Microorganisms are highly suitable for the production of nutrients and medical substances. But how can the most productive organisms be found?
It must have been in the spring of 2010, on a completely normal afternoon in the Forschungszentrum Jülich. As was frequently the case at the Institute for Systemic Microbiology, a few PhD candidates were sitting together with their mentor. The discussion revolved around research with bacteria and the question of how one could best include them in the production of raw materials. In principle, a microbial producer for almost every material can be found. But fishing out, specifically, those cells that are considerably more productive is much more difficult, said the mentor. Unfortunately, the special talents that single-cell organisms exhibit are not easy to recognise.
“The foundation of our company then began with this one sentence,” says Stephan Binder, who was sitting together with Georg Schaumann along with the other PhD candidates. The problem that their advisor Lothar Eggeling had formulated so well proved to be a puzzle that they could just not forget. How can we motivate bacteria to communicate to us human beings what it is that they are capable of doing? A tricky question, but after a lot of brooding and experimentation, the junior scientists, who had known each other since their university days, came up with the answer. This not only brought them their doctoral degree, but a few patents and the business concept behind their own new firm as well.
It all involves, in short, luminous bacteria. The brighter the microorganisms shine, the more they produce of the desired substance. This is possible because they have received, previously in the laboratory, special genetic supplementary ‘equipment’. It ensures that the microbes develop a special biosensor. This activates an optical signal as soon as the bacterium has formed a certain quantity of the target substance. With an increase in concentration – and this is a very special feature behind this procedure – the signal strength also increases.
In the next step the most able-bodied bacteria are specifically identified from among millions of conspecifics – by using a special cell sorter, which is otherwise typically applied in the analysis of blood. The selected bacteria must then pass a few tests. Only then are they possibly considered to be suitable as a new production strain for industrial biotechnology.
Demand for such strains is huge. By using them, it is possible to replace production procedures based on petroleum with processes based on renewable raw materials. This involves the transformation of microorganisms, in a biomass inside fermentation units, into valuable products such as amino-acids. Lysine is one of these valuable products, and by using this substance as an example, Stephan Binder and Georg Schaumann were able to demonstrate how well their procedure works.
“It worked right away in the first attempt – we could hardly believe our eyes,” Georg Schaumann remembers. From ten million microorganisms of the species Corynebacterium glutamicum – they all contained the signal gene – the analysis device sorted out a few hundred that actually produced considerably high quantities of lysine. What would have taken several days using the conventional method was accomplished by the luminous bacteria in just a few hours. This promised enormous cost advantages for industrial application. Stephan Binder: “We repeated the test three times, and each time the results were equally positive – only then were we able to believe it.”
From that point on, the biologists were busy making serious plans to establish their own enterprise. They were in their late twenties and neither of them held aspirations for an academic career. And they trusted each other, for the most part because they had known each other long enough. “Everything that we hadn’t previously known about each other was divulged during those five years together in the laboratory,” says Stephan Binder and laughs.
The two founders henceforth developed their technology very quickly and established contacts to enterprises. Soon an appropriate name was found: SenseUp is an invented word whereby the word “sense” characterises the new procedure. The SenseUp GmbH now exists as of the beginning of September 2015. Binder, now 32 years old, and Schaumann, 33, are the managing directors for the young firm that now employs a team of eight people. As early as 2017, they will begin taking customer orders to develop the first production strains for the manufacture of amino acids.
”All of that would not have been imaginable without the fantastic support that we have had,” says Stephan Binder. At the institute in the Forschungszentrum Jülich, the young founders receive not only conceptual backing; they are also allowed to use rooms and infrastructure. The initial impetus was enabled by funding from the start-up programme of Helmholtz Enterprise, says Georg Schaumann. And then the big success in the spring of 2014 came with the contest Start-Up Offensive for Bio-Tech Go-Bio (“Gründungsoffensive Biotechnologie GO-Bio”) sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. From a total of 107 applicants SenseUp was selected along with six other projects. Around €2.5m is now available to the young entrepreneurs to help make their procedure ready for the market.
This is because whatever is successful in the laboratory is still a long way from being successful in the factory. “In molecular biology research, we are dealing with just a few millilitres at a time,” says Schaumann, but conversely “In industrial bioreactors, the processes involve up to 100,000 litres of liquid.” This results in completely different conditions for the microorganisms, for example, when working with the supply of nutrients and oxygen. To avoid failure due to the huge jump in scale, the young entrepreneurs are testing their procedure on an increasingly larger scale.
In the future they will be dealing with many competitors in a global market led by large corporations. Georg Schaumann is in charge of marketing and customer consultation, making him more or less the foreign minister of SenseUp. Responsibility for internal affairs, research, development and laboratory management is assumed by Stephan Binder. In the field of microbial strain development, no other firms work with optical sensors, he says. “In the end, we are forced to gain ground through speed and precision – these will comprise the crucial factors for success.”
And success is by all means what these young entrepreneurs want to have. This is why they are currently working 70 hours per week. What little leisure time Stephan Binder has is preferably spent with his wife and two small daughters. Georg Schaumann lives with his wife in Düsseldorf, and the couple would like to wait a bit longer before starting a family. SenseUp comes first for now.