"The chemical industry is under enormous pressure"
With "CataGel", KIT (Karlsruher Institute of Technology) researchers have developed a technology to make chemical synthesis processes significantly more efficient and cost-effective. An interview with Co-Founder Catavis Sandra Kröll.
Sandra Kröll, you want to use enzymes to simplify chemical processes, even on an industrial scale. How do you go about doing that?
In general, enzymes as biological catalysts are much more sustainable than conventional chemical catalysts and are therefore considered a key technology for future-oriented chemistry. Enzymes are already used in industry, but unfortunately very inefficiently. At Catavis, we convert enzymes into functional gel-like materials that have increased enzyme content and can be used directly in catalytic processes. This makes it much more efficient and less expensive. Our CataGels can be integrated into any production process.
How exactly does this process, which you call CataGel technology work?
CataGel is a gel-like biomaterial that consists almost entirely of enzymes. The products used so far consist largely of inactive carrier material to stabilize these enzymes for the production process, and only a fraction of the active enzyme. However, this inactive material is very expensive and takes away valuable reaction space, so you have less enzyme in the same space, making the whole reaction more inefficient. We get around this problem by crosslinking the enzymes with themselves, so we don't integrate inactive materials.
Are you the first to come up with this?
There are some big players who are already doing a lot of work with enzymes and with these immobilization techniques, that is, attaching enzymes to support materials. But we are the first to have found a way to use enzymes in a carrier-free way. This allows us to integrate the pure enzyme directly into the production process.
With all the global players, does it take your spin-off to implement something like this?
Yes, in fact, a lot of research is currently being done into more sustainable technologies, because the chemical industry is under enormous pressure. On the one hand, more and more people need more and more products, but at the same time we have to rethink and act more sustainably. These biocatalysts are a very important starting point for this. So far, there just aren't enough ways to make that cost-effective so that it's actually used.
You and your two colleagues are the complete team?
Exactly. We are a core team of three scientists and have been working together for several years, and have already done intensive research in the field of biocatalysis. For our spin-off project at the institute of Prof C. Niemeyer, who supervised our PhD thesis, a lot of support. We have also received excellent opportunities from KIT to pursue this idea. Helmholtz has also provided us with a very strong network as part of the Enterprise funding phase. So we have other mentors and an experienced coach who supports us in the transition from science to business.
This coach tells you: You have to pay attention to this, this is how science ticks, but business ticks like this. Or how do you think of it?
Exactly. Our coach has a lot of experience in startups himself and also supports us in the process of building a company and establishing the necessary structures. We also have other mentors who support us with their experience. We also participated in an accelerator program where we analyzed our idea and evaluated how to reach the market.
How did that feel for you and your colleagues? Was that a very logical progression toward "We're going to make something commercial out of this," or do you have reservations in between and think, "Oh, actually I just want to do research"?
It was actually quite a smooth transition. My team colleague Patrick Bitterwolf had already dealt with this topic intensively and expanded on it during his dissertation; he basically helped develop the CataGel materials. For us, it was therefore an exciting process to work out how much potential there was in the idea. Of course, you think: Why not use this, it's a great technology? Then to actually see that our CataGel has a commercial application is very rewarding for us, and there is a very exciting time ahead.
The way you list it, it sounds very stringent. Was that really the case, or were there always points in the whole process where you were at a standstill? Or you asked yourself, "Do we really want to take this step further?" Or, "Somehow this is all too much for us right now?"
On the one hand, we are convinced of our technology and are working enthusiastically to advance our spin-off. At the same time, of course, you realize that there are big players on the market and that you sometimes have a problem communicating your idea properly. Especially at the beginning, when you don't have a lot of material to fall back on, since we're still at a very early stage of development. But Helmholtz funding gives us ideal opportunities to take this step towards commercialization.
Let's go back to the keyword hydrogel. In other words, these enzymes are bound in gel form - and it's easier to take them out again after the catalytic process?
Exactly. That's the idea behind these immobilization techniques. On the one hand, the enzymes can be separated more easily from the subsequent product because they are immobilized on some kind of carrier - or, in our case, carrier-free. On the other hand, this binding can also increase the stability of the enzymes so that the materials can be used over a longer period of time and more product can be obtained.
This CataGel, unlike a gel that you smear on your skin, does not dissolve. And it binds to surfaces on its own. How does it do that? And what has been done with enzymes so far? Apply glue?
In principle, yes. In our case, the enzymes have two complementary binding anchors through which they can ligate independently. In other immobilization techniques, the enzymes also have some kind of binding anchor, but are then bound to an inactive material. The innovative thing about our technology is that the enzymes form themselves into a gel without the need for carrier materials or additional chemicals.
Where do they get this self-sufficiency? Do they have something that attracts them?
You can think of it like a two-component glue, where two molecules attract and together form a very strong bond.
Your potential customers are "companies in the field of synthesis of fine chemicals," which at first sounds like pretty much everything from detergents to biofuels and plastics to the pharmaceutical industry. Is that so?
In fact, CataGels are a fairly broadly applicable technology for all relevant branches of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. For the first phase, before we are still established, we will initially focus on one area.
You mention the food industry, vitamins and food supplements as examples. The special thing is not only that the gel is better, it is also cheaper.
Exactly. By saving this expensive, inactive carrier and increasing the amount of enzymes in the same space, we can also offer our hydrogels at a much lower price.
How did the Helmholtz Enterprise funding come about?
Actually, this came up during the accelerator program that we were evaluating: Is this something we can market? Is it interesting, is it needed on the market? In this context, we started to cooperate with the IRM unit at KIT and became aware of the Helmholtz Enterprise funding. The funding is an ideal first step is to bring an idea from the lab to the market, to build up corporate structures and to position oneself in the market.
The Enterprise people said: fill out this application and let's see?
We submitted the application and were very well supported by our institute, the IRM unit and also Helmholtz itself and received a lot of support. In addition to the application, we had a selection day where we pitched our idea to a jury.
How long did the process take from making contact to "Okay, we'll fund you"?
It was actually very quick. We submitted our application in October and presented our idea in a pitch, and then the funding notification came a few weeks after that.
You had said earlier that people are put at your side to help you? But there is also money?
The Helmholtz Enterprise Program also supports our spin-off project financially. We can use the money to finance our positions, pursue our product idea, set up initial company structures, and conduct market analyses. At the same time, Helmholtz will provide much more support: we will deliver an interim report evaluating the progress of the project. In addition, we can use the money to hire a coach. We have chosen a coach whom we have known for some time and who can provide us with excellent support thanks to his experience with start-ups in the field of chemistry. The Helmholtz Enterprise Program is therefore a unique opportunity for us to build a company from our idea.
23.07.2021, Interview by Thomas Röbke
Catavis develops innovative, catalytic biomaterials for the chemical industry. A CataGel technology is used to significantly increase the efficiency of chemical synthesis processes so that valuable chemicals can be produced cost-effectively using sustainable processes.