This interview is in media cooperation with Frankfurt Forward (https://www.frankfurtforward.com/news/). We talk to Sulfotools (https://en.sulfotools.com), the Startup of the Month September 2019. In this interview, we talk to Christina Uth, the startup’s founder and Managing Director (https://www.linkedin.com/in/christina-uth-29293097/). In the interview, we learn how Christina went from studying chemical engineering to her PhD and how they discovered by accident the basis for their startup. Sulfotools invented a new method for the production of peptides, which replaces very toxic components with water. Their method is greener, more sustainable and cheaper, than existing methods. They invented their new method by accident.
We are right now four people, but we are looking for investors to scale our production
Accidents, by the way, have a great tradition to bring humanity forward, like the discovery of penicillin, one of the world’s first antibiotics (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic).
We have developed easily scalable production processes to an industrial scale
Sulfotools is a STEM startup, which revolutionizes the production of peptides (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peptide), which are small biomolecules. They are used in cancer therapeutics, anti-aging products, and even food supplements. Commonly peptides are produced in a very toxic process and Sulfotools changes that. Their method replaces very toxic components in the production of peptides with water.
This is the last “startup of the month” interview ☹, since we reached the planned end of the Frankfurt Forward program. We hope that the program will be back soon!
We need laboratory space, so Frankfurt is very attractive for us
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Narrator: Welcome to Startuprad.io, your podcast and YouTube blog covering the German start-up scene with news, interviews and live events.
Joe: Welcome everybody. This is Joe from Startuprad.io, your start-up podcast and YouTube blog from Germany. As you can see, short sleeves, it’s still summer, but we are already doing the interview of the start-up of the month, September. Therefore, I do have Christina here. Hey Christina, welcome.
Christina: Hi, Joe. Thanks for meeting with me.
Joe: Totally my pleasure. You are working for the start-up called Sulfotools, which is the start-up of the month in our media cooperation with Frankfurt Forward in September. Congratulations to that! And before we dive a little bit into the story of Sulfotools, maybe we can talk a little bit about you, what you’ve done before and how you ended up with a start-up because I’ve been looking a little bit at your LinkedIn profile and apparently you’re not only a chemist but also an engineer. How did this happen?
Christina: Yes, I studied chemistry. I did my chem studies in Hydaburg and then I moved to Darmstadt and as Darmstadt is a technical university, you must do technical chemistry and therefore you get the degree of an engineer as well.
Joe: I have totally no clue what technical chemistry is, and maybe 90 percent of our listeners. Can you enlighten us about that, just a tiny bit?
Christina: Yes. It’s mostly about process engineering and how to set up processes and how to set up instruments, how to set up big…
Joe: It is how to set up factories and big plants; how to use the chemistry. I do get it, okay. Here we go. Then, for whatever reason, you did your Ph.D. and you said, “Oh, let’s start a start-up.” How did this happen?
Christina: Actually, I was doing my Ph.D. in the area of biochemistry. There was Sasha, my co-founder. He was the main inventor of our technology. We did a lot of research projects together and then it was an experiment gone wrong. By accident, we found the new building blocks, which are the bases of our new technology. And, as we developed it further, he asked me if I wanted to join him and start a start-up. And so yes, that’s how I came to Sulfotools.
Joe: That is not to say that those accidents are something that doesn’t bring humanity forward. Penicillin was discovered by accident. So, accidents are pretty good things. What are you guys doing? I assumed, like many of our listeners, our viewers here on YouTube, on Instagram, on iTunes, podcasts, these on Spotify or whatever, have no clue what those peptides are and why you guys are called Sulfotools. Can, can you give us a little introduction? Dumb down about peptides, please.
Christina: Of course, peptides are small by biomolecules. They are also called small proteins, which some of you might be familiar with. They are small molecules which have a lot of different biological activities and therefore are used as active ingredients in a broad range of different products. For instance, in the pharmaceutical field, they are used as cancer therapeutics or in cosmetics they are commonly used in anti-aging products. They are also used as food supplements. So, we have developed a new production process for these small molecules, which is greener, more sustainable, and more cost-effective. To answer your other question on how we came to Sulfotools, most names with peptides were taken so we decided to use Sulfotools because we knew that the building blocks we developed or invented have sulfo-groups attached to them. That’s why we are called Sulfotools.
Joe: I was wondering when you talked about that. You do peptides. Who your customers? I would assume big cosmetic companies, big pharma companies. Is that true?
Christina: Yes, that’s true. Most markets with peptides are produced chemically. So, our main customers are of course the pharmaceutical industry, which produced the peptides themselves or the CMOs or so-called contract manufacturing organizations, which produce the peptides for the pharmaceutical or the cosmetic industry. But also, they are small, academic, working groups, which do peptides, or which use peptides and they are also customers.
Joe: There are apparently whole industries I wasn’t aware of that do exist. You also talked about that you guys are producing your peptides greener. Can you elaborate a little bit on that because I do assume your factory is not painted green, right?
Christina: Oh, no, not at all. So green means that commonly peptides are produced in a very toxic solvent called DMF, which is also classified as a substance of very high concern by the European Chemicals Directive REACH because of the very toxic properties. We have developed new water-soluble building blocks for the chemical synthesis of peptides, which allow us to substitute this hazardous organic solvent with water. So, we just use water as a solvent to produce peptides.
Joe: Did you also get rid of maybe other dangerous chemicals ingredients during this processor is this already green enough?
Christina: There’s a very high demand for substituting this organic solvent with cleaner and less toxic alternatives. There were also some papers published which discussed this objective. We also can substitute other solvents which are needed in the production process, but this is very detailed.
Joe: Don’t worry. You don’t need to go into detail or spill any secrets. How big is your company? I do know you can outsource production. So, it’s either you’re very big and you have your own factory or you’re very small and rely on certain manufacturers that do it according to your recipe. I would say
Christina: At the moment we are just three people; four, if we include our co-founder and mentor, Dr. Kolmar, and we can produce a small amount now, but we are looking for investors to scale up our own production.
Joe: Are you’re already at the stage where you can simply say, okay if you pump in 20 million, this gets 20 million times the amount or do you still have a little bit of trouble with scaling that?
Christina: Well, we have developed the production processes which are easily scalable and on an industrial scale. We just lack the money to scale it up.
Joe: Well, fortunately, you are on Startuprad.io and I do know there is a lot of start-ups who already got approached by investors. Maybe that works for you. Everybody who’d like to reach out to you down here in the show notes there is a link to your personal LinkedIn profiles for people who can approach you directly as well as to your company website. Since we are talking about Frankfurt Forward here, of course, there’s the question. What does Frankfurt bring to your mind? We may tell the people that Darmstadt is a little bit South of Frankfurt, but I once had a college friend visiting here and he was even much farther away than Darmstadt from Frankfurt and he still called it Frankfurt area. So, for every German, it’s already a completely different city. For an American, it would be the Greater Frankfurt Region, Darmstadt. We call it the Rhine-Main Region. What does it mean for you?
Christina: So, the Rhine-Main Region for us means that of course you have the airport close. You have a huge train station where you can reach every part of Germany very quickly, very easily. And of course, as we are in the biochemical industry, the Rhine-Main Area is the heart of that field. There are a lot of big companies and potential customers.
Joe: We may add that just across the Rhine and a little bit of walking distance, there is BASF and the biggest chemical plant in the world in Ludwigshafen. And, not too far away from here in Frankfurt Höchst, there’s also a huge chemical park with lots of different companies. That’s what you’re going at, right?
Christina: Yes, of course. And as we need the laboratory space, Frankfurt is very attractive for us.
Joe: I never heard somebody called Frankfurt attractive due to laboratory space. I’ve been doing this for quite some time, but that’s the first.
Christina: There’s a first for everything.
Joe: Well, the only thing left for me to say is thank you were much. It was a total pleasure talking to you and everybody who would like to learn more or reach out for you for whatever reason go down here in the show notes. There is a link to your LinkedIn profile and your website.
Christina: Yes. Thank you very much as well. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Joe: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you. Cheers. Auf Wiedersehen.
Christina: Thank you. Bye.
Narrator: That’s all, folks. Find more news, streams, events, and interviews at www.startuprad.io. You remember sharing is caring.