"Bringing new knowledge to the market is very important to us"
Launching a start-up while at university? Sonja Jost's success shows the way. Together with three fellow students, she founded DexLeChemafter graduating from TU Berlin in 2013 with degrees in industrial engineering and technical chemistry. The high-tech company based in the Wuhlheide Innovation Park offers innovative production improvements in the area of green chemistry.
Ms. Jost, what motivated you to take the plunge and launch a company right out of university?
I want to change things. When I see that it's possible to produce things more ecologically while saving costs, I'm not going to sit back and relax. I'm not the type to wait. Germany is the fourth largest producer of chemicals in the world, so we also have an obligation. We didn't have “Fridays for the Future” back in 2013, but developments such as climate change were clearly foreseeable. I am a child of the 1980s and I paid attention to the big environmental movements back then. And although I have always been interested in industry and production, [going green] has had a huge impact on my mind set. I'm not someone who holds on to the impossible, but I thought to myself: I never want to blame myself for not giving it a try!
DexLeChem emerged from TU Berlin as a start-up.
Exactly, we are a spin-off from the UniCat Cluster of Excellence at TU Berlin. At that time, I developed a process for producing complex chemicals in water instead of petroleum-based organic solvents. This had not previously been possible, because you had to use certain complex, homogeneous catalysts that could not be used in water. It was this process that laid the foundation for DexLeChem's business concept. What's special about it is that it can be used to manufacture fine chemicals for the pharmaceuticals industry in an environmentally and resource-friendly manner.
It is particularly difficult for scientific companies to launch on the market. How did this work out for you?
Many start-ups are launched each year in the German start-up capital Berlin, but only a few that work in the natural sciences for industry. In the first year, we were still able to use the facilities at the TU Berlin. “We were really lucky. Berlin was already the German leader for securing financing. There are many research projects running at universities and research institutions. Of course, it is difficult to get space to try out a start-up idea. Back then, we only made it because two professors supported us. Later, IHK Berlin financed a laboratory container for scientific start-ups: the INKULAB provides free laboratory workspace. We co-initiated the project.
You also received an EXIST grant, right?
Yes. In order to receive an EXIST grant, the university had to agree up front that it would provide the facilities. The infrastructure is a prerequisite for getting the funding. We were very lucky to be included in the EXIST research transfer. This is the big brother of the start-up grant, so to speak. Very few teams receive this funding. Every year there are around 30 projects across Germany. When a chemistry start-up makes the cut, that's a big deal. It also shows that there is a high demand in this area.
In the meantime, you have established yourself in the market. Not every start-up team can say that. What was your recipe for success?
It took us almost a year and a half to get the first customer. It's almost like a game in industry. Nobody wants to be the first. We had to nibble away at the resistance. They'd keep on saying: "Come back when you have a customer." In the end, our first customer was a Swiss company. We first made contact with them at a trade fair. A cornerstone of our success was that we expanded our business model to include services and products for which we did not have a unique selling proposition but were nevertheless very good at. We started by developing water-based chemical processes for industry, which can be used to reuse expensive catalysts in pharmaceuticals production. We now offer a much broader range of services. We recognised that project initiation takes a long time in industry and thought about those services we could also offer in order to generate more sales.
There is a need in industry for teams that work on digitalising production in the broadest sense. In the development of our water-based processes, we use many modelling tools including quantum chemical simulations, dynamic process simulations, and various big data methods. We now offer these services as well as general services in the field of green chemistry, i.e. sustainable solutions for use in industrial processes. The expansion of our range of services brought the breakthrough we needed because it pushed more orders into the pipeline. We were then able to convince industrial companies that they were not taking too great a risk with us. This is because we made our development process transparent and could show that we have everything under control.
For four years, DexLeChem was located in Bayer's incubator, the CoLaborator. How did you benefit from this?
The time at Bayer was extremely helpful because we had access to the infrastructure there and didn't have to set up our own lab. Moving from the university to Bayer also meant another step towards independence. Overall, we went through a gradual, cushioned process. At the end of 2018, we moved to the Wuhlheide Innovation Park and here we really do everything ourselves. I don't think we could have done everything on our own from the start. Nobody tells you what to look out for.
And to what extent did Bayer benefit from you?
The proximity to a start-up brings new perspectives into a company. The topic of intrapreneurship is now very important in industry. At the time, we were the only chemical start-up in the CoLaborator and gave lectures to our colleagues there. As one of the first chemical start-ups in Germany, we also worked early on to help establish the start-up scene in this field. Bayer naturally benefited from this as well.
You are still one of the few women in the management of a German start-up. Is this also unusual for young scientific companies?
There aren't as few women in the chemical start-up scene as you might think. Surveys speak of 25 to 40%. This is because there is generally a high proportion of women in the chemical, biology, and pharmaceutical sectors. Depending on the field, this ranges between 38 and over 50%. Of course, there are therefore more women in these fields who are in a position to found a start-up. The start-up scene with its media presence that originated in the dot-com bubble at the time is certainly IT-dominated. And that's traditionally an area with a low proportion of women. It is different in other countries. In Iran, for example, women make up about 50% of IT students. However, the world of fund managers is very testosterone-driven. Women clearly get less capital, even though their companies perform better. This is, of course, a huge problem for funds owners because they generate less returns.
The science scene in Brain City Berlin is considered to be very well networked. How do you make use of this?
The proximity to science in Berlin is very important to us. We are still working closely with the Cluster of Excellence at TU Berlin. There have also been close connections with professors at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Freie Universität Berlin. Bringing new knowledge from science to the market is very important to us. We are therefore always open to cooperation. That is the nice thing about Berlin: we have outstanding science and a great scientific start-up scene. The mix here works well!
To what extent is DexLeChem committed to supporting scientific start-ups in Berlin?
We founded DexLeChem seven years ago, which has helped us to build and network the start-up scene for many years. In this respect, I have found good friends here among entrepreneurs. We help each other with content when they run into technical problems. Until September 2019, I was also on the board of the Federal Association of German Start-Ups. I am always being invited by universities all over Europe to give lectures. I do a lot to support founders in the natural sciences.
Can you provide any specific examples?
The Lab2Venture, for example, a hands-on and experimental laboratory at the Freie Universität zu Berlin. There we accompanied a school class for a year. As part of a project, the students went through what it is like to launch a start-up in the chemical sector. We still work with TU Berlin, the Centre for Entrepreneurship and the B!GRÜNDET Network of the Berlin universities and the Berlin University Alliance. This goes far beyond the topic of start-ups: for the Berlin University Alliance, for example, we were looking for raw materials to produce disinfectants as part of measures to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. There's a lot going on at Berlin's universities.
Speaking of which, do you have any tips for young researchers who want to start their own businesses?
First of all: the problems are always the same. Many are standing in front of a mountain and don't know how to tackle it. My tip would be to write to companies that have been on the market for a few years and ask if they could possibly give tips. For example, DexLeChem. We love helping those in the chemical sector. However, there are now many successful entrepreneurs in the natural sciences.
In 2017, you were recognised by the online magazine Edition F as one of "25 women who are changing the world." Do you still want that?
Definitely! Almost everyone who launches a start-up in the natural sciences wants to build something sustainable. You're not looking for a quick exit.
Last question: if you could wish for something, what would it be?
I would like to have capital to build a sustainable chemical company. At the end of 2019, we founded a production company because we want to manufacture sustainable pharmaceutical ingredients and intermediates ourselves. We are currently looking for partners for this. We believe that the time has come to bring production back to Germany and thus secure our supply chain. (vdo)
- Insights HTW BerlinInsightsAn interview with Brain City Ambassador Prof. Dr. Kai Reinhardt. On October 28, he will be speaking at the second SpreeTalk at HTW University of…→
“The pandemic has been a catalyst for digitalization”
- Insights dentalXr.aiInsightsdentalXrai is the first dental start-up to be spun off the Charité. It was launched via the accelerator of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH). We…→
Artificial intelligence in the fight against tooth decay
- Insights Anna Raysyan (private)InsightsBrain City Ambassador Anna Raysyan has been living in Berlin for 3,5 years now. She is a PhD student at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und…→
Guest Contribution: “Berlin likes the bold!”
- Insights ©Berlin Partner für Wirtschaft und TechnologieInsightsMany top-class researchers and scientists are being attracted to Brain City Berlin every year. The Dual Career Network Berlin helps partners of…→
Dual Career Network Berlin: getting a good start in Berlin
- Insights ©Matthias PicketInsightsDr. Anne Schreiter, Managing Director of the German Scholars Organization (GSO), reveals in the Brain City interview what alternative career…→
"Science is not just about research"
- Insights © Pocky Lee on UnsplashInsightsMatches in front of empty stadiums, virtual marathons, and many postponed events. Brain City Ambassador Professor Gabriele Mielke is tracking the…→
"Now is the time for innovators"
- Insights © AW Creative on UnsplashInsightsJuggling a degree course or teaching with the extra burden of the care of children or other family members is not an easy task. Both students and…→
From “Zoo School” to “Maternity Protection”: family-friendly universities
- Insights © HTW Berlin / Nikolas FahlbuschInsightsTeaching is currently only taking place online. Guest author Dr Dorothee Haffner, professor for Museology at HTW Berlin - University of Applied…→
Guest contribution: "Online teaching is more engaging than I thought"
- Insights Franziska SattlerInsightsIn the interview: Brain City ambassador Franziska Sattler on her series of events "Kaffeeklatsch mit Wissenschaft" (Talking Science over Coffee) at…→
"Science needs the trust of society"
- Insights Fotocredit: Ortner & Ortner / SiemensInsightsSiemensstadt 2.0 is a place of the future. The Berlin Senate has approved 9.9 million euros for the first research project "Electrical Drive…→
Siemensstadt 2.0: Research and industry closely linked
- Insights ©Credit Silke Oßwald/FMPInsightsBrain City interview: Professor Dr. Volker Haucke, Director at the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) and Professor of…→
In the balancing act between detail and overall concept
- Insights © hj barraza/UnsplashInsightsOur guest author Dr Barbara Schäuble is Professor for Diversity-Conscious Approaches in the Theory and Practice of Social Work at ASH Berlin and a…→
Guest contribution: A sudden change of course - classes moved online
- Insights ©Ivar Veermäe / Centre for EntrepreneurshipInsightsBrain City Berlin is the German capital of start-ups. Many young companies have successfully been founded through Berlin and Brandenburg based…→
"Society in particular benefits from high-tech start-ups" - university survey enters its third round
- Insights ©BIH|Thomas RafalzykInsightsAt the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) the main focus is on "translational research" - the transfer of findings from the research lab into clinical…→
“There are now many great female scientists, achieving great things”
- Insights ©fotografixx - istockphoto.comInsightsIn the digital age learning behaviour changes profoundly. It is student-centered and technology rich. As a member of the Erasmus+ funded project…→
Exploring the future of learning
- Insights © Brain City BerlinInsightsResearch results quickly and easily accessible online: The Open Access movement is campaigning for a paradigm shift in the field of publications and…→
Open Access: free knowledge for everyone
- Insights ©ESCP EUROPEInsights29.10.2019 | Professor Andreas Kaplan is a Brain City Berlin ambassador and Rector of ESCP Europe Business School Berlin. The economist's research is…→
"We have to be able to take everyone on the journey."
- Insights Gudrun Piechotta-HenzeInsightsIn time for the 2020/21 winter semester, ASH, the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences Berlin, is launching the first bachelor's degree to…→
"We have to completely rethink nursing!" | 27.09.2019
- Insights ©Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin/Matthias HeydeInsightsThe courses offered by the HUWISU Summer University are varied and exciting, the target group is international: students from abroad who come to…→
When Berlin becomes one large seminar room ... | 15.08.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:]InsightsThe literary scholar Dr. Betiel Wasihun was traveling for science. After stops in Heidelberg, Yale, and Oxford, it brought her to Berlin two years…→
“Berlin is a perfect location. Especially if you don’t want to pursue just a single avenue of scientific work.” | 12.08.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:] Berlin University Alliance/Matthias HeydeInsightsTogether we are stronger. And also more successful. As the "Berlin University Alliance," the Technische Universität Berlin, the Freie Universität…→
Congratulations: The “Berlin University Alliance“ receives funding of the Excellence Strategy |19.07.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:] David Ausserhofer/IGBInsightsBerlin is one of the most water-rich cities in Germany. But climate change does not stop at the Havel, Spree or Wannsee either. Dr. Michael Hupfer is…→
"We're trying to take a look into the future." | 04.07.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:] Helena Lopes / UnsplashInsightsSend a digital lollipop or delicate fragrance notes via email or let the wind virtually blow against your face - research makes it possible. Learn…→
Experiencing the digital world with all senses | 18.06.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:] HZB/M. SetzpfandtInsightsIn these times of fake news and pseudo-scientific publications, many people find it difficult to distinguish legitimate from dubious content. Only 54%…→
"Science needs to make us curious" | 11.06.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:] Tim LandgrafInsightsBrain City Berlin is considered one of the leading locations in Germany working on artificial intelligence. About 30% of all German AI companies are…→
Fish, bees, and self-driving cars | 07.06.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:]InsightsScience and cultural heritage, freely accessible to everyone at any time on the Internet: The Open Access movement is promoting a paradigm shift in…→
Knowledge for All - Open Access in Berlin | 28.03.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:] Thomas Rosenthal - Museum für Naturkunde BerlinInsights660 million euros in 10 years: The Natural History Museum Berlin - Museum für Naturkunde Berlin receives financial support for the further development…→
Future of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin | 14.01.2019
- Insights [Translate to English:]InsightsSpace exploration is experiencing a revolution thanks to commercialization by such companies as Elon Musk's SpaceX. But did you know that more facets…→
From Berlin to the moon: the space industry is booming in Berlin | 03.09.2018