To save lives, researchers from Mannheim are using blood plasma to create new forms of medicine. We met up in the CUBEX 41 start-up center, with the duo Marc Mazur, of PreviPharma, and Dr. Jens Langejürgen, who heads the Fraunhofer project group “Automation in Medicine and Biotech”.
Marc and Jens – how did you two come to cooperate, here in CUBEX 41?
Marc Mazur: We’ve been in Cubex since 2015. I got to know Jens in April of 2018, while having a cup of coffee and playing some table football. It was clear from the beginning, that we had a lot in common. Things didn’t get going with an official meeting, five-page concepts, or loads of manuscripts; it was an unassuming “Hey, what do you guys do?”. In the beginning we had one room – by today we are the second largest tenant in Cubex, and rent a whole wing. Our workflow, representation and networking is on-point at the moment.
Dr. Jens Langejürgen: Both of our teams are in Cubex, so everything is short distance. Marc had been receiving funding through the Fraunhofer Institute since the beginning. This was mostly for an event in Australia. One of the largest plasma fractionators is located there, so this was a potentially big business client for Marc.
Okay! Before we get ahead of ourselves … tell us what plasma is all about.
Marc: Plasma makes up about 60% of our blood. It is the liquid, cell-free and slightly yellow part of it. It transports the cellular blood components, as well as plasma proteins and low-molecular substances. Plasma is won through centrifugation, after which the blood is virus tested and snap-frozen. We aren’t plasma fractionators, but we do use plasma for our research.
Jens: My crew develops and optimizes measuring technology for biomedical applications. This involves temperature sensors. Plasma can be quite delicate, and freezing and thawing it cad be tricky. Marcs and my team got together to conduct some experiments regarding applicability. Our experience with sensors, and PreviPharmas knowledge regarding plasma, were a perfect match.
There must be several firms worldwide, that produce medication using blood plasma. What is unique about your approach?
Marc: At the moment there are about six or seven products on the market, which are made from plasma. They help patients with genetic defects. These defects can, for example, cause swelling of the extremities, because of a coagulation disorder or an immune deficiency. These are standard medications, which were developed decades ago – and haven’t been further developed since then, to help with other forms of therapy! We have re-opened these ideas. For instance, we have been developing a new substance since 2015, which is part of a therapy concept involving a plasma protein. What makes this especially interesting is the fact, that the substance not only helps patients with genetic defects, but also those with acquired deficiencies. This is relevant for therapeutic areas such as organ failure, or infectious diseases. What we are doing is to dramatically broaden the the pool of potential patients. What was once a tiny niche is becoming a large area of therapy, with the possibility of helping a large number of patients. Further active ingredients are currently being developed. And I am convinced we are creating pharmaceuticals with billions in potential revenue.
You both are currently researching medical technology, while you both come from other fields. What led you here?
Marc: After school I finished my bachelor’s degree and MBA in Corporate Finance, in Los Angeles. During my first years as a management consultant, I provided guidance for several clients from the pharmaceutical industry. This was my first contact with that industry. After this I went on to pursue a top managing position, as part of the internal management consultancy and IT department at Volkswagen. It wasn’t till 2013, that I became part of PreviPharma – initially with a small amount of medical-technical know-how.
Jens: I’m no medical expert either. I studied physics at the „Rheinisch-Westfälischen Technischen Hochschule“ in Aachen. After this I obtained a doctorate in the field of electrical engineering, at Leibniz University, Hanover. Following this I spent my postdoc in analytical chemistry, in England, after which I worked as a team leader in the medical technology segment, at Fraunhofer.
Is it easy to find open ears in the medical industry, as a start-up consisting of lateral entrants?
Marc: The plasma-sector as a niche, is highly complex and difficult. There is hardly any exchange of know-how. When I became part of PreviPharma, in 2013, we weren’t on the map yet, neither nationally nor internationally. My first steps were to completely refocus the business: the start-up was founded in 2007, with an initial focus on technological development. There were some good concepts, but the business was to small. My vision was to refocus and get into the service-integrators sector. This means we worked several years as moderators and consultants, to eventually become absolut insiders in the field.
Jens: During the summer we travelled to Australia, to present our approach to a group of professors and students, as well as a very large blood-plasma fractionator. The feedback was very positive, as Marc is very knowledgeable in the plasma field, has international business expertise, and through his business management background, he knows how to run a business, and what requirements our clients have. As PreviPharma is a relatively small business, it’s great to have Fraunhofer as a partner. They have over 20.000 employees. This combination of a young, innovative start-up, and our world-renowned research facility, is what makes us so strong together.
Let’s take another step back: how do you fund a start-up in the medical technology sector?
Marc: What we could offer from the get-go was our know-how. Aside from a 25.000 euro founder-award, which we received in 2015, by the state of Baden-Württemberg, we have been able to finance our operation solely through our technical knowledge, and the resulting services we are able to provide. We also began asking plasma fractioning firms, if they were interested in trying our approach. Many didn’t take us seriously, or reacted almost patronizingly. They never believed our approach would work. So in the end we did things ourselves – and it worked! Within a few years we transitioned from offering technological services, to functioning as a medical research company. This is the top of the game and we now have many more strategic options.
That sounds quite optimistic. Did any cooperations arise after your Australia trip?
Jens: Talks are currently underway, and we greatly profit from the high-end network and the publicity. I see this a real success. You have to be persistent and wait for the right moment to make projects happen. I was recently invited by the German Ministry of Education and Research, to give a presentation on our cooperation and the exchange program.
Marc: Since the symposium we have been cooperating with the Adelaide university for preclinical trials. It’s all about meeting up, getting to know each other, and exchanging knowledge. This is vital. We never would have met this way through the internet, as one tends to overlook a lot online.
Are you expecting a visit to Mannheim by the Australians?
Jens: Indeed! They will be here in November of 2018. They do outstanding research, and a well functioning economy, but the Australians lack the transfer. The structures there make it hard to bring the more academic side of the business out to the people, and to gain new insights and connections. This is why Marc and I, and our Mannheim tandem business model, is an interesting example of a “best practice” for the Australians.
Marc: Further networking is great for us. Since 2017 we have been creating a “Medical Innovation Plattform”. It is our goal to bring several new active substances, with new indications, which are generated from plasma, to the patients, in collaboration with our partners. We research medications, this is all about saving lives. I truly believe in this. Not in a religious way. I’m a very optimistic person, and I don’t believe in coincidences. What I do believe in are ideas, that make good things happen.
Interview: Sina Listmann / LA.MAG
Photos: Ricardo Wiesinger