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“Big companies do not specialise enough”

Dr. Aziz Cayli worked for many years for big biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. In 2005, he took the path of independence and set up the company CELLCA based in Laupheim, Germany. Here Cayli talks to Christoph Bächtle about the fact that having the right partners plays a decisive role in establishing a company.

Dr. Cayli, you've been an entrepreneur now for four years. What did you do before you set up CELLCA?

I worked for Boehringer Ingelheim and Roche.

What made you leave such big, renowned companies and set up your own company? Boehringer and Roche must have had many interesting jobs on offer.

He has not regretted becoming independent: Dr. Aziz Cayli, the founder of CELLCA © BIOPRO/Bächtle

One reason I left the companies was that I felt that my freedom was restricted and the other reason was my love for technology. I think these are probably the main reasons why people set up their own company. Very good people have little room for manoeuvre in big companies. These are the kind of people who dream of freedom, have strong self-belief and a desire to achieve something. In big companies you have to first and foremost support the company's business objectives, which leaves you little scope for personal freedom.

I had a couple of good ideas that I wanted to turn into reality and that is why I decided to set up my own company. For me, the idea of making a lot of money in a very short time was not the major reason. My main motivation was my love for technology and the dream of freedom.

Was one of the reasons for the change the fact that you had identified a problem area and had a solution up your sleeve, which you could not move forward in a big company?

No, at the big companies we basically did the same things that I am still doing today. But I am convinced that CELLCA can do better. We developed our technology systematically after having identified the weaknesses of existing technologies. Many of the technologies that are currently being marketed, developed more or less historically and have many advantages and disadvantages. But it is a fact that current technologies cannot fulfil all possible client requirements.

At CELLCA, we have developed a new technology from scratch using state-of-the-art findings. It was not at all a case of seeing a new market potential. The market was there and there were also plenty of companies who served this particular market. However, the market is big enough for alternative technologies if they suited client expectations better than previous technologies.

You had a strong partner right from the start, namely the Laupheim-based company Rentschler. What were the advantages of this partnership for your new company?

The partnership had two advantages. One advantage was the infrastructure. Our laboratories are on the Rentschler premises where we have the entire professional infrastructure at our disposal, for example the special water or special gasses that companies like Rentschler use. Rentschler provided us with everything we needed to start immediately with science and research. We also work with Rentschler on the technological level. For example when we want to use special services, for carrying out a test run in one of the big fermenters, we are able to do this in cooperation with Rentschler staff.

The second advantage is that Rentschler has been active on the market for 30 years. This means that the company is well known. The kind of cooperation we have can be publicised and it is easier to enter the market when you can use the name of a well-known partner. Rentschler helps us with marketing and sales. This is worth a great deal. If you set up a technology company and have an excellent technology, it might still take 10 to 15 years before you are known on the market and accepted by potential clients. But if you have a strong partner to help you and to refer clients to you, it is definitely easier.

We are very glad to have had a partner right from the start, a partner that believes in us and provides us with the scientific confirmation that a process such as the one we developed at CELLCA also works in big production plants. This is CELLCA’s major goal - the development of processes for large-scale applications.

Was your technology marketable right from the start or did you have to focus initially on development work?

Over the last few years we had to develop our technology right from scratch and optimise it. Only now, in our fourth year, does the technology have a quality that allows it to be commercialised.

Partnerships are based on mutual benefit. How did you convince Rentschler that CELLCA out of all companies is a suitable partner?

We had some luck. In the year we founded our company, the technology being developed by CELLCA was also an issue for Rentschler. At the time, Rentschler was holding many internal discussions about how they could improve the technological state of the company. By chance, I came into contact with Rentschler through some investors. Both sides realised immediately that we were talking about the same thing and Rentschler was very positive about our technology.

The market for red biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals is very promising. Therefore, there are many small as well as many very big companies competing for this market. How does a start-up company succeed in tapping the market and offering something different from other, more established companies? How do you explain to your clients that you can do better than other companies and that collaboration with you will be more advantageous for them?

CELLCA focuses on scale-up and develops laboratory-scale fermentation methods for industrial production. © CELLCA

We succeed through specialisation. A number of big companies either already have a similar technology or are trying to develop one. But a big company's staff do not usually focus specifically on one very restricted area. Big companies do not specialise enough, they try to cover everything. This is not only true in the biotechnology sector, but also in all other sectors.

We focus on upstream process development and the development of cell lines, areas that require a huge amount of expert knowledge, and we focus solely on these areas. We deliberately chose not to focus on other topics, because we do not want to lose this specialisation. I believe that our staff density in this restricted area is far higher than in many big companies. We also have outsourced everything that is not required for technological development, including administration, IT, technical supply, so that we have no distractions.

Are company founders therefore well advised to analyse the market meticulously? Does such an approach also enable start-ups to enter big markets such as the pharmaceutical market?

It is important to look at the entire value creation chain and find out the steps that require a large amount of know-how. Having the necessary know-how is an excellent basis for entering the pharmaceutical market with a specialised product. And one must take into account that one’s own area of expertise is not only of interest for a single pharmaceutical company, but for many. That’s the key to success.

What is your area of expertise?

In our laboratory we have small bioreactors with volumes of less than five litres. We use these reactors to develop special bioprocesses that can subsequently be transferred to the larger scale, for example 2500-litre reactors. We are convinced that the processes we develop will also work in the biggest bioreactors without any problem. That’s what we stand for, that’s how we promote our products and services, that’s what we have generated data for.

Two questions arise: who will operate such big reactors and how can we prove that our processes actually work on a large scale? This is where the cooperation with Rentschler comes in. We develop processes on behalf of the client and then transfer the processes to Rentschler’s big bioreactors. This enables us to show that the respective processes work and that our technology is actually suitable for large-scale operation. It is important to point out that our processes are not only suited to Rentschler plants, but also to any other large-scale facility.

Rentschler, which is a contract manufacturer, might therefore benefit from the fact that a process developed by CELLCA has already been run on the large scale. Does this mean that CELLCA clients are potential Rentschler clients?

Yes it does, although not exclusively. Clients contact us first because we can design productive processes and because we have excellent technology for this. The processes are then transferred to Rentschler’s production facility. But this transfer is not exclusive. It is always up to the clients to decide whether they want to produce at Rentschler or not. But since we have a close partnership with Rentschler, clients have a lot of advantages when they decide to contract Rentschler. For us it has always been important to leave the choice of production partner to our clients.

CELLCA has been up and running for four years. How does this feel in comparison to ten years working for big companies?

First of all I would like to quash a widespread misinterpretation: As an entrepreneur I do not work longer hours than I did when I was a company employee. People often get the wrong impression. I used to work long hours at Roche and Boehringer and I have kept up the same pace at CELLCA.

I’ve learnt a lot since I set up CELLCA. The life experience that this venture has given me is unique – regardless of whether the company is successful or not.

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