At an age when many would comfortably slide into retirement, 74-year old physician and businessman Wolfgang Kehr is only getting started with his next idea. He's not what you'd call a typical startup founder.
The typical Berlin startup founder is between the ages of 25 to 30, is fresh from an incubator and is seeking to shake up the market, at least according to the cliche.
Then there's Wolfgang Kehr, who at the age of 63 founded the biotech company epinamics, attempting to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's using a "Liqui-Patch." The unique spray quickly forms a film on the skin in order to safely transmit medicine into the bloodstream.
Now patent-protected and backed by over 200 investors contributing a total of €155,000, the technology is expected to reach the global market by 2021.
"The research is always moving. It's never over," says Kehr on a crisp November afternoon at his laboratory at the BioTech Campus in Potsdam. His four-man team, all researchers over the age of 60, have been based there since 2010.
A platform technology, the thin spray-on patch is used for the delivery of various drugs. Kehr and his team initially developed it for the treatment of cognitive diseases, expanding its applications to include medicine for Vitamin D deficiency, restless foot syndrome and athlete's foot. The company is currently creating a patch for diabetes patients.
"We have studied a large number of active ingredients, whether we can formulate them and whether they can be applied by pump spray," says Kehr, a physician by training. Before founding epinamics, he was the head of corporate pharmaceutical research at Schering, a Berlin-based pharma giant that was swallowed by the even bigger Bayer AG in 2005.
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Indentis, the Schering subsidy which Kehr was CEO of, filed a patent for the Liqui-Patch technology in 2006. Now the technology has been patented in "every major market," says Kehr, with India and Brazil on the way in the coming months.
"Bayer said they have their own patents on transdermal applications, are further advanced in the development of products under their own technology. We are very happy that they came to that conclusion and underestimated th worth of this technology," he says with a laugh.
Conventional drug delivery patches are inefficient in their transmission, says Kehr. Around 60-95 percent of their ingredients end up as waste, seeping into sewage systems, with only 5 -35 percent actually penetrating the skin.
Yet nearly all of the highly concentrated Liqui-Patch is absorbed into the skin, better benefitting both patients and the environment, says Kehr. "The thinner the film, the higher the penetration rate of the compounds into the skin," he adds.
Because fewer materials are used to create the applicator, the Liqui-Patch also costs only about 20 percent of the sticker price of regular patches.
Kehr picks up a bottle with a neutral formula, spraying it on the back of his hand to demonstrate that it dries within two minutes of its application. A light layer of transparent film fixes onto his skin in a square shape, swiftly shrinking into size.
A small team that thinks big
As a small team, epinamics continues to search for strategic partners interested in developing the product further themselves. They just established a cooperation with Brazilian pharma giant Libbs Farmaceutica in order to apply the Alzheimer's medicine Rivastigmin, whose worldwide sales amount to approximately $1billion per year. They are aiming to tackle the Brazilian market and South America next.
"We started shortly after the financial crisis and venture capitalists were not interested in pharmaceutical companies because money is tied up for a long time," says Kehr. "They were interested in our program but in the end always said no."
As an alternative strategy, his team reached out to larger companies interested in working in forming partnerships. Kehr is not hesitant to approach high-level managers — a networking skill he says he picked up from his seven-year stint working as vice president of business development at Berlex Laboratories in New Jersey in the 1990s.
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"We have limited capacity here so it is important we come to these agreements because they will generate financial resources that we can use to build the group here," says Kehr, who is seeking to expand the size of the lab and bring more staffers on board.
The company also maintains a small office in Dahlem-Dorf near Free University Berlin. Kehr also calls the neighborhood home, making time for his wife, five children and 10 grandchildren on the weekends.
Those who know Kehr see him as a "been there, done that" type of person, says one colleague, but also very humble. A native of Göttingen, he was an assistant to Arvid Carlsson in Gothenburg, who received a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his study of dopamine in Parkinson's Disease.
Kehr continued on to work for Schering and its subsidies for over 35 years. But he had a dress rehearsal for the startup world in 2005, when he founded dermatology subsidy Intendis. Within a year, the company counted 600 employees in 13 countries and was already profitable.
Yet despite his longstanding background in both business and medicine, Kehr has been turning to modern startup strategies. The company just completed an online crowdfunding campaign in order to raise seed capital for its next round, focusing on Parkinson's and Vitamin D deficiency.
"It's about making this novel technology accessible to as many patients as possible," says Kehr. "I'm a medical doctor; that's my job."