About Sven Wagner
Dr. Sven Wagner has been Sartorius’ Head of Business Development since 2014. After holding positions as a Project Manager at a stem cell company in Hanover and Head of R&D at a biotech startup, he joined Sartorius in 2009 – initially as a Product Manager, later becoming Head of Marketing for Lab Cell Culture Technologies. Today, he works on developing Sartorius’ corporate strategy, being responsible for non-organic growth – i.e. acquisitions and investments in other companies. Since 2018, he has also served as co-head of the not-for-profit Life Science Factory, a life science hub founded by Sartorius which supports startups.
This article is posted on Sartorius Blog.
Sven, you spent nearly ten years working in startups yourself. Now you are searching for innovative technology on behalf of Sartorius. Does that past experience help you to reach verdicts on new technology?
Well, I certainly understand many of the challenges that startups are facing. One of my jobs was at a spin-off from the Hanover Medical School, and I remember when we ran out of money because the venture capitalists did not want to invest any more – it was a nightmare. The next startup I worked for got sold, and the new owners then immediately closed down our facility. So I know just how challenging it is to keep a startup alive. And I learned how important it can be for startups to have strategic partners and reliable investors like Sartorius.
I know just how challenging it is to keep a startup alive.
So why is it so important for Sartorius to engage with startups?
Basically, we are interested in innovative technology that adds value – both for our clients and ultimately for patients – and we usually find these in newer companies. Is every new company a startup? Not necessarily, it depends on how you define “startup”. It is important to recognize that competition around these innovations is growing all the time. We compete with other life science companies, but we are also increasingly competing with financial investors like private equity fonds, or even with big tech corporations in areas such as data-driven drug development. We are also seeing takeovers happening much earlier in the corporate life cycle than they used to.
What exactly do you mean by that?
Formerly companies were bought once they had reached a certain level of maturity – tens of millions in turnover, or even more. This applied to us as well: we acquired companies such as Stedim which already had established products on the market. But in recent years, acquisitions were made earlier, sometimes even before proof of concept. Oscar Reif, our Head of Corporate Research, summarized that “we need to identify relevant developments early on”. Achieving this is a cross-departmental challenge.
How is Sartorius meeting that challenge?
We are increasing our presence in biotech hotspots and business incubators – these are the places where we find the greatest potential for innovation and where we meet new companies. Kendall Square in Boston is a good example, right next to MIT. And we are involved in initiatives such as the University Innovation Challenge, Young Entrepreneurs in Science or Falling Walls to help translate scientific discoveries into real-world applications and innovations. And in all these initiatives, we always focus on various questions: What are startups and researchers working on? What tools are they using? What developments might be relevant for Sartorius in the short term and in five to ten years? These are the important questions that we need to answer so that we can decide – at an early stage – which future-oriented fields we want to get into.
We are increasing our presence in biotech hotspots and business incubators.
And getting into a field means acquiring a startup?
Not necessarily. Of course, we may be interested in investing in or acquiring such a company if certain conditions are met. This was the case with Curexsys, a startup from Göttingen specializing in exosome therapy. But R&D collaboration can also be an attractive model for both parties. A partnership with a leading company in industry is often very beneficial for startups, and it helps them to gain more investors. Partnerships give young entrepreneurs valuable insights into areas such as industrial production processes, while they allow us to take a detailed look at what startups are doing and better assess the potential of new technologies. So in this respect, we do not have one fixed method: the spectrum of opportunities to collaborate with Sartorius is virtually endless.
Which topics are you particularly interested in at Sartorius?
It depends on how far into the future you are looking: do we need an already established technology rapidly that would make a sensible addition to our portfolio, or are we talking about innovations that might be relevant for our customers in five or ten years? A very recent example is mRNA, which has become very well-known since COVID-19. But its potential goes far beyond producing vaccines. In the long term, it has potential for fighting cancer and other diseases. So we are really pursuing the potential applications of mRNA, and the needs of our clients who are working on mRNA therapies.
What other examples are there?
Cell therapies and gene therapies are very much on our radar. Many of these therapies are becoming increasingly relevant, so we are keeping a close eye on what the many startups in these areas are doing. CAR T-cell therapy is a key example: this method allows white blood cells to be modified in the laboratory so that they can recognize and attack cancer cells. Or CRISPR, which is a relatively simple therapy that has the potential for large-scale use. Computer simulations and data analysis also have massive potential to make development and production processes easier and cheaper – throughout the value chain. And that is what matters: our aim at Sartorius is to use new breakthroughs in technology to help develop better and more affordable therapies, and ultimately to improve medical care.