Solving a biological issue with a friend while working on his thesis, Christine abandoned academic laurels and made a fortune by building a business.
A fairy tale in the world of biotechnology start-ups might read like this: Once upon a time, there was a young molecular biology PhD student in Cologne who, working with his friend, managed to find the solution to a difficult biological riddle which could help in the fight against disease. They founded a biotech company and sold their technology to laboratories all over the world. After 10 years the successful company became part of a larger biotech firm and the two entrepreneurs are—after a multi-million dollar deal - off to new adventures.
In retrospect the gist of the story is true, but when Rainer Christine and his friend Gregor Siebenkotten started the Cologne-based biotech firm Amaxa in 1998, the future was...
"It was good luck, starting the right thing at the right time, but also very hard work," says Rainer Christine. When he was well into his thesis at Cologne University's Genetics Department, "a powerhouse of research," he and Siebenkotten came across a fundamental problem: How could nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, be delivered into primary cells which do not replicate or do so very slowly? Freshly isolated from body tissue, such cells are important research tools. One option for gene transfer is viruses, but they are not easy to handle, are costly and carry safety risks.
In contrast, their reliable and reproducible methodology is based on electroporation, which increases the accessibility of cells, making cell membranes permeable for plasmids, and, with the help of special reagents, transfers them straight to the nucleus. It took several years to develop, patent and build the first Nucleofector, an electrical device with a footprint the size of a regular sheet of paper, and the corresponding Nucleofector kits, special agents for each cell type.
But being CEO of a start-up means more than just using your own biotechnological expertise, Christine soon found out. You had to keep the investors happy, employ competent people, make sales contacts, and control the finances. Important decisions had to be made: How quickly should the company grow? Which new targets should be set? "I had to make up my mind whether I was going to finish the PhD and actually write the thesis or put all my energy into Amaxa," Christine says. He never regretted his decision to give up his academic laurels.
However, it took six years before the company became profitable in 2004. When the product was available in 2001, a key decision was made about marketing and sales, especially in the major market, the United States. Should the product be marketed by a larger, well-known partner firm? Christine and Siebenkotten decided against it and set up their own marketing and sales team, most of them with experience in molecular biology research. "Our products needed to be explained in detail and not just shown in a catalogue," says Christine. And Amaxa wanted to be in direct contact with their customers in order to learn from them about the application of the Nucleofector technology.
Amaxa's success has validated this decision. In 2008, the company employed 160 in staff spread across Cologne, several European countries, and the United States, and had a turnover of approximately €20 million. Nucleofector technology had not only entered the academic world as a standard tool of scientists exploring, for example, signal transduction in immunology, oncology and neurobiology, but had also become commonplace in pharmaceutical company labs. By 2008 Amaxa had sold about 5,000 devices and further development for faster application and other cell types is on the way.
"It was the right time for Amaxa to join a larger partner," says Christine. The Swiss firm Lonza is, among many other things, a market leader in the production of primary cells and perfectly complements the profile of Amaxa, which will continue under its own trade name. "Also, the investors were expecting their return." By the end of 2008, Christine had left Amaxa, which is already under Lonza management. He is perfectly confident that the success story will continue.
Looking beyond Amaxa, Christine enthusiastically, but modestly, talks about interests in completely diverse fields, but keeps his true thoughts to himself—another prerequisite for real success. At the moment his two young children, aged three and just a few months, value his presence and that is more than any headhunter can offer.