“I have always been an inquisitive and independent person. Even when I was working for somebody else I had my own ideas and tried to develop them inside the organization ,” says Sanja Selak, founder and CEO of ORIGIMM, a company that began in 2011 as a project to develop simpler and more reliable research methods that deliver better vaccines.
“Vaccination has become a controversial issue these days,” says Sanja. “It is on the one hand perceived as helpful, on the other hand as something harmful that is put into the body but does not belong there. Most people are not aware that vaccination is an everyday biological process within our bodies. We are vaccinating ourselves every day by coming into contact with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, however some of these bugs are able to hide or diminish the effectiveness of immune system. It is the job of biotechnology to come up with methods of helping our bodies with that.”
The proteins which can be used for a vaccine or immune therapy development are called antigens. Identifying these proteins is ORIGIMM’s s core competence, which is reflected in their name: “ORIGins of IMMunity”. Their flagship project aims to identify most protective antigens for treatment and prevention of acne vulgaris.
The ‘Origins of ORIGIMM’
Sanja Selak was born in Yugoslavia, and during the Balkan Wars she and her parents fled to Canada, where she went to school and university. It was there that she formed her first business, a music store and school. “This taught me the basics about things like customer relationships, management or marketing,” she remembers, but admits that ORIGIMM’s customer base – pharmaceutical and biotech companies that develop vaccines and therapeutics – is very different. “Now it is all business-to-business. And that, not only legally, makes a big difference.”
The international team of ORIGIMM; Photo credit: ORIGIMM
In 2014, Tamás Berke, a medical doctor from Hungary, joined Selak as co-founder, and they foundeda GmbH. Being a biotechnology professional with more than 20 years of experience , he brought in not only scientific know-how, but also valuable experience in project management of vaccine development. Sanja and Tamas had previously worked together at an Austrian biotech-company.
As of now, there are four people inthe ORIGIMM’s management team, Sanja Selak (CEO), Tamas Berke (COO) together with Thomas Fischer as CFO and Andreas Pilz, Head of Vaccine Research and Development.
Are scientists good entrepreneurs?
As a scientist, you have more time to develop your ideas. Business is much more timeline-constricted. CEO Sanja Salek
Both Selak and Berke are entrepreneurial types, both have owned businesses before ORIGIMM. But they are well aware of the different demands on scientists and managers.
“As a scientist, you have more time to develop your ideas. Business is much more timeline-constricted,” says Selak. “You have to be very quick in decision-making and take into account not only scientific reasoning, but also the health of your business. For me, searching the quick way to success was a bit difficult, because as a scientist, I wish to work on a project as creatively and extensively as possible. As a business-person, I can’t branch out as much as I would like to. I have to keep my focus.”
Private Investors wanted
Financing biotech companies is a difficult piece of work. “Biotechnology is expensive,” says Selak, “and it is a risky investment.” Initial steps were supported by INiTS, the academic business-incubator of the Vienna university that is also the Vienna branch of the AplusB programme by the Austrian Ministry of Innovation and Technology. Additional larger funds were secured via Austrian Wirtschaft Service (AWS) and Technology Agency of the Vienna city (ZIT).
After getting started with the help of grants, ORIGIMM now looks for private investments to further develop their projects. “We are targeting individuals as a first step, and after that, we will be looking for larger professional investors,” says Berke who admits readily to the hazard that giving money to a biotech-company poses. “It is a risky investment that can, however, pay off very handsomely. That is why we are looking for somebody with experience in biotech companies”. “Biotech investment can be very lucrative if it is approached in the right way: for example, investing in a portfolio of different biotech companies can diversify the financial risk.”
“Someone who should not forget that they could finance something that has the potential to better millions of people’s lives,” adds Sanja Selak. Financing by going public is not on ORIGIMM’s radar in the near future.
Austria as a place of business
Biotech investment can be very lucrative if it is approached in the right way: for example, investing in a portfolio of different biotech companies can diversify the financial risk.
Finding experienced biotech investors proves difficult in a risk-averse society like the Austrian. Whereas both Selak and Berke love Vienna as a place to live, they would sometimes wish for a business-culture more willing to take a risk.
“I like that the Austrian government is showing more and more initiative in supporting startups, especially in very cost-intensive fields like high-end technology. Private funding, however, is much harder to get. And that is a major obstacle for growing young, innovative biotech companies,” says Selak. “Furthermore, there is an underdeveloped culture of venture capital in Austria, so Austrian companies have to search forventure capital outside of Austria.”
“On the plus-side, Austria has a strong economy and stable, predictable political system,” adds Berke. “These are vital elements that enable us as a company to plan ahead.”
Photo credit: ORIGIMM
Both Selak and Berke emphasize that they want ORIGIMM to grow steadily and in an economically healthy way. “As a company, we have to try and stay as lean as possible. We have a team of six and are now hiring a seventh person. Growth is inevitable, and it comes from success. Our goal for the next two years is to get our vaccine-project running and have two more projects in the pipeline. As of now, we are outsourcing some of our work so we can stay flexible and focus on our core competence. We will employ more people when we have reached the next stage of our development.”
Founding a company as a young natural scientist can be more tricky than, say, in IT-business. “I would advise everyone to work for a while in academia and get a sound scientific professional experience,” says Berke. “Getting a biotech-business running certainly takes endurance. Whereas it is important to have the business-side of things covered, you must have a broad and viable scientific background.”
Both Selak and Berke agree that success is a two-sided medal. “As business-people, we have to define success in business-terms. But of course we are also scientists. Our work is about finding and developing something scientifically valuable.”
But which of the two is closer to their heart? “We want to help the patients, and we want to build our team. For me, it is more about the patients. Making money comes second,because if we think of money first, we will lose the focus on the quality of our products and in the end it will not be a success for either the patients or our shareholders,” says Sanja Selak. To which Tamás Berke as a physician can only agree: “Making life better for people – that is ultimately why we do it”.
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.