From puncture to pill
When Tyrolean pharmacologist Florian Föger speaks about his work, he calls it bridging a gap: “Cyprumed brings together the most desired form of administering medicine and the most powerful pharmaceuticals.” In other words, people can now swallow a pill instead of being injected, with the help of polypeptides – medical agents that are used in treating widespread diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and even cancer.
Over 100 different polypeptides are administered by doctors, and more than 200 are in the phase of clinical studies on humans. Making these agents orally administrable would therefore be a big step for millions of patients – and a very marketable idea, says Florian.
You can have your meds, and eat them too
Simply eat your meds; Photo credit: CYPRUMED
“The problem we face is that polypeptides and proteins are treated by the human body as nutrition – which means, they are digested within minutes”, he explains. “Oral administration does not work with these kinds of medicine.” Cyprumed hopes to remedy that. Florian has worked on aspects of this very problem throughout his entire career – starting with his doctoral thesis, his pharmacology study at the University of Innsbruck and his employment with big pharma corporations in Denmark.
Once he quit his job with the industry Florian enjoyed a sabbatical year with his family and thereby waited out the terms of a competition clause in his contract, Florian established Cyprumed as a GmbH in 2015 after a pre-founding phase of about a year.For support in the early stages, Cyprumed went to CAST Tyrol, a branch of the Austrian AplusB programme.
CAST offers professional business advice, particularly to young scientists, tech experts or creatives who want to transform their ideas into a business. “They helped me with a lot more than money,” Florian recalls, “like getting access to laboratories in the university of Innsbruck.” With pharmaceutical research being so expensive, his own money wasn’t enough, but “the Austrian grant system was a big help”, he says. “And now things look pretty good. We filed a patent and already received positive feedback from the European Patent Office.” Of course, Florian shares the EPO’s optimism that the platform technology is actually working, especially since animal testing showed very promising results.
Small team – big undertaking
I do not miss useless meetings, and I enjoy the added freedom in my personal time management.
By “we” Florian means himself and Jürg Meier, Chairman of the Cyprumed Advisory Board, who has several decades of experience in pharma, including managing positions with Novartis, Sandoz and the Austrian Biochemie in Kundl. But how can a small team hope to achieve something so big? Cyprumed is set up like a “virtual company”, meaning that a lot of tasks are outsourced, including the actual laboratory work. “I do not work in a laboratory at all”, explains Florian. “I design the experiments, interpret the outcome and make necessary alterations. The actual research is done by contract research organizations.”
As he limits himself to the role of project manager for Cyprumed, Florian says his work-life-balance actually improved after becoming an entrepreneur. Being a young father of two, this allows him to spend more highly valued time with his family. He lists other perks of being self-employed: “I do not miss useless meetings, and I enjoy the added freedom in my personal time management.”
Florian has always been fascinated with the idea of running his own business. “What I always liked about small companies is that they work less conservatively than big corporations.” He worked towards entrepreneurship systematically and completed university courses in business in Denmark. “But of course my experience from working in the industry proves extremely valuable these days.”
Asked about the future of his company, Florian sounds very optimistic and determined. Although Cyprumed were already approached by several venture capitalists, he says he would prefer to cooperate with pharma companies as soon as the technology has reached a certain stage. “Such cooperations will take time. But if a big pharma company decides to adopt our technology, that would mean lucrative income.” While venture capital can certainly be helpful, he fears it may lead to him losing influence over his company.
Three rules for entrepreneurs
An award winning pill; Photo credit: CYPRUMED
Scientifically, the first clinical studies on humans will be the big hurdle for the Cyprumed technology. The plan is to test oral delivery of osteoporosis medicine starting in 2016. And while Florian is optimistic, he also admits: “You can never know whether an agent that shows good results in animal testing also works for humans.”
Growing his business is also on the to-do list, but not as top priority. “We want to grow moderately and maybe develop a clinical-studies program of our own.” “However, hiring pharma experts as a small and early startup is a bumpy road. I have been talking to people I studied with. But they have very well-paid jobs in the industry in Switzerland – wages I could not hope to match at the moment, particularly considering the taxes on labor in Austria.”
He says that in Denmark scientists get a tax relief in their first five years, a system with which the state supports scientific research. Although a reprieve like that would be very helpful expecially in the first years of a startup, Austria has its advantages as well, Florian knows: “Austria is a great place for startups: the grant system is working very well, providing not only funding, but also highly valuable advice and support.”
Asked what advice he would pass on to young entrepreneurs, Florian readily chips in. “First, to be successful you need both scientific expertise in your field as well as business knowledge. Second, you need to pair creativity with target-focus. Number three, and most important: Always be prepared for the unexpected. Plans usually do not work out as one thought they would. Be positive and hopeful, but make sure your financials can cope with one or two setbacks.”
All in all, Florian says he has never regretted his decision to start a company. “To me, it is not about the quick money. I am glad I have the chance to work on something that interests me and have fun working. And I am very optimistic that the Cyprumed technology can bridge the gap and make a big difference for millions of patients.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.