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T3 Pharma ready to fly

To take off requires a strong and stable structure. This also applies to start-ups. Now that the groundwork is done, the structure solid, T3 Pharma, that aims to fight cancer using live bacteria, is ready to lift off. The Biozentrum alumnus Simon Ittig, co-founder and CEO of T3 Pharma tells us what it takes to make a company airworthy. 

Although it started not long ago, the former two-person team has already evolved into a small company. With their novel form of cancer therapy, the team at T3 Pharmaceuticals is already on the threshold of initiating clinical trials. About eight years ago, Simon Ittig and Christoph Kasper, both Postdocs at the Biozentrum at that time, decided not to take a classical academic path. With a good idea in their heads, a collection of bacterial strains in their bags and a wealth of enthusiasm, they braved the step into independence and founded the start-up T3 Pharma. 

The lab as their playground
“Initially, our aim was purely to further develop our technology for application,” remembers Simon. “In the lab, we had experienced how long and tedious some methods for protein expression in cells could be. Our idea was that it would be much easier and faster to directly inject proteins into cells with the help of engineered bacteria." A large collection of bacteria waited in the freezer that Simon had taken over after his PhD supervisor Guy Cornelis retired. These bacteria deliver their own proteins into cells, killing them or making them obedient, by using a nano-syringe, the so-called type III secretion system. So why not repurpose this ability transforming it into a practical method for the lab? No sooner said than done. 

The lab became their playground. Here they worked on the method’s technical details and on marketing aspects. But Simon’s and Christoph’s vision was bigger. “From the very beginning we thought about additional, especially medical applications of this method, keeping in mind not to flog the idea to death, but rather to tackle it,” says Simon. “Cancer came up fairly early on. We thought it would be clever to use the bacteria and their injection apparatus to specifically deliver toxic proteins into tumor cells. At this point at the latest, we realized we had to collaborate with people with expertise in oncology.”

So things got off the ground: They expanded their personal and professional network, attended courses on starting a business, presented their ideas at many events, wrote business plans and patent applications and brought investors on board. “The last few years have been an extremely steep learning curve. In the beginning, I had no idea how to write a patent application or a budget plan. But I always had the will to understand things and was never hesitant to ask all the experts.” Now Simon can appreciate a certain elegance even in a rather dry document; a contract can be well structured or a patent cleverly drafted.

T3 Pharma on track
Today the company is well on course. Simon and his team have developed the first cancer treatment based on living bacteria that specifically targets tumors. Clinical trials are soon to begin. “When I imagine that in a few months the first patients will receive our therapy and we may help them, it is extremely satisfying. This is my motivation and it gives my work so much meaning.” 

Simon has flourished through all the tasks, experiences and responsibility, the setting and also through the stressful periods. He has become much more structured and strategic in his work. And because a start-up is like a roller coaster ride, as so often described, Simon tries to soften the highs and lows with long term planning. He does not shy away from risks and decision making. But it is in his nature to deal with these things. “I am generally decisive and like to take responsibility for my decisions. If you always hesitate and stop at every road fork, you can’t really get ahead. Of course there are key decisions that need to be well thought through but if you deal with everything in detail and are afraid of making mistakes the whole process stagnates. Start-ups live from quick decision making. That is one of their advantages over large companies.”

Each mistake is a chance
Simon has a great sense of responsibility towards the investors, who this summer in a third round of financial support granted T3 Pharma 25 million Swiss francs for the clinical trials and thus again have shown a great vote of confidence, and generally the shareholders, those who are supporting the start-up at the Biozentrum and the University of Basel and of course, his team. Transparency and integrity are a must. “Not only for me but also for the team. It is extremely important, that I put my heart and soul into my work and that I also do some night shifts in stressful times. You simply have to set an example,” says Simon. “Sometimes I may be a bit too pushy, but I also see it as my job to always think the next step. It is wonderful to see that we function so well as a team and move forward together.”  

Ironing out mistakes, overcoming problems and brushing difficulties aside, that is all part of daily business. When facing obstacles or challenges it requires: Hanging in there, keep going, trying out and asking questions. This helps Simon to turn the corner. Of course, he also knows about doubts. Especially in the initial phase he had moments of brain racking. “People often commented on my insecure career. But that is not so important to me. It would have been much worse if I hadn’t dared to take this step. When I get up in the morning, I know why; it’s really a privilege to do meaningful work.”