“New tools are being developed all the time and base technologies are being commoditised.”
Novo Seeds is the early-stage investment arm of Novo Holdings. Novo Holdings is a large Danish private limited liability investment company wholly owned by the Novo Nordisk Foundation (@novonordiskfond). Novo Seeds identifies, builds and invests in innovative start-up companies within the biotechnology and healthcare technology space. The firm is also starting to invest in synthetic biology start-ups.
Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Novo Seeds Principal Thomas Grotkjær.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind Novo Seeds?
Thomas Grotkjær (TG): Novo Seeds was established more than a decade ago. Its primary focus is to build up companies in the life sciences area in the Nordic region. As well as being a company creator in the Scandinavian area, we also invest in Europe. This helps us to understand the international benchmarks and create an important network which is critical for company creation. If you want to build up companies in the Scandinavian area, you also have to demonstrate a willingness to invest in Europe. Otherwise, why should other companies or investors come to your region?
Essentially, our primary focus has always been biotech. Two years ago, I started here and my main task is to build up the bioindustrials investment area. This is very much linked to synthetic biology.
LG: Before working in this role, what did you do before?
TG: I have always worked in the industrial biotechnology area. I actually started my career in brewing and then I did a postgraduate degree in fermentation and bioinformatics. I have also worked at a start-up company. In addition, I also spent a lot of time working as a business developer in Novozymes. I was independent after my stint there. In 2017, I joined Novo Seeds.
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge in growing synthetic biology companies?
TG: I believe there are two major challenges in this space. Firstly, the business model for investing into this area has not been validated in any great detail. So, what does this mean? It means that we invest in this area and help to build up companies, but there is no clear exit route for the investor. Take IPOs, for example. IPOs in this area are not as well established as they are in the biotech/pharma area. That’s one big difference. Secondly, we all talk to the same biotech platform, but the markets are different. There’s a gigantic difference between commercialising technology in, for example, the agricultural sector, food sector and material science sector. The biotech and pharma spaces, for instance, are a lot more established. They know about value inflection points and they know about the typical price of a company when it is sold.
I am, however, positive about the future of synthetic biology and bioindustrials. There is now a momentum building in biotech. There are a lot of scientific progress. Furthermore, people are starting to think about markets and end consumer applications from day one rather than technology. In the past there was a great focus on commodity chemicals, but it was very challenging from a pure technical and economic point of view. Therefore, there have been a lot of failures. Some people (including myself) were too optimistic in the past.
LG: What advice would you give to someone else looking to launch their own company/product in this space?
TG: The most important thing is to be very, very sharp on the value proposition. There is a lot of push on technologies out there. In order to differentiate yourself, make sure that you have a strong business angle on your company because that drives value. Even if you don’t have your biotech in place from day one, it can be fixed later down the road. Your company will have problems from day one if your value proposition is poor.
LG: What are you working on next?
TG: We will work on investments within the synthetic biology space. We want to be at the interface of strong biotechnology and great business opportunities.
LG: What’s your favourite synthetic biology product?
TG: I like products where there is a differentiating component from strong biotech, good application development and market needs. I find all products that meet these criteria fascinating.
Thomas Grotkjær, Principal at Novo Seeds, is a confirmed speaker at SynBio Markets (Berlin, 18-19 November 2019) where he will be discussing the current investment trends around synthetic biology.