The mission of developing a new material - a porous silica magnetic microparticle - for use in research and manufacturing gave rise to the company Kopp Technologies.
In 2016, one year after its foundation, the company won approval for a project submitted to the Sao Paulo Research Foundation - FAPESP, which ensured funding via its Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE). The project's goal was to develop a series of techniques to introduce different chemical groups onto the surface of silica magnetic microparticles designed for use in various industrial purification processes.
"We're using chemical groups that have affinity with different molecules. This allows selective adhesion of the molecules and hence purification of a product," sums up researcher William Kopp, partner at Kopp Technologies. "At the end of the project, we'll have a large portfolio of products that enable our technology to be used in practically any industrial purification process involving molecules of interest."
For Brazilian industry, and especially for those sectors involved in the production of vaccines, drugs, cosmetics, etc, the purification process is often the most expensive stage in the development of a novel chemical or biochemical compound, accounting for about 40% of the production cost. These industries depend on imported technology and inputs, such as non-magnetic materials such as porous silica and other chromatography resins, employed in the purification stage which follows filtration and centrifugation processes responsible for separating a target molecule from contaminating molecules and obtaining a solution free of suspended solids.
"The use of magnetic microparticles lets the manufacturer skip the filtration or centrifugation stage since the molecules of interest adhere selectively to the material thanks to their affinity with the chemical groups inserted on the surface of the material," Kopp says. "The material containing the product can then be easily and rapidly separated by applying an external magnetic field. The benefits are much lower costs and shorter production times, which also cut costs," Kopp says.
He adds that the silica magnetic microparticles that Kopp Technologies plans to bring to market will cost even less than imported non-magnetic inputs such as chromatography resins.
The project continued directly into PIPE Phase 2 for development of the product on a pilot scale and has already had its report on the first year of work approved.
The firm's partners had expected to develop 16 products by August 2018. In August 2017, they had developed and tested 27 products, and in the second half of November, they launched ten of these for use in the laboratory. Kopp talked about his expectations for 2018. "We expect to begin selling to companies, and we should be exporting to Latin American countries within the next two years."
An unlikely origin
The company's roots can be traced back to 2010, when Kopp was struggling to circumvent a technological obstacle identified during his PhD in biotechnology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in São Paulo State, Brazil, with a scholarship from FAPESP.
He wanted to immobilize enzymes for industrial applications using magnetic adsorbents - porous materials with magnetic properties used to separate molecules in fluids from contaminants or selectively recover and reuse catalysts such as enzymes. However, the magnetic materials available on the market did not meet his research needs. "Their magnetic response was low, they were chemically unstable, and above all, they were expensive. All that made them unviable for industrial applications," Kopp says.
He then changed the subject of his PhD and focused on developing an adsorbent that would fill this gap in the biotechnology market. He applied for a patent on a new product before defending his thesis in 2013.
The next step was to join forces with an experienced manager, Maicon Vilabruna, to construct the business model for Kopp Technologies. "Besides being my business partner, Maicon has more than a decade of experience in a large multinational and brought all the knowledge he'd acquired with him to Kopp. This avoided one of the main problems faced by startups, which is the lack of an experienced professional as a member of the partnership, and it also contributed to the decision-making process. By 2015, we already had the firm up and running, with the technology patented and licensed," Kopp says.
Challenges and new opportunities
There are significant differences between the processes whereby substances are purified industrially or in a university lab. In academic research, magnetic materials are often used in biochemical testing, but this technology is unviable for industrial use, primarily because of its cost. "Magnetic materials cost US$400 per gram on average and can't be used on an industrial scale," Kopp explains.
Kopp and his partner are not betting only on microparticles. They know that this is disruptive technology from the standpoint of the manufacturing industry, as it breaks completely with established industrial processes. Companies may not want to retire the filters and centrifuges used in their manufacturing plants any time soon.
Taking this possibility into account, they have designed a strategy that consists of bringing the new products to market while at the same time continuing to serve the need of the traditional market.
"We plan to work on the creation of new processes and also on adapting existing processes," Kopp says. "We've inserted into our business model the provision of consulting services to assist the development of industrial processes to purify molecules. Furthermore, in parallel with magnetic materials, we're also developing classical purification technologies, such as chromatography resins for industrial use, for example."
He explains that chromatography is currently the dominant technology used in industrial purification processes but that no chromatography resins are locally produced. "Brazil depends entirely on imported technology. We've decided to tackle this challenge, and before long, we'll be Latin America's first producer of chromatography columns for industrial applications," he says.
Returning to a classical technology after discovering an entirely novel possibility is not a particularly exciting venture for scientists, but the decision was made with an eye toward the market after the owners of Kopp Technologies took part in 2015 in the InovAtiva Brasil program, which ranked them among the nation's 90 most innovative firms. The program is run by Brazil's Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade & Services (MDIC) and the National Small Business Support Service (SEBRAE).
InovAtiva Brasil is a free startup acceleration program open to qualifying firms from all parts of the country, offering training and mentoring for innovative ventures. "Like PIPE, InovAtiva is one of those initiatives that has succeeded and deserves to be replicated," Kopp says, adding that the acceleration program was important for himself and his partner to perceive their potential and adapt to serve market needs.
They found the same environment of dialogue and interaction at ParqTec, the incubator in São Carlos where they established their headquarters in September 2016. Support from PIPE, meanwhile, is enabling Kopp Technologies to set up a research and development (R&D) structure with the means to test and develop other products for which they have detected demand in the marketplace. "I can say categorically that our firm wouldn't exist without PIPE," he concludes.
About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)
The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. For more information: http://www.fapesp.br/en.