Start-ups with an academic backbone

27 Mar 2023

When researchers and students at LMU translate their innovative ideas into spin-offs, they receive comprehensive support from the university. Their spin-offs also have a positive effect on society.

It is only 250 meters as the crow flies between the LMU laboratories in which Dr. Jonas Helma-Smets worked as a postdoctoral researcher eight years ago and his current place of work. Professionally, however, he has come a long way. Back then, the molecular biologist was carrying out research into a new technology for the functionalization of proteins. In a key experiment with a particular enzyme, he and his subsequent co-founder Dr. Dominik Schumacher from the Leibniz Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology in Berlin realized: “In principle, this technology works very well – very well indeed.”

Together, they began to wonder what biotech applications there could be for their discovery. “Professor Heinrich Leonhardt and his chair, where I was researching at the time, offered a very supportive environment to allow us push forward with our project and establish a new company, while the LMU Spin-off Service gave us a lot of help as regards acquiring our first funding and with many administrative questions. And then, in 2019, Tubulis GmbH was born.”

Specialized in the development of unique antibody-drug conjugates, the biotech company is one of the growing number of spin-offs that come out of LMU every year. The ideas behind these companies emerge from study and research, and the latest LMU spin-offs include innovative immunotherapies from the Gene Center Munich, a booking platform for boat moorings from the business faculty, and ultrasensitive microscopes from the physics faculty. And the song lyrics provided by a spin-off from the Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing are designed to help people sing accent-free in foreign languages.

Dr. Dominik Schumacher and Dr. Jonas Helma-Smets have jointly founded the company Tubulis GmbH in Martinsried. They received extensive support from LMU.

© Stephan Höck

Easing the transition

“We’ve had over 100 spin-offs since 2010,” explains Christoph Zinser, Head of the Spin-off Service at LMU. Because there is no obligation of course for researchers and graduates to report back on their entrepreneurial activities, this number includes only those enterprises where patents were involved or that went through a funding program. For prospective founders of a new company, the Spin-off-Service, situated within the Transfer Unit, is an important point of contact. Zinser’s team advises and supports budding entrepreneurs in the first steps of the foundation of a new company. He also helps them with the securing of funding and, last but not least, offers them moral support. “With my colleagues Philipp Landerer and Dr. Michael Blind, we see ourselves as trusted advisors,” says Zinser, “as counsels of company foundation.”

Among the spin-offs, there are ones like Tubulis, where research results are exploited and the transfer of intellectual property plays a role, and which are the specialty of the Intellectual Property Management team in the Transfer Unit. “But we also have spin-offs from students or graduates that do not come directly from their research, but from their master’s thesis, for example.”

At the beginning, the main thing is to technically validate the innovative idea and sort out commercial aspects such as the patent situation. “A key element is ascertaining whether there’s already a company out there with competing rights,” says Zinser. “Based on this, we help the entrepreneurs find a suitable funding program, where there is one.” Since 2010, LMU has obtained 42 million euros in funding for its spin-offs – from German government programs like EXIST and GO-Bio initial, for instance, or from Bavarian government funding such as the Medical Valley Award or the m4 Award for biomedicine.

“The principle of these funding programs is almost always to ease the transition phase so that research can become development,” says Zinser. “Take EXIST for example, which comes in where something already works at a laboratory scale but needs a leg-up to reach the next level.” At the end of the multi-month or multi-year funding phase, the company has to stand on its own two feet, generally with the help of investors.”

“Starting your own business gives you so much freedom”

The company that biologist Dr. Katrin Schmidthals co-founded 15 years ago was supported by a forerunner of the current EXIST program. “While doing my diploma thesis at LMU, I discovered within myself a certain inclination toward the business side of things and that I preferred sitting at a desk than pipetting in a lab,” explains Schmidthals. But when her research group applied for funding from the GO-Bio program, which enables students to complete a doctorate while doing business courses, she decided to write a dissertation. “This allowed me to explore the possibility of founding a company before taking the plunge – which I then did in 2008 when I co-founded the biotech start-up ChromoTek.” Her company works with specific very small antibodies that are found in camel-like mammals and have properties that make them useful to researchers.

“As somebody who loves security, I’d actually always intended to get a permanent job with a pharmaceutical company or a biotech firm,” says Schmidthals. But looking back it was “absolutely the right decision,” she adds. “Starting your own business gives you so much freedom: making decisions, setting things up the way you want them, taking responsibility from the get-go. And it’s just incredibly enjoyable.” It also has “much to recommend it” as regards work-life balance. “The Spin-off Service at LMU helped us a lot with the financial planning, with applying for funding, with business planning in general.” ChromoTek would go on to become the leading manufacturer of alpaca nanobodies and was purchased by an American company. Schmidthals is Vice President Finance and Administration.

“The Biomedical Center is a real incubator for spin-offs,” says Christoph Zinser. “In recent years, we’ve seen a big upswing in professors setting up their own companies.” One such academic is Professor Andreas Ladurner, who founded “Eisbach Bio,” a company that uses key epigenetic technologies to target a particularly serious type of cancer tumor. There are many medical spin-offs from fields such as drug development and biomedicine. And the disciplines of computer science and business studies also give birth to many spin-offs. “The Center for NanoScience is an example of an incubator for physics spin-offs, particularly in the area of experimental physics,” says Zinser. Highly specialized devices are often developed for physics, he observes, which then find applications in medical research.

Speech therapy meets artificial intelligence

In subdisciplines of medicine, physics, and biology, the proximity to applications through suitable research collaborations with industry makes spin-offs easier, says Christoph Zinser. “But also in areas such as the humanities, where IT and particularly artificial intelligence are currently omnipresent, a lot can happen at the interface. Here we see the blurring of disciplinary boundaries.” A few years ago, for example, speech therapists Dr. Hanna Jakob and Dr. Mona Späth from the Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing founded a software company for speech and language therapy.

“The idea for our neolexon app came from our therapy work with patients,” explains Hanna Jakob. “Most of the material available to therapists was analog, like flashcards and exercise sheets. And the few digital exercise units were very generic.” To solve this problem, they collaborated with LMU computer scientist Jakob Pfab to devise their concept for a fully individualizable digital therapy system. Supported by an EXIST grant, they founded the company neolexon. Among other things, they developed an aphasia app for stroke patients, which is currently covered by all statutory health insurance providers in Germany.

Dr. Mona Späth and Dr. Hanna Jakob founded a software company for speech therapy out of the Institute for Phonetics and Speech Processing: neolexon. | © Limedix GmbH

Often, says Zinser, spin-offs are as interdisciplinary as today’s research landscape itself. “We need diversity also in the sense of different perspectives: from the worlds of technology and business, but also from the humanities.” The founders who seek his advice ideally already have a quite precise idea of how their product could potentially benefit customers, along with an understanding of the market – often matured in the courses and programs offered by LMU’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center (IEC). Since 2020, this center has been supporting all budding entrepreneurs at LMU, including students and researchers, in the early phases of founding their company and in maturing their business idea.

In contrast to its predecessor, the LMU Entrepreneurship Center, the IEC is focused more strongly on the aspects of scientific innovation and added value for society. “Many students and researchers don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs at first,” explains Dr. Susanne Ritter von Marx, Managing Director of the IEC. “Some of them might have the image of Steve Jobs in their minds, strutting across the stage and boldly presenting his products to a global audience. They might feel they could never emulate that.” But many innovative ideas, which can emerge on the fringes of one’s teaching and research, can have great added value not just in terms of commercial success, but in the benefits they bring for society. “We want to raise awareness of and facilitate this.”

App to stem the decline in bakeries

In the IEC programs, students and researchers from all faculties can learn how innovations and positive effects for society arise, how to develop business models, how to do storytelling on social media, and much more. Those who already have a business idea can find partners at co-founder events. And in the “Innovation Incubator,” a free three-month hybrid program from the IEC, innovations from the domain of research are jointly developed into business models, with the possibility even of finding investors at the end of the program. “The incubator is designed to help people find out whether their idea could result in an innovative company with a positive effect, and which – last but not least – has the potential for being commercially successful.”

Niklas Frost, Max Brandmaier, and Jonas Bayer are former participants in the program. In a seminar, the three students from the master’s degree in management and digital technologies at LMU had analyzed how to address the decline of bakeries in rural areas. Recently, they founded a company called “Teigpiloten” (which translates as “Dough Pilots”), an ordering and delivery service for bakeries. Having grown up in the countryside themselves, the three students had witnessed first-hand how big discount stores had precipitated the decline of small bakeries. With their expertise in digital technologies and e-commerce, they developed an online ordering platform for bakeries including a driver app with route optimization. Three bakeries are currently selling rolls and pretzels over the website, while others are lined up. Meanwhile, the “dough pilots” are sharing their experiences at the IEC with other prospective entrepreneurs.

“The chemistry needs to be right”

“When founding a company, there is a strong emphasis on We,” summarizes Jonas Helma-Smets. “How do we work together to get this project off the ground?” For his start-up, it was vital that “the chemistry was right” – and not just scientifically speaking, but between him and his business partner Dominik Schumacher. “We both had the feeling that this technology could lead us on a long and exciting journey through a broad application field.” Tubulis is already successful, and preparations are underway for clinical studies on active ingredient candidates for cancer patients. LMU has remained close to Helma-Smets in many ways – and not just as regards the laboratories that his company rents in the Innovation and Start-Up Center Biotechnology (IZB) right next to LMU’s Biomedical Center. For example, Professor Heinrich Leonhardt became co-founder and consultant for the company. “And in joint research projects, we offer LMU students and doctoral candidates practical training in pioneering technologies.” Quite a few graduates have also found jobs at Tubulis. “For our spin-off,” says Helma-Smets, “LMU remains the academic backbone.”

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