Prof. Dr. Andreas Marx, chemist and polymerase specialist, is Professor of Organic Chemistry/Cellular Chemistry at the University of Konstanz. Three years ago, he also founded a company called myPOLS Biotec GmbH together with his then doctoral student Ramon Kranaster. myPOLS Biotec GmbH produces DNA polymerases that are tailored to the requirements of the company’s clients. In addition, the company also carries out contract research. The dual roles of professor and entrepreneur involve working more than just standard 9-to-5 hours, but this does not bother Marx at all.
Andreas Marx developed a keen interest in DNA polymerases when he was studying chemistry at university. DNA polymerases are enzymes that, in their native form, can read and copy nucleic acid strands, and therefore play a key role in the replication of DNA during cell division. Various optimised DNA polymerase variants play an essential role in modern molecular biology and have become indispensable tools in laboratory and diagnostic applications. When Marx became chair of the Department of Organic Chemistry/Cellular Chemistry at the University of Konstanz several years ago, he continued to study the principles and modifications of these proteins.
Marx always hoped that his scientific work at the University of Konstanz would one day lead to a concrete product. He comments: “Our work takes place at the interface between basic research and application. The practical exploitation of our results has, therefore, always been in the back of our minds.” In 2014, Marx and his then doctoral student Ramon Kranaster established myPOLS Biotec GmbH in 2014, a company that specifically produces DNA polymerases according to client requirements. Kranaster is the CEO of the jointly established company, while Marx is a shareholder and continues to put his long-term experience as a polymerase expert to good use in the company’s research activities.
myPOLS sells a broad range of enzymes, including standard polymerases that can be ordered online from the company’s website. However, standard polymerases are also sold by other companies, and the native enzyme forms are often poorly suited for applications in molecular biology. This is the company’s unique strength: myPOLS Biotec develops DNA polymerases that are specifically tailored to a broad range of different applications. Some of the special-purpose enzymes may already be found in the company’s enzyme portfolio of six polymerases or one of their numerous variants. Others are tailored to specific client requirements. This is done using strategies called directed evolution and rational design, which are ultimately aimed at creating sequence variants of DNA polymerases with enhanced properties. This usually involves amplifying a native polymerase gene in the presence of mutagenic manganese ions. “Another myPOLS speciality is producing different polymerase formulations,” says Marx. “For example, we sell bead-shaped enzymes, which do not have to be stored cooled and can therefore be taken anywhere. This helps us save shipping costs and our clients can carry out investigations in remote locations without the need for a cold chain.”
“The development of such products is what drives me,” said Professor Marx when asked why he established a company despite having a full-time job as a researcher. He commented: “It is fantastic to see how basic research can lead to a product. In addition, the development work leading up to a marketable product is something special too. You can make a difference with a company and also get to know fantastic people. The start-up community is a very special group of people, people who have the drive to take risks and fight their way through the bureaucratic jungle. Such people drive Germany forward.” Initially, Marx and Kranaster received support from the University of Konstanz for dealing with bureaucratic issues and implementing the general conditions they needed to run the company. Marx comments: “If you plan to set up a company, you need the right people. But you also need a laboratory and the necessary financial backup. The start-up support provided by the University of Konstanz was really helpful. Once you have started, your products get better and better. This gradually creates an innovation cycle. But it normally takes twelve to eighteen months before a product is ready to be placed on the market. Our local BioLAGO network has also provided valuable support and put us in contact with potential users of the products we intended to develop.”
Prof. Marx does not feel that his myPOLS activities are incompatible with his research and teaching obligations at university. “I can manage alright, but I have always plenty to do. I definitely do not have a typical 9-to-5 job. While other people enjoy going to the theatre, I enjoy going to work at my company, even on a Saturday evening. I love it, no matter when,” said Marx. Marx also sees no problem when it comes to publications versus patents. “This has never been an issue,” said Marx, going on to add, “as a committed company founder I do not expect to get paid for all the hours I work. Earning a lot of money for something that I enjoy doing is not what I am looking for.” He also says that his two jobs are mutually beneficial. “It goes without saying that knowledge we gain at university is used in the company. At the same time, we can deal with scientific issues and problems the company comes across at university. We are, therefore, in the fortunate position of being able to identify areas that might be suitable for application-oriented basic research,” said Marx.
Biochemist Dr. Kranaster believes that self-employment is the perfect choice for him, too. He has always been fascinated by nucleic acids. But he does not underestimate the risk associated with self-employment: “Life is a risk, too,” he says succinctly, going on to add, “sometimes I am worried, sometimes I am not. But generally speaking, I am quite comfortable with my responsibilities vis-à-vis the company and the employees.” myPOLS has three full-time employees and some trainees, but this can vary. Kranaster would like the company to continue growing. “There are still so many interesting issues we could work on, and we could easily employ 50 people if somebody gave us the money to do so. We received funding when we started the company, but we are now completely independent. Before we carry out any experiments, we always have to figure out whether the time and money we put into the work will pay off in the end.”
myPOLS receives many requests for special polymerases, both from Germany and abroad. Although most orders come from companies nearby, myPOLS has already carried out contract research on behalf of American companies. “When we do research for other companies, we sign agreements with the companies commissioning our services. Under these agreements, we get money from the companies for the IP that we generate during the project. We can then invest this money in our own developments. It goes without saying that we sometimes reach the limits of our possibilities. This depends on the magnitude of the problem that we are dealing with. So far, however, all our clients have been happy with the services provided. And this is good news.”
Kranaster adds: ”Our consultation work is not reflected in the price. We invest a lot of time in our projects, which only pays off when the clients purchase larger quantities at a later date. But we also have other clients. About 50 percent of the clients pay for development work right from the outset. We had no idea that so many people would be interested in contract research. But there are quite a few who purchase our standard polymerases because there are subtle differences in quality, i.e. in terms of purity, activity and formulation. “We have one particular client who purchases only our enzymes as they enable him to achieve faster reactions than with corresponding enzymes from other producers.”