RWTH spin-off aquila biolabs
celebrates successful international exit
The start-up from Baesweiler has been acquired by US branch expert Scientific Bioprocessing
When aquila biolabs took off in 2014, Jens Bayer, Daniel Grünes, Konrad Herzog and David Frank did not know where they were heading. Seven years later, they do. They’ve made a big leap forward – and across the Atlantic Ocean. After the successful acquisition by Scientific Bioprocessing, Inc. in April 2021, the RWTH spin-off is now part of one of the oldest providers of laboratory instruments in the life sciences.
The team has been a member of the Aachen start-up community from the beginning. One of the few people who has been watching their development from the first steps is entrepreneur and mentor Marius Rosenberg, now Managing Director of the Exzellenz Start-up Center in Aachen. Two of the four co-founders of aquila biolabs – Jens Bayer, now VP of Marketing, and Daniel Grünes, now VP of R&D and Operations – sat down with him to share valuable insights into what has happened since then.
Digitally simplified bioprocessing through cutting-edge sensor technology
But first things first: What is aquila biolabs’ mission? “aquila biolabs develops sensors and software for data analytics in bioprocessing,” summarises Daniel. Bioprocessing means turning low-value starting substrates into high-value end products with the help of cells. The field of application is as versatile as momentous, ranging from the production of life-saving drugs like antibodies, via complex chemical building blocks, to innovative approaches like meat substitutes from plants. Yet, researchers still encounter many blind spots, or black boxes, in bioprocessing – they don’t know the details of what is happening at certain points in these complex biological processes. “It’s comparable to having a car. Today, if you have an issue with your car and go to a car repair shop, the problem can easily be detected by connecting a computer that reads the data from all the different sensors,” the founder explains. “And that’s what we’re doing in bioprocessing – digitally simplifying bioprocessing by introducing sensors and software to better understand the processes.”
From strategic patchwork to complementary teamwork
So how did they come up with the idea? Konrad, David and Jens all studied Biotechnology at RWTH Aachen University. In contrast to Konrad and David, however, Jens decided to focus more on the entrepreneurial aspect of life sciences. When Konrad and David told him about their idea and asked him to join the founding team, Jens introduced them to Daniel, whom he had met during his business studies in Sweden. “Since Konrad and David had a strong biotechnological background, I wanted to have another person from the entrepreneurial side on board to be able to make balanced decisions,” Jens explains. “The four of us met for the first time for dinner in Aachen and by the end of the day, we had agreed that each of us would get a quarter of the company”. Daniel nods. “Jens and I were not the ones who came up with the idea; that must be credited to David and Konrad. We were the ones who came in to help with the execution of that idea, to make it successful as a company, together with our co-founders,” he concludes.
From improvised attic lab to huge technology park
Then how did the two strands become aquila biolabs? It is safe to say that the answer sounds a bit like the classic start-up story – although with a little twist. Konrad and David soon came up with an approach on how to solve the issue. The problem: They had no access to scientific resources, not to mention a lab, to test it. “So Konrad and David went to the grocery store, bought off-the-shelf yeast, took an empty jar of jam and made a proof of concept in David’s attic”, Jens laughs. “And it worked”, Daniel chimes in. “That’s why we always say we’re not a garage start-up, we’re an attic start-up.”
From that moment in the attic in 2013 on, aquila biolabs’ success story evolved. They successfully applied for the EXIST Business Start-up Grant and by the end of the 12-month program, in the beginning of 2015, the team had founded aquila biolabs. A seven-digit seed investment round and a seven-digit Pre-Series A investment followed. The preliminary peak of aquila biolabs’ development: their acquisition by US branch specialist Scientific Bioprocessing, Inc. in April 2021. Along with the financial growth came an increase in workforce, with the team now counting more than 40 employees, as well as a physical expansion and relocation. From an improvised attic lab in Aachen, the team first moved to the International Technology and Service Center (ITS), a large industrial technology park in Baesweiler, about 30 minutes from Aachen, and later founded subsidiaries in the US.
Of literal and metaphorical door openers: EXIST Business Start-up Grant and RWTH ecosystem
How did aquila biolabs get there? The team’s story may seem straightforward in retrospect. But the four did not simply walk out of the attic and straight into a technology park. “We had to knock on a lot of doors, especially in the beginning,” admits Jens. What opened them in the end was the synergy between the EXIST support and the RWTH Aachen ecosystem. “For us, the initial key was the EXIST Business Start-up Grant. It solves one of the main problems in the start-up lifecycle: How do I get from an idea and a team – and that’s all we had – to an investment-ready start-up without any relevant capital,” he points out.
The EXIST program went hand in hand with the support of the RWTH Innovation Entrepreneurship Center and RWTH Aachen University in general, although back then, the extensive support offerings of today were still in the early stages of development. In working on their own success, aquila biolabs contributed to this development, as Marius underlines: “aquila also acted as a trailblazer for the RWTH ecosystem with their idea to turn the Entrepreneurship Center into a hub for future start-ups in Aachen.” By moving to their new office at the Entrepreneurship Center, aquila biolabs became part of the Aachen ecosystem, which in turn opened new doors, as Jens explains:
“Telling people that you’re a start-up from RWTH Aachen University, that you’re sitting at the Entrepreneurship Center, that your mentors are experienced founders themselves is like bearing a stamp. Suddenly people start noticing you and taking you seriously. You’re no longer just four students with an idea; you’re a noteworthy start-up attracting the interest of researchers and entrepreneurs alike. Suddenly investors come up to you. You think it’s a coincidence, but it’s not. It’s the entire network of the RWTH ecosystem that starts working.”
Aachen – the place to start your business
Did they never consider relocating to a different city? In the years following the foundation, the start-up with roots in RWTH Aachen University opted to stay in the region on several occasions. Daniel explains why: “First of all, the region is extremely attractive from a life science perspective, as RWTH Aachen University has a global standing in the field. Second, the region is very well-located, bordering Belgium and the Netherlands on the on hand, and the Rhine-Ruhr Area with cities like Cologne and Düsseldorf on the other. Third, staying close to the university for us means staying close to our customers and to highly qualified minds for our team. And fourth, it is simply cheaper than most other start-up locations.” With the ITS in Baesweiler, the start-up found their perfect location to run their business while staying in close vicinity to the university.
From mentored founders to mentoring founders
What is aquila biolabs’ role in the ecosystem today? Today, the success story of aquila biolabs has come full circle. When they started in 2013, it was the ecosystem with its mentors, investors and start-ups that helped aquila biolabs get off the ground. Now the roles of the co-founders have changed. Today, they’re on the other side: As mentors in the RWTH Incubation Program, they share their experiences and expertise with young entrepreneurs setting up their business – just like they did seven years ago. Marius Rosenberg, who has seen the start-up grow since then, is proud of their development, both as a mentor and in his role at the Exzellenz Start-up Center in Aachen:
“aquila biolabs is a prime example of what it means to be part of the Aachen start-up ecosystem: An interdisciplinary team with a pioneering idea that sought and received the support they needed and is now giving it back to our community. The story of aquila biolabs is a success story through and through: for the team, for the Exzellenz Start-up Center and for Aachen. A story of success and of impact on all levels.”
Entrepreneurial Dos and Don’ts
As experienced entrepreneurs, what piece of advice would they give to young founders and future entrepreneurs? The two co-founders have a few:
- “The challenges you will face will be diverse, so make sure to have an interdisciplinary team around you.”
- “Don’t be scared to talk about your idea. The opportunities that come along with it are much bigger than the risks.”
- “Ask for help and take advantage of all the support programs around you.”
- “Don’t be afraid of failure. Instead, expect a certain amount and appreciate the process of learning from it.”
- “Have realistic expectations and show resilience. Founding is a bit like a boxing fight where you don’t win with a beautiful and quick knock-out in round one, but rather have to go full distance and recover a couple of times to win marginally on points.”
Last but not least: How do they feel, now that they have successfully exited? Jens laughs. „It’s a bit like a birthday – there’s the big event, but you don’t feel the difference immediately.” Daniel adds: “But we are extremely happy and look forward to continuing our success story together with Scientific Bioprocessing.” The co-founders still have to process the start of the new chapter for aquila biolabs. As befits a birthday, all that’s left for us to say is: Congratulations to the team of aquila biolabs and all the best for the future!