From Stuttgart via Aachen to multiple market entry
The RWTH Incubation Program as a launch pad for revolutionising real-time analytics in bioprocess engineering
Variolytics is a young start-up from Stuttgart. The meaning of their name – short for “variable analytics” – not only indicates the broad scope of the start-up’s technology but also the wide applicability of their innovation. What is a huge plus from a sales perspective, however, is also a big challenge for the operative approach of the respective target groups – especially for a start-up. In Aachen, the team found the support they needed to do it anyway. We met online with two of the founders, CEO Dr. Matthias Stier and CFO Johann Barlach, to ask how their participation in the RWTH Incubation Program helped them get ahead.
Making the invisible visible
What does Variolytics do? Variolytics wants to make the invisible visible. To do so, the start-up offers a comprehensive solution to accurately measure, analyse and optimise chemical and biotechnological processes. To account for the specific needs of different customers, the innovation consists of two components: a hardware product, the “VARIO one.”, and an accompanying software tool, the “VARIO OS”. The “VARIO one.” is a ground-breaking technology that ticks all the boxes: The membrane inlet mass spectrometer (MIMS) is not only the first of its kind to allow real-time analysis of substances from liquids; the technology also excels in terms of accuracy, sensitivity, multiplexing, compactness, robustness, speed, and affordability. As such the “VARIO one.” is a powerful device for various applications, including wastewater treatment, biotechnological fermentation, and industrial research and development. The software architecture “VARIO OS”, on the other hand, ensures high flexibility and adaptability of the hardware product according to the needs of the specific application.
From PhD project on environmental protection to start-up with sustainable technology
How did it start? The idea was born during Matthias’s PhD thesis. With environmental protection in mind, the bioprocess engineer started to study alternative use cases for liquid biogas. When he could not find a proper liquid analyser for his project, he started his first attempts at inventing his own. Soon, he had a prototype of today’s product integrated into a production site at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart. Today’s team, however, did not get together until 2017, when they met Johann at a co-founder matching event similar to the Tech Side Story event series. “It was like a speed-dating between business-averse researchers on the one hand and business economists lacking the in-depth technological know-how on the other”, Matthias laughs. “In the end, after many talks, we left as a perfect match”. Together, they prepared the application for the EXIST Transfer of Research which was approved in August 2019. In spring 2020, the team then founded Variolytics and officially launched the “VARIO one.”.
The RWTH Incubation Program as a 360-degree support
Why participate in the RWTH Incubation Program and why Aachen? When the Spring Batch 2021 of the RWTH Incubation Program started in January, Variolytics had already founded their start-up and launched their first product with the help of the EXIST Transfer of Research. “We thought a lot about whether it made sense for us to participate in some sort of acceleration program at this point,” Johann recalls. But when they learned about the offerings of the RWTH Incubation Program, they didn’t think twice. “We were fascinated by the professionality, structure and comprehensiveness of the program.” Johann explains:
“What makes the Incubation Program stand out from other accelerator programs is the 360-degree support. On the one hand, you have the general sprint sessions for all teams where you learn step-by-step about important aspects of each stage in the start-up lifecycle. On the other, there is a lot of individualisation through the 1-on-1 coaching. The coaches are the interface between the research and the start-up world, bringing both a tech focus and the business expertise to the table. With this double perspective the coaches can attend to the special needs of your start-up with customised support. Apart from the workshops and coaching, you become part of this vast network of mentors, start-ups and investors who give extremely valuable feedback.”
Following their successful application for the Spring Batch 2021, the team of Variolytics got to experience these benefits first-hand. Matched with mentors from the same sector, the team was able to substantiate the learnings from the sprint sessions and apply them to their specific markets. At the same time, the founders were impressed by the profiles of the investors and the quality of their fellow start-ups, both of which motivated them to pursue their own project. The coaching helped Variolytics with regards to their pilot projects, refining their focus and encouraging a parallel approach towards the different target groups. Together with their start-up coach the team worked out a plan on how to enter both the biopharma and wastewater market at the same time.
Close personal and entrepreneurial relationship to the RWTH ecosystem
What remains after completion of the Incubation Program? Rich in new insights and contacts, the team of Variolytics plans to build on the foundations laid in the program. The founders have started their first pilot projects, ranging from bioreactor providers to wastewater plants in the United Kingdom to industrial wastewater plants in Germany. And even after the completion of the Incubation Program the Stuttgart-based start-up maintains strong ties to the RWTH ecosystem. The founders are currently planning to come to Aachen to meet their coach and mentors in person for the first time. In addition, they will present their technology to the Chairs of Chemical Engineering at RWTH Aachen University. Last but not least, the team wants to keep in touch with their fellow founders from the Spring Batch 2021.
Entrepreneurial Dos and Dont’s
Through their ups and downs, Matthias and Johann have learned a lot about entrepreneurial success. To encourage and support future entrepreneurs, they shared part of their experience and tips with us:
- As a researcher, try to remain objective, especially when it comes to IP questions and funding. Getting emotional won’t help you progress.
- Pay attention to your team and take care of your colleagues.
- Be committed. Running a start-up is not a side project, it’s a full-time job.
- Be ready to experience and endure difficult times. Focus on solutions to move forward.
- Ask for help. Don’t think you have to do everything on your own or have all the answers. You’ll be surprised by how many people will help when you ask for it.
- Grow in your role and don’t be too harsh on yourself. Once you go from researcher to entrepreneur, you enter a new world, so keep learning and don’t be too critical with yourself.
We wish Variolytics all the best for the future and hope to welcome you in person here in Aachen!