SpiroChem, an elite Contract Research Organisation (CRO), provides innovative chemistry solutions for life sciences companies.
Founded in 2011, the company moved to Basel in 2017. Today, SpiroChem has gained an excellent reputation for delivering best-in-class chemistry services and works with pharma and biotech companies worldwide – and has joined BaseLaunch as a domain partner for discovery chemistry, from medicinal chemistry to early CMC. Founder and CEO Thomas Fessard shares his vast knowledge in the field of synthetic chemistry with BaseLaunch participants. We are happy to introduce you to him.
Thomas, please tell us about your background and the reason you formed SpiroChem.
I am a synthetic chemist by training. I gained a PhD at University of Nottingham and finished my Postdoc at ETH Zurich before I started my career in a biotech company in Zurich. So I ate chemistry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the best part of the last two decades! But more than just chemistry, I always had a profound interest in developing useful molecules or methodologies to accelerate discovery in pharmaceutical research, with a particular taste for efficiency.
My first industrial experience was as head of medicinal chemistry in a newly founded biotech company. It was a steep learning curve right after my postdoc, but with hard work and smart ideas, our small medicinal chemistry team was able to deliver a pre-clinical candidate with best-in-class status very rapidly.
This was the concept we wanted to make available to the biotech/pharma industry at large: how could one make better molecules, faster? Hence we founded SpiroChem.
What enabled you to grow SpiroChem into one of the most innovative medicinal chemistry companies?
We started SpiroChem as a catalog company for rare and exotic building blocks with good intrinsic properties. But a pure product-oriented business is very competitive, especially with fierce competition from low-cost copycats. In order to survive, we needed to be more efficient than anyone else, and (even better) develop things others cannot do. One can copy products but cannot copy knowledge, quality, and talent. With this sentence as a mantra, we kept developing internal know-how and started to offer contract R&D services – and boom, we had met our market. Not because we were the only chemistry contract research organization (CRO) around, but because unlike most, we focused on knowledge and quality, not on cost. Of course, our FTE rates are higher – we are in Switzerland, after all – but not that high. We are more or less on par with Western CROs. What really makes a difference is that because of the way we operate, our scientists deliver more value for a similar budget, whether value comes from the number of molecules synthesized, how fast they are delivered, or the ability to make them at all.
SpiroChem has been operating in the discovery chemistry world for a decade, so we also know the tricks of the trade. We can proactively participate in a project and be a valuable sparring partner for strategic and scientific project planning.
What more is to come?
For the years to come, we will continue to develop our core expertise. We will also look at synergetic technologies and services that can be useful to discovery chemistry projects, whether it is in the field of computer science like CADD, Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning, screening or elsewhere… as long as it makes sense and we can guarantee best-in-class solutions to our clients.
What is the key advantage of your unique chemistry and capabilities compared to more traditional medical chemistry service providers?
Without sounding pedantic, we do things that others cannot do. We made our reputation working on complex molecules other CROs usually shy away from, like natural products or complex motifs. But we have also been able to recruit experts in most fields of synthetic chemistry, which makes us both generalists from a holistic chemistry point of view, and specialists when you need certain expertise. Simply put: you increase your chances of success in discovery chemistry when working with SpiroChem.
But even with simpler chemistry, we have demonstrated that we can deliver best-in-class services. Strategic planning of the synthesis is one of our strong points, coupled with our technology-focused expertise in late-stage transformations, which allows us to be more efficient and productive than our competitors.
We typically take on projects in three different categories: medicinal chemistry, medchem-enabling platforms, and route scouting, therefore covering most of the needs in the discovery value chain.
Which key aspects and challenges should early-stage startups take into account when it comes to drug design and medical chemistry?
It is important for entrepreneurs to balance their budget and have enough runway until the next financing round. Unfortunately, the common mistake is to trim the chemistry budget and get it done “low cost”. But there is one rule: you get what you pay for. So if your next financing round depends on results obtained on a shoestring, it is going to be more difficult to convince investors. On the contrary, try to find a service partner that you can lean on, and whom you should challenge and be challenged by. It may seem more expensive at first, but if it allows you to get results faster (or get results at all), it should be a no-brainer.
Remember: startups (and biotechs in general) operate on a limited budget, so watch your burn rate and risk tolerance! If it takes you twice as much time to get a result, it is many more budgeted multiples that are wasted – and imagine if you don’t even get the results…
How does your own entrepreneurial background enable you to optimally support new startup companies?
We started SpiroChem in 2011. So not so long ago, SpiroChem was also a startup! We started SpiroChem with the founder’s capital, and we were lucky to get an early investor who believed in us and helped us finance the growth. With revenues early on, we did not need to raise the kind of money that we see now on the life science biotech scene. I surely know what bootstrapping means, and the value of money… something I am happy to share with new entrepreneurs. In the end, we live in symbiosis with our clients. Helping them be successful ensures a long-term collaboration with them.
Being an entrepreneur is like being responsible for an extended family. Now with over 60 employees and counting, I feel responsible for everyone’s welfare. Every decision on strategic growth or investment has to be carefully evaluated.
Have you ever considered launching your own drug discovery programs and capitalizing on your unique know-how to launch your own products?
« Jein » as one would say in German: yes and no. Obviously, we have all the know-how necessary to lead a medicinal chemistry project from A to Z. But as you know, this is a very costly business that requires a lot of capital injection. It is important that we do not put our growing service/product business at risk, and we decided instead to reinvest our profits to accelerate our growth and R&D so that we can offer even more solutions to our clients, even beyond pure chemistry.
For the moment, we are proud when our clients are successful and their projects go to the next phase: that’s the satisfaction of a job well done! Sometimes we feel like sherpas helping mountaineers reach the top of the mountain: they are rarely in the spotlight, but not many expeditions would reach the summit without them…
That being said, we are not against strategic partnerships here and there when our technology and know-how can offer a clear differentiation.
Why did you choose to collaborate with BaseLaunch?
In just a few years since we relocated the company from ETH Zurich to Basel, the Basel Area has become a major hub for biotech startups in Europe. As we are also exposed to clients and hubs in other regions of the globe, for instance in the US or IN UK, we see the importance of an initiative like BaseLaunch to strengthen the economic, scientific, and entrepreneurial ecosystem. As a part of this ecosystem, we can create strong ties with potential clients and help them on their path to success, especially in the early stages/startup phase, when selecting the right partners can be a game-changer. BaseLaunch is the perfect platform for this and it was natural to collaborate with you.
Read more about SpiroChem here.