Founders Interviews: Patrick Friere and Gonçalo Costa of BioMimetx
For this edition of Founders Interviews we spoke to Gonçalo Costa and Patrick Freire, the co-founders of BioMimetx.
BioMimetx is a biotech start-up focused on the development of antifouling solutions derived from nature. The company discovered bacteria which can be used as natural antimicrobials, larvaecides or algaecides. As their first product, BioMimetx is developing BMX-11, a green antifouling additive to be incorporated in marine paints for application in hulls, nets or other materials used at sea.
*This interview has been slightly edited for reading ease.
First, can you tell us about your professional backgrounds and the path that led you to BioMimetx?
P: Well, we are both from academia. From my side, I did a masters in biology and then I came to Portugal to take a PhD in molecular biology. Following up on that, as a researcher at INIAV, a research institute in agrarian veterinary research, I started working on the technology that became the basis of what we have been developing at BioMimetx.
G: I’m a biochemist by training, having done both my masters and PhD in biochemistry, the PhD being at University of Lisbon. In fact, that’s where I met Patrick, when we were both scientific researchers. I then moved to the faculty of science as a researcher, where part of the research background for our company was also done.
And how was BioMimetx born?
P: Well, Biomimetx was born, in its essence, in what we often call a “coffee talk”. We were talking around the table, exchanging ideas, and we found that the research we were doing at the time could help us find solutions regarding the use of active molecules. We needed to discover new molecules and new components, but also know how they worked, in order to characterize them and then find their possible applications. So, it started with those discussions and then the possibility arrived to begin validating the technology in an incubation program. That is what helped us launch our company, including structuring our business plan and all the commercial aspects.
What makes your product unique in the market?
G: Every time that you look into the world of chemistry, into hull protection or into antifouling solutions, everything is very chemical and persistent based on environment. What we traditionally talk about in this space are very old technologies that last for several decades and that are very hard to replace. The technology we developed can help those traditional chemical companies and their respective chemical solutions to be much more sustainable and environmentally friendly, while keeping the same performance that they and their clients are used to. So, our technology allows the current biocides in the market to be used in much lower quantities and to have exactly the same performance. Simultaneously, our technology has no harmful impacts, meaning its biodegradable and completely sustainable. Basically, the goal here is to help every chemical company that is in the biocide market with a truly sustainable solution.
And how do you plan on making a sizeable impact with your technology?
P: Well, if you look into the potential of our technology, it has a wide range of applications. It’s a kind of technological platform that can serve as a basis to be used in different sectors. As a first step, we are focusing on everything that falls under antifouling technologies, being those that prevent the adhesion of organisms to structures in the water, or vessels, or nets. This is already a very large market. So, it’s something that can have a very strong impact in and of itself, by replacing the use of, as Gonçalo mentioned, very toxic chemicals. That being said, the idea is to expand and adapt our technology to other sectors where it might be useful, and there is a panoply of other potential applications that can leverage this technology to replace and to reduce the use of toxic chemicals. This can go way beyond antifouling and have applications spread all over the world.
What was the most crucial moment in your company’s journey to this day?
G: As a startup, one of the things you need to focus on is getting investment when necessary. These are crucial moments, and you struggle to find investors until you come across someone that believes in the project. During the first pilot where we saw positive results with a paint, everybody was saying “No this is a biological compound that would never work in industrial systems”. That was a necessary stimulus that made us want to prove everyone wrong. Also, winning the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Phase 2. That was a major breakthrough where we got handed a large project from the European Commission, who backed the fact that this is a very sustainable technology that, if it works, will change the way we use chemicals worldwide.
Do you have any tips or advice for someone who just started a startup?
P: Several! It’s always very difficult, especially when you come from academia, to make this jump into the void of entrepreneurship. You are going into a world that is totally different from what you have been used to, but I think that the most important thing is that you need to have a good team with you, and you need to believe in your technology. Especially at that point, because you don’t really have a technology per say, but more all the science that is behind what you have discovered. If the science is solid, if you have a good team with you, and if you see that there is potential, you then only need to believe. In order to believe you need to keep going, but let me tell you, it will not be easy. You will face lots of ups and downs, but if you continue to believe that the technology works, if you manage to validate it at all the different steps, you will still need to be patient. These things take time, but basically, you have to believe. Continue testing everything. If it works, perfect. If it doesn’t, because that can happen as well, you need to let it go. Try a different approach, or a different technology, but be patient and continue on your path.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
G: We’ve changed our business plan several times already, Initially, we were going to build our own factory for paints and sell closer to the end user. We then realized that our value proposition is much more direct to large chemical companies or special chemical companies. So, we already changed a lot, and we certainly made mistakes, but honestly, I don’t think I would change much.
P: Of course, it’s a learning experience, a very intensive learning experience, so there are always things you would’ve liked to have done differently. But I think globally, we did the best we could. We were also very lucky with all the people that helped us with this project, and this isn’t only referring to the team, its everyone that you meet along the way. We were lucky enough to have a lot of support from our investors, and even from potential investors that did not join us but gave us valuable advice along the way. I think that considering what we knew at the time, we treaded our path the best we could. If we started over today we would naturally change some things, but we very much value the learning process we went through and believe that we ultimately gained from it. All in all, I’m happy with our execution and I think it went quite well.
Lastly, what has been the most challenging part of growing a startup? And the most fun part?
G: The fun part is easy, it’s to get to know people, to have a huge network of contacts that are willing to help you move forward by providing their opinions. If you look at our network of connections in our sector, you’ll see that its now massive, and we gain valuable knowledge from these contacts. Those connections are for me the most fun part and of course, driving your own business also leaves you proud and fulfilled. The most challenging was, as Patrick said, the transition from being an academic to being an entrepreneur. When I was doing my PhD, I would lead projects as a researcher, and if you had asked me back then, I would’ve told you that I’d be a researcher for the rest of my life. The thing is that there are a lot additional things that go into entrepreneurship than research, so this transition was the most challenging thing for me. To shape your mind to have an entrepreneurial attitude instead of that of an academic.
*Interview by Álvaro Furtado