Why we need to see more investment diversity in the life sciences sector to overcome crises such as the current one

Dr. Bernd Goergen has been working at High-Tech Gründerfonds for the last 12 years. The HTGF Partner is an expert in the field of life sciences. His investment portfolio includes PEPperPRINT, a Heidelberg-based start-up which is making a valuable contribution to the fight against the coronavirus. In this interview, he sheds light on start-ups in the life sciences sector, pharmaceutical innovations and the importance of long-term investment strategies.

Bernd, how is your portfolio company PEPperPRINT supporting the fight against the coronavirus?

PEPperPRINT is supplying a tool to quickly and easily synthesise every conceivable protein into tiny fragments directly on small glass slides that are called chips. This is achieved using laser printing. However, instead of printing ink, the smallest structural units of a protein – amino acids – are applied on the surface one after another and are linked together to form chains. This also works for viruses such as the current SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers are therefore able to analyse the entire virus proteome on a chip together with patient samples, thus creating an immunological fingerprint.

And what is the benefit of this?

It enables studies to be conducted looking at which protein building blocks of the virus are targeted by the antibodies produced by an infected person’s immune system, how the various infected groups differ immunologically, and what virus structures should be included in a vaccine candidate.. This is why the first batch of the 2019-nCov peptide microarrays sold out in a very short space of time. Employees at PEPperPRINT have been working flat out for the last six weeks to ensure they can meet the demand.

Putting the current crisis to one side for a moment, how is the start-up scene in the life sciences sector faring as a whole?

The range of investment opportunities and investors has increased significantly. This is also demonstrated by the number of pharmaceutical companies that are increasingly investing in biopharmaceutical start-ups either directly via development partnerships or by means of corporate venturing. Not since the start-up bubble burst at the turn of the century has there been as much capital invested into early-stage life sciences companies as is currently the case.

What are the important trends?

Product development in the life sciences sector can take an extremely long time, especially when it comes to pharmaceutical compounds. We often have to anticipate what will be needed and what will continue to be funded in the next eight to twelve years. This is why at HTGF, we don’t only focus on current trends. Concentrating on just one therapeutic field or one subsector of the life sciences would be a huge oversight for a seed funding firm such as ours. It would also go against the mandate given to us by our investors. We base our decision to invest on criteria such as whether a company has an innovative technological basis, a plausible business model and a team that has the expertise and the drive to take a project forwards. But we also consider the long-term positioning of the companies we invest in.

What do you mean by that?

With our wide-ranging investment approach we’re able to help drive developments and trends – which are perhaps not yet immediately visible – in a sustainable manner. Anti-infectives are a good example of this. This is a field which many in the last few years may have thought was not as lucrative as oncology, for example. However, the current crisis tells a different story. I can only invite other investors to join us in investing in these supposedly niche sectors. It’s well worth it! Because ultimately, these kinds of start-ups might just turn out to be very important in crises such as this one.

Do you have any other examples of this?

At the very least, I can highlight how start-ups from our portfolio are pursuing innovations in the most diverse of fields which are now in high demand during the coronavirus crisis. The start-up firm Reactive Robotics, for instance, has developed a vertically adjustable bed that promotes the early mobilisation of patients in intensive care units so as to better activate patients’ various muscle groups and circulation. This helps to reduce the amount of time patients spend lying down in intensive care units by up to 20 percent in total. It also helps hospitals to save on time, personnel and, ultimately, money.

Are there any companies in your portfolio that are helping to develop treatments?

Of course! Take Atriva for example. This is a company that is conducting research into a therapeutic agent to tackle virus-induced respiratory diseases. For a number of weeks now the team has been working with the current coronavirus; the first tests are said to have gone well. I certainly have my fingers crossed for all teams across the world who are currently working to fight Covid-19.

As an expert in the life sciences sector, you are heavily involved in the current crisis on a technical level. But to ask a more personal question to conclude this interview, what is the main thing you have learned from this period of crisis?

With a bit of luck people will now realize that global problems can only – and must – be solved collaboratively. Epidemics only represent one strand of such problems.

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