I started to think of scientific entrepreneurship instead of the traditional science career path because I wanted to create a company to exploit fully the commercial value of a platform of technologies, some of which I had co-invented during my postdoctoral training. The slim chance of finding an academic job in my own country helped!
Setting up a new company is a team effort. I convinced three key people--my boss, Professor Alan Fersht from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Protein Engineering in Cambridge, U.K.; the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Sir John Walker from the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit, also in Cambridge; and Dr. Fergal Hill from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany--to join our synergistic technologies and varied expertise. Together we set up our company, Avidis. Then, we sought an infrastructure that combined an attractive capitalist environment with support for fledgling entrepreneurs. According to these criteria, the Biopôle Clermont-Limagne in Saint Beauzire (just outside Clermont-Ferrand, France) was the most suitable. The Auvergne has the bonus of being one of the most attractive regions of France!
Scientists seeking to exploit their discoveries by setting up new biotechnology companies face a difficult choice: They must either spend time learning how to run a business on a lengthy, full-time course such as an MBA, or they take the risk and plunge in at the deep end, taking advice from consultants. I took another option, encouraged by Professor Michel Renaud, vice president of the University of Auvergne and founder of the Biopôle Clermont-Limagne. I took a special training course run by Eurobiobiz (supported by the European Commission and Arthur Andersen), which includes a dedicated software package (Biobiz). This course enables scientists to understand the business planning that is required for starting up a company.
During this training, I gained the skills needed to write a business plan, which would enable us to attract real interest from venture capitalists. Indeed, having decided the business model of our project (i.e., the marketing strategy to develop commercially the products arising from our technologies), I wrote its business plan. I submitted it to the "1st Capital-Innovation Competition" run by French venture capitalists, the Groupe SOFIMAC (Société de Financement des PME du Massif Central).
Our company, Avidis, won first prize in this competition and now aims to develop essential technologies for the industrial production of recombinant proteins. Its existing portfolio of innovative technologies enables us to produce native recombinant proteins. These proteins will be used for therapy, for developing treatments, for studying protein function, and for producing diagnostic tests and vaccines. The ability to manufacture proteins, which at present are very difficult or even impossible to produce, in large quantities and in their native form, rapidly and inexpensively, will have an enormous impact in all sectors of biology (biotechnology, nutrition, pharmacy, human and animal health care, and, in the near future, nanotechnology).
Avidis is simultaneously a source of ideas and innovations for new products and a platform of technologies for their creation and development. The Research & Development arm will develop all the products derived from Avidis' proprietary technologies while the Service arm will use these products for clients' applications. Avidis is supported by the Medical Research Council and le Groupe SOFIMAC, which will lead the first round of funding with other international venture capitalists.
The formation of new companies drives growth in new sectors such as biotechnology. Start-ups help to transfer technologies from academia to the market place. However, for scientists who are seldom familiar with management and finance, it is a new world. In Europe, budding entrepreneurs should look to the European Commission for help.
The opportunity to become an entrepreneur and to build your own company will create new reasons for today's more courageous and adventurous young scientists to enjoy both science and life. The frustration of leaving the workbench or the sadness of not finding an academic job in their own country will be replaced by the excitement of a new world, and this will open new avenues to extend their talents.
Jean Chatellier obtained his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France. He was a Marie Curie fellow at the Medical Research Council Centre for Protein Engineering in Cambridge, U.K., in the laboratory of Prof. Alan Fersht, the pioneer of protein engineering, from 1997 to 1999, where he worked as a postdoc on the mechanisms of the bacterial chaperonin GroEL. This article first appeared in the summer 2000 issue of the newsletter of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association.