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Are start-ups a matter for the boss? A professor’s thoughts on university spin-offs

Research work and entrepreneurship are by no means mutually exclusive. There are numerous successful university spin-offs in the life sciences sector that prove this only too well. However, the road from a good idea to a commercially successful company can be long and arduous. Those who benefit from the support of their boss from the outset can consider themselves extremely fortunate. Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Rammensee talks about his experience with companies that originated in his own department.

Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Rammensee has been director of the Department of Immunology at the University of Tübingen since 1996 and has accompanied three successful company foundations. © University of Tübingen

Research departments as centres of innovation are pretty much perfect for spinning out companies. However, not every eureka moment leads to a commercially viable product or method, nor does every researcher that comes up with an innovative product or method end up founding a company. There are many other factors that play a role in the decision to set up a company. A crucial factor is the support and motivation from colleagues and those in the researcher’s immediate environment. This is where the boss, i.e. a professor or research director, can have considerable influence. It is definitely good to be surrounded by people open to start-up ideas. Immunologist Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Rammensee from the Interfaculty Institute for Cell Biology (IFIZ) at the University of Tübingen is well aware of this.

With CureVac, Immatics Biotechnologies and SYNIMMUNE, Rammensee has already accompanied the establishment of three companies that were spun out from his department, and therefore has a tremendous amount of experience with start-ups. He finds it difficult to pinpoint a particular recipe for successful company establishment and emphasises that it is not something that can be learnt. He puts successful start-up establishment down to one major aspect. “You have to give young researchers who are looking to establish their own business the freedom and scope that they need to do so,” said Rammensee. For him, this also involves dealing with the project from a professional point of view. “I think it is important to be positive when any of my staff tell me about their plans to set up a company, even though I might at first think that their idea is a bit odd,” said Rammensee whose personal motto is encourage, support and critically accompany start-up plans. Rammensee is convinced that you “cannot induce an innovative spirit. All you can do is to actively support start-up plans”.

No one-size-fits-all recipe for supporting start-up plans

One of the reasons why so many companies have been spun off from his department is possibly Rammensee’s excellent instinct for selecting the right staff. “It is important to me that the people I hire are enthusiastic,” Rammensee said. However, the reasons that led to the establishment of the three companies could not be more different. “As far as Immatics is concerned, company foundation kind of just happened,” said Rammensee. “Back in the 1990s, our group was working on the purification of molecules, heat shock proteins for example, that we passed on to other research groups. As a scientist, that is just what you do. However, more and more groups were asking us to send them material to the extent that preparing and sending samples became a very time-consuming task. So the idea of establishing a business emerged,” recalled Rammensee. The idea was eventually turned into a business with the support of the University of Tübingen and the Young Innovators funding programme run by the Baden-Württemberg government. Rammensee commented: “Some doctoral and post-doctoral students in my department started the business, but eventually changed the original idea to focus on developing cancer immunotherapies based on tumour-associated peptides.”

The establishment of CureVac came about in a different way. Rammensee commented: “The initiative to set up a company was the deliberate decision of a very talented and ambitious doctoral student. He decided to set up a company after he had discovered that mRNA had the potential to be used as a therapeutic vaccine. And I gave him my full support.” Today, CureVac’s idea of developing mRNA-based drugs has become so successful that the company receives financial support from big investors such as dievini Hopp BioTech holding and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The founding team of SYNIMMUNE GmbH chose a completely different path from the two others. It all began with a successful GO-Bio application to the German Ministry of Education and Research’s (BMBF) biotechnology start-up initiative. “Initially, the researchers decided to acquire funds for a research idea that was subsequently turned into a commercial product. SYNIMMUNE would not exist without this particular BMBF programme. It was a key impulse,” said Rammensee.

A good idea in the laboratory is one thing. The boss’s support is an invaluable thing when it comes to turning the idea into a start-up. © Lehmann

In addition to the support Rammensee has given to the founders of the three companies, the University of Tübingen was also ready to back them. Rammensee believes that the university’s contribution was very important. “The teams were able to continue working in the university’s rooms and laboratories, which was extremely useful, especially at the very beginning.” The start-ups eventually became increasingly independent and moved away from the university premises. However, Rammensee continued to provide advice, and is still doing so today. He supports all three companies as a member of their scientific advisory board, which, in the case of Immatics, he also chairs. The company founders have always been able to count on Rammensee’s experience. Rammensee said that these activities do not take up an inordinate amount of his free time. “The advisory boards meet once a year. Otherwise, we usually meet and exchange scientific information at symposia and congresses. So I can easily combine it with my work as professor.”

Patent versus publication – it all depends on how you deal with it

Rammensee also sees no problem as far as patents and publications are concerned. The companies can do both. “Of course, it is important to make young researchers aware of the fact that a patent cannot be obtained if the data were previously published. It is also important not to talk about the invention at conferences before the patent is filed.” However, Rammensee does not really see the two issues as conflictual, at least not the way that things are done in Tübingen. “What we do here in Tübingen is fill out a medical faculty form and attach the manuscript of the planned publication. A little while later, in urgent cases around a fortnight, a patent application is underway and the publication can be submitted.”

All three companies started off as GmbHs, i.e. limited liability companies, to which Rammensee also makes small financial contributions. “I have as little as a one-percent share in the companies. Although this is not much, my financial contributions were nevertheless helpful at the time the companies started off. Investors are usually more interested when a renowned professor is involved,” said Rammensee, also saying that the financial support provided by public programmes is very good. “In principle, programmes run by the German state and federal governments create good start-up conditions. However, it would be even better if more venture capital was available, for example if Baden-Württemberg had an investment pool that enabled the regional government to provide venture capital.”

Glossary

  • Biotechnology is the study of all processes involving life cells or enzymes for the transformation and production of certain substances.
  • Immunology is a scientific discipline dealing amongst others with the defence reactions of humans and animals against organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but also with the defence reactions against foreign (non-self) cells and tissue or own (self) cells and tissue (autoimmune reactions).
  • Ribonucleic acid (abbr. RNA) is a normally single-stranded nucleic acid, which is very similar to DNA. It also consists of a sugar-phosphate backbone and a sequence of four bases. However, the sugar is a ribose and instead of thymine, RNA contains uracil. RNA has got various forms and functions; e.g. it serves as template during protein synthesis and it also constitutes the genome of RNA viruses.
  • Selection in a biological context means the assortment of organisms due to their characteristics. On the one hand, this could be natural selection ("survival of the fittest") like in evolutionary processes. On the other hand, selection by man, e.g. breeding, is called artificial selection. Artificial selection is also used in genetic engineering to identify a genetically modified organism due to its new characteristics (e.g. resistance to antibiotics).
  • Tumor-associated peptides (TUMAPs) are peptides that are present on tumor cells, but not or to a lower extent on healthy cells of the body. They can activate the immune system. TUMAPs are presented by HLA molecules (human major histocompatibility complex = MHC) on the surface of tumor cells.
  • Messenger RNA (abbr.: mRNA) is a ribonucleic acid which is a copy of a short part of the DNA and serves as template for the synthesis of a specific protein.
  • Federal Ministry of Education and Research
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