biotech companies, especially in the USA. Capital and interest in financing innovative biotech concepts returned to Europe and especially Switzerland.
This trend was favourably influenced by positive newsflow about powerful pharma-collaborations (for example, Molecular Partners-Allergan, AC Immune-Genentech), promising IPOs (Molecular Partners, for example), strong trade sales (Covagen sold to Janssen, for example) and the resurgence of Santhera. In my estimation, getting enough growth capital for good biotech projects in Switzerland is not a problem at the moment.
You founded biotech firm NBE-Therapeutics three years ago in Basel. How do you see Basel as a location for biotechnology in competition with other locations in Switzerland and worldwide?
Ulf Grawunder: In comparison with other locations in Switzerland, especially the Greater Zurich area (Schlieren in particular) and Arc Lémanique, Basel, as a biotech centre, has a considerably smaller critical mass, which is caused by the more limited range of flexibly rentable and expandable laboratory space in the Basel region. Basel as a life sciences hub still continues to exist in the wake of world-leading pharmaceutical companies Roche and Novartis, from which more and more successful biotech companies have emerged, for example, Speedel, Actelion or Basilea Pharmaceutica.
Roche and Novartis, who are now investing heavily in biotechnological strategies, have a strong, positive influence on the Basel biotech ecosystem. On the one hand, this is because channels to large pharmaceutical firms and their venture funds are short here and also because an exchange of ideas, but also of staff, is easily possible between “big pharma” and “small biotech”, due to the presence of pharma firms in the locality.
NBE-Therapeutics is located in Technologiepark Basel. Are you satisfied with your chosen location?
Ulf Grawunder: As far as Technologiepark Basel is concerned, I am very satisfied with Basel as a location choice. Technologiepark Basel is a deciding factor for small, life sciences start-up firms in the Basel region, because a centre for innovative, life sciences start-up businesses, with state-of-the art laboratories and offices, has been created here in immediate proximity to the region’s top academic institutes, the university hospital, the University of Basel, its biology/pharmaceutical departments, ETH-D-BSSE Institute and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland. These premises are available to start-ups for flexible rental and central facilities and meeting rooms are also available that make it possible for start-ups to develop in a highly functional and attractive environment.
In this concept, it is also important for there to be professional and efficient management of the Technologiepark on location, together with which start-up firms can constructively work, in order to be able to quickly and easily adapt premises or infrastructure to suit the needs of start-ups, if necessary.
What does a successful biotech start-up business need and what are the greatest challenges?
Ulf Grawunder: First and foremost, every start-up obviously needs capital or start-up financing so that ideas and innovative concepts can be translated into reality and brought to market-readiness in the first place.
There are hardly any start-up companies that make profits right from the start that can be used to finance operational activities. Once this hurdle has been overcome and you have starting capital for employing your first staff, renting offices and laboratory premises and for the first development activities, then probably the most critical factor is developing a marketable product or service as quickly as possible. Only when this aim has been achieved can a company grow sustainably and continue financing either with sales or with more money from investors, or both.
The often forced platitude “time to market” is also of crucial importance for start-up firms. At the same time, it is important to always keep an eye on the competitive environment on the one hand and the needs of the product’s or service’s potential customers on the other.
Which phase of business is your company currently in?
Ulf Grawunder: After the official go-ahead in mid-2012 and the start of operational activities around one year later, NBE-Therapeutics has now successfully completed its first set-up phase, the so-called “seed phase”. During these first years, the foundations for the new company were laid, which in our case means establishment, validation and patenting of new and efficient technology platforms. This enabled the company to develop and produce very efficient, highly potent antibody toxin conjugate medication for highly selective cancer treatment. We have since been able to prove the excellent effectiveness of our proprietary antibody toxin conjugate format in various cancer models in animals and the first two product candidates are in the final validation phase in tumour models.
That means that we have reached the threshold of selecting product candidates in record time. We now have to produce them under clinical standards, in order to then be able to evaluate the products in cancer patients in two to three years’ time. This is an especially exciting phase.
Where do you see yourself and your company in ten years?
Ulf Grawunder: I hope that, in ten years’ time, the medication that we are currently developing will help cancer patients to overcome their illness. In this context, I expect NBE-Therapeutics to be further pushing forward this development in ten years, either as an independent business or as a company that is integrated into a large pharmaceutical firm. Depending on what happens there, I will either continue to push forward these developments at NBE-Therapeutics myself or decide to bring to market-readiness new innovations in a different context.
CEO und Founder