“I see a very innovation-friendly climate in Basel”
It all began with research resources that were a quarter of a century old. Simon Ittig and his colleagues at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel turned these into a research project – and eventually a start-up. T3 Pharmaceuticals develops new therapies to treat solid tumours.
How did T3 Pharma come about?
Simon Ittig: I completed my doctorate at the Biozentum in Professor Guy Cornelis’ group, which dealt primarily with a secretion system of bacteria. Bacteria require these needles to inject proteins into cells and establish their pathogenesis. My doctoral supervisor discovered this mechanism 25 years ago and had researched it ever since. When I completed my doctorate in 2012 and Professor Cornelis retired, I was able to take over many resources such as bacterial strains and study protocols. As a postdoc in another group at the Biozentrum, I dealt with the question of how proteins can be transported rapidly into cells. This brought me back to my collection of bacterial strains, as they are by nature exactly the same. In a short time, I succeeded in showing that such a protein transport does in fact work – and rapidly, efficiently and synchronously. This potential enthralled my research colleagues and me.
What precisely can this technology be used for?
If you have bacteria that transport specific, for example human, proteins into cells, then you can stimulate these cells as you like. It has long been known that bacteria migrate to solid tumours. Accordingly, we focused on the field of solid tumour oncology and could achieve impressive results in a surprisingly short amount of time. We now have bacteria that grow specifically in a tumour over an extended period of time. We can also now program these in such a way that they produce certain active ingredients and pass them into the cells – precisely to where these substances can take effect. Our technology is very stable.
Was it obvious to you that you could go ahead and start a company with this idea?
Yes, this idea came relatively early. We received the first financial support from CTI, the Cancer League and smaller foundations when we were still just academic researchers. It was already clear then that we wanted to become self-employed with our protein transport technology. Founding our own company was even one of the conditions for further research funding from CTI. The Biozentrum supported us in many ways when we were spinning off. As before, the patents belong to the university, but we have an exclusive global license.
How did you finance T3 Pharma?
In the beginning and also subsequently we received substantial amounts of research funding. However, the funds are generally restricted to salaries and materials. Foundations mainly want to finance the actual research work. At some point you reach a limit, which is why we began to actively look for investors for our company.
With great success. What played a decisive role?
First of all, you have to have the right business idea. Second, you need a good amount of mutual trust. The whole set up should be able to accompany the company for several years. If every couple of years you need a few months to secure the next financing round, then this ties up too many resources, creates a lot of uncertainty and distracts from your research activities. For this reason, we looked – and found – investors who had the financial opportunities and necessary understanding, who believe in us and are ready to go the distance with us.
So were you in a privileged position where you could also turn investments down?
Maybe. I’m convinced that you shouldn’t accept every offer if you don’t have to. We carefully examine the conditions connected to the financing and also want to get a sense of the investors’ intentions. It’s also recommended that you keep your options open. If you become content with something too early, it can become very expensive later on.
You have received over 2 million francs from foundations. Is this unusually large for a start-up?
The effort for such financing is of course also very high, especially at the beginning when you can’t yet show proof of your achievements or have yet to receive any research grants. It’s crucial to bring experienced people on board at an early stage. This gives the foundations the necessary certainty when it comes to the project’s feasibility. It’s also important to appreciate smaller amounts. I’m also very grateful that I could learn a lot about the art of writing applications from an experienced and successful scientist, Professor Nigg. With Prof Nigg from the Biozentrum and Prof Christofori from the Department of Biomedicine, we had formed a professional and interdisciplinary consortium from early on. Without these two experienced professors our company wouldn’t exist in its current form.
How high then was the success rate?
I would estimate that half of our requests have been met with a positive result until now.
You’ve come far with this foundation funding, but you’re taking the next steps with the support of private investors. Is this better than turning to venture capital companies?
We of course looked at both alternatives. Private and institutional investors are not mutually exclusive. But we prefer private people because they are generally alone or in small committees and can decide quickly if they want to invest or not. A second point: it’s also important to me personally that we develop an idea together of the next few years and work towards these goals. The interactions, the shared vision and the sense of similar values bring a great amount of pleasure and confidence. It just has to be ‘right’, professional and personal.
How do you go about finding private investors?
Actually, this only goes via a good network and our experienced consultants. In contrast to venture capital firms, private investors tend to remain discretely in the background. It’s therefore important to think early on about the positioning of your own company, the team and its technology. A well-planned communication also helps. Once the ideas are known, it’s easier to get in touch with the right people. If you win someone over in a discussion, there’s a good chance that a private investor will get involved.
What are your next steps?
The financing of T3 Pharm is secured for the time being. We can therefore concentrate on our research and then validate our technology and prepare for preclinical development. As CEO, I’m working outside of the laboratory for the time being while my four colleagues are focussing fully on the research.
What is your long-term vision?
We want to bring our technology for use in patients. This is the major driver in our day-to-day work. How and when we will achieve this goal, I still can’t say today. And also whether or not T3 Pharma will still be an independent company. Who knows what the future holds. We’re therefore open and focused first and foremost on our research.
How do you see the local ecosystem for young entrepreneurs?
We have a good connection to the university and appreciate the open doors. If you trust people and approach them, you receive a lot of support. I see a very innovation-friendly climate in Basel. Of course the large life science cluster creates an incredibly positive environment for start-ups like us. And how BaselArea.swiss promotes innovation also helps in an uncomplicated way when it comes to meeting the right people.
And yet when it comes to start-ups, Basel lags behind other places. What needs to be done?
Nothing works without self-initiative and perseverance. If you have both, you’ll find the best conditions here in Basel and Switzerland. If I had one wish, it would be to more strongly institutionalise the informal exchange at the university. Earlier input from experienced professionals on a start-up idea could help young researchers gather the self-confidence for the next steps and be more successful in presenting their own ideas to a committee. Rejections can be quite discouraging sometimes.
Are there so many ideas that get buried before they’re even given a chance?
Yes, there are, and I find it a real pity. It’s not a matter of course for many people to stand up in front of others and say “I want this, I can do this, and I’ll do it”. Only a few young researchers trust themselves to overcome such a big hurdle and also pursue a project in the face of obstacles. Many talented young scientists remain on the academic track and continue to publish up until the train leaves for a start-up. It would help if they could discuss their ideas informally, without having to shout it from the rooftops. I’m convinced that there would be even more innovative start-ups. Once this hurdle is overcome, you get an unbelievable amount of support even from professors in other fields encouraging you to continue. This is what happened to me.
And was does your doctoral supervisor say about T3?
He’s extremely happy for us. Guy Cornelis also provides us with scientific advice and helps us where he can. The relationship has also since changed and has become very friendly.
Dr Simon Ittig studied biochemistry and biotechnology at the universities of Bern, Vienna and Strasbourg and graduated from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel in microbiology. The start-up T3 Pharmaceuticals grew out of the research project Type 3 Technologies – Bacteria as a versatile tool for protein delivery.