“We just had to bring it to the market!”
A global need in the medical field — and an innovative solution: That’s what has made Cellbox Solutions GmbH so successful.
No longer needing to freeze cells – that’s the future”, says molecular biologist Prof. Kathrin Adlkofer. She is not talking about steaks in the fridge freezer here, although those do also contain biological cells. Instead, her focus is on cell systems as used by researchers in the area of biotechnology. There are a whole range of applications for these cell systems. For instance, organoid systems, i.e. cell structures that resemble a human organ extremely closely, can be used to significantly reduce the number of animals using for medical testing. Or, to give another example, if doctors could take blood cells from cancer patients, have them genetically modified and then inject them back into the patients, over time they could create a powerful weapon against tumors. However, transporting such biological material, be it from biotechnology company to pharmaceutical company or from hospital to laboratory, has been a problem up until now. In a lab, cells are cultivated and stored under constant temperatures, CO2 levels and humidity in incubators, but for transport, they always had to be frozen in liquid nitrogen, a process known as cryopreservation. This places the tissue under stress and the cells undergo physiological change. Transporting structures that are too sensitive for this procedure has simply been impossible.
An incubator “to go”
With her startup Cellbox Solutions GmbH, Prof. Adlkofer has come up with the answer. “Now, with our Cellbox, it’s possible to transport living biological material – in excellent quality and internationally too,” enthuses the entrepreneur, who is also a lecturer at the Universität zu Lübeck. “In the area of regenerative medicine, it’s a huge advantage for researchers and patients alike.” The idea of the team behind the spin-off was to make the incubator portable. For transport by car, train or truck, the incubator maintains the required CO2 levels using CO2cartridges, while on a plane, it uses dry ice as a CO2 source. The key concept was developed at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Marine Biotechnology and Cell Technology EMB. “Having already set up various companies in the health sector, I allowed Prof. Charli Kruse, director of Fraunhofer EMB, to talk me into heading up the cell technology department,” recalls Prof. Adlkofer. There, she was given responsibility for developing a early-stage construct of the Cellbox. “The more we worked on it, the clearer it became to me that we just had to bring it to the market.” In her spare time, Prof. Adlkofer is a sailor, and here too, she has proven to pack a punch. She has participated in the Olympic Games twice, and has also won the 470 World Championships twice. Together with Prof. Kruse, she decided to pursue the spin-off route.
While Prof. Adlkofer had startup experience, there are many things that she would do differently if she could do it again. “Bringing a technology or product to the market is different to marketing an app or licensing antibodies. Developing a robust pipeline right through to batch production was a massive challenge. That’s why it’s essential to get the right people on board,” says Prof. Adlkofer. She searched for a company partner with experience in international distribution, and found what she was looking for in Wolfgang Kintzel. What was it about working in a startup that attracted Kintzel, now CEO of the company? He starts by mentioning the young, international team, adding, “We have the extremely appealing combination of product sales, consumables and the area of complex biological structures.”
“Fraunhofer was with us from day one”
While pursuing the idea of a product suitable for batch production, the team received a lot of support from Fraunhofer EMB and Fraunhofer Venture. “Fraunhofer was with us from day one, and is now an active partner that provides us with know-how, international experience and financial support.” The 15-strong team of employees now sells the portable cell incubators worldwide, and has customers from Germany, Europe, the USA and Asia, where China is a particular focus. “I’m really proud that we have been able to gain an international foothold in such a short space of time,” says Kintzel. A few weeks ago, Cellbox Solutions GmbH even set up a subsidiary on the east coast of the USA, meaning they can now provide safe transport for biological materials on the other side of the Atlantic too.