Technology transfer is one of the priorities of the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation. In fact, the transmission of scientific and technical knowledge generated in a university environment and technology centres to society is a priority, not only in Spain but throughout the European Union.
In this interview we want to tell you about NANOGAP, a success story that is an example and a good model to use. This spinoff emerged from the University of Santiago de Compostela and already has important industrial and financial partners and a promising future.
Intellectual Property is, without doubt, a key element in its success, but the origin is a fascinating invention, capable of being applied to new forms of energy or to the cure for cancer.
Nanogap and Atomic Quantum Clusters (AQCs)
Nanogap was created 14 years ago, how did it come about?
There are always many factors, but in this case the seed was a patent, the one that protects atomic quantum clusters (AQCs), our main product. It is the invention of Professors Arturo López Quintela and Pepe Rivas, both professors at the University of Santiago de Compostela and pioneers in nanotechnology in Spain. They had been thinking for some time about the idea of developing a spin-off, but several circumstances had to occur for the idea to finally crystallise into the formation of NANOGAP. On one hand, there was the application for the patent of the AQCs, which was accompanied by very promising experimental results and on the other hand, Tatiana López del Río (our CEO) was beginning her thesis work in the laboratory. She was the one who gave shape to the idea and took the impulse that finally ended up with the formation of NANOGAP.
What are atomic quantum clusters, also called AQCs?
Perhaps the simplest “visual” way to describe them is as metallic molecules, or it is the same as groups of metallic atoms in a state of zero oxidation and without the need for stabilising ligands. This makes metals have new and surprising properties, typical of the quantum world, which are very different from the classical properties of metals.
They have been described in the bibliography on multiple occasions, but almost always theoretically or in the gas phase and with a very short life expectancy What the professors Arturo López Quintela and Pepe Rivas achieved was to fine-tune the synthesis of clusters of different sizes and metals, to stabilise them without the need for ligands
What are they for?
The most notable feature of these clusters is reflected in their properties, so depending on the number of atoms in the cluster and the type of metal, the AQCs can have very diverse optical, magnetic, conductive, fluorescent, biological etc. properties, which together with their small size makes them potentially applicable to many fields.
The field of application is enormous, from fluorescent probes to anti-tumour drugs, to catalysts for a wide range of reactions. Although over the years we have addressed different areas of application, today we have focused on two main areas, catalysis and biotechnology.
How are they applied?
AQCs as catalysts have a wide range of application, both in homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, with proven efficacy in a wide variety of reactions. They are versatile catalysts, as they can work both as chemical catalysts, photocatalysts or electrocatalysts. This opens the door to sectors and industries as varied as the chemical industry, waste water treatment or the oil and energy industry.
133 patent applications applied for
One of the biggest challenges for start-ups is making the leap from the laboratory to the industry. What was the process at Nanogap?
Technology transfer is hard and slow, more so in an area of research such as nanotechnology, however there is enormous potential, although because of its early stages, it still faces many challenges.
In addition, we must take into consideration that in Spain achieving more fluidity between the university and the industry is an on-going situation which is still evident today. In this sense, we consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to establish good dynamics with the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC), based on a good tech transfer agreement that offers us the flexibility and security we need, while on the other hand, protects and benefits the university and the researchers with whom we collaborate.
We also consider ourselves fortunate to have the support of our industrial and financial partners who have always understood that our timescales are different to other types of business. This is fundamental and it is not always easy for an investor to understand how R&D works.
In the process we have learnt a lot, one key issue is the team. It is important to know how to surround yourself with the correct expert in each field and to define your responsibilities. In our case, it is relevant to maintain the relationship with the research group of professors Arturo López Quintela and Pepe Rivas, so we can continue to count on their scientific advice to ensure the correct development of the transferred technology.
What role has industrial property protection played in your evolution and development?
As I mentioned before, the NANOGAP´s origin, was a patent, so we carry the IP in our DNA. From our beginning, IP has been a very relevant part of the business, today being one of the most important intangible assets of the company, if not the most. We pay special attention to the protection of all our products and processes, to maintain the competitive advantage over our competitors and to ensure the operational freedom we need.
In addition, IP is a fundamental part of the technology transfer between the research group from which we emerged and the industry. Therefore it is vital to maintain a profitable and healthy relationship between both parties.
How many patent families make up your portfolio today?
We currently have 17 patent families and have applied for 133 patents with the different national and regional offices, of which 82% have already been granted.
In general terms, we have an objective of filing two patent applications a year, although this is variable, since it largely depends on the projects we are working on with our clients, the research projects in which we are participating and the work of the research group of the USC.
How do you think the IP portfolio has been influential attracting private investment? How important have investors been to it?
Although it is true that not all markets are equally receptive to patents, in our case it has been relevant when it comes to adding value to the company. Especially when we try to compete in the international market with companies that exceed us in size and resources.
Our patent portfolio is essential to show private investors how groundbreaking and unique all our know-how is and how much control we have over our technology and its future developments. Up until now, the company has managed to increase its value year on year based on virtually only intangible assets. It is only after more than 10 years, that the company is taking shape in terms of income and business development with exponential growth.
From the University of Santiago to the United States, Korea and Japan
As far as we know, you have patented some of your inventions in Asian countries such as Japan or Korea and also in the United States. What factors have you taken into account when designing your IP strategy?
The main factors have been the company’s target markets and strategic partners. NANOGAP is a company that was created with a global vision. We bring technology that will change the chemical and petrochemical industry as we know it. Technology that will make viable new forms of energy that until now have not been able to compete or adequately replace the existing ones.
Technology for the development of new cancer drugs with efficacies and mechanisms never seen before. This type of technology can only be implemented in the industry with large multinationals with a global geographic vision. Being such a small company we have to look closely at our cost structure, which is why we usually cover 70% to 80% of the market with the least number of countries possible, but Japan, Korea, the United States and Europe are mandatory for us.
One of the services you offer is the development of customised products. How do you protect your inventions in these cases? Who is the patent holder?
One of our principles is always to maintain control of the industrial property of our products and our processes. However, when it comes to patenting in markets or areas that are far from our knowledge, it is very important to do it hand in hand with someone who knows.
Therefore, we normally co-patent with the client of any invention that arises from a custom development in the application of our products or any intermediate step necessary for industrial implementation. This ensures the best use of the patent.
It is also important that our clients have their space to develop their own patents based on AQCs, because it is such unique technology that has the potential to patent throughout the value chain beyond materials and their use.
You currently have partners such as Repsol, with headquarters in the USA and a strategic partner in Japan, how do you see the future of the company?
The future is promising. In the absence of external problems (see the current crisis of covid-19) Our future is to continue grow in conjunction with industrial partners who open doors for our products within the target markets. From the customer’s point of view, NANOGAP has more than 10 projects in different phases of implementation (proof of concept, pilot scale, industrial implementation) with large multinationals that have already opted for NANOGAP technology.
From a financial point of view, we are in the midst of looking for the next stage of funding. We hope to close a consortium of financial and/or industrial partners that will allow the company to take a leap in growth and value.
Is it true that Nanogap has founded a pharmaceutical company for the development of anti-cancer drugs based on AQC’s? Could you please comment on this?
NANOGAP’s technology, the AQCs, have multiple applications, so the way to mitigate the risk of such diversification is a strategy that follows the following route:
- Technology incubator (here unique and independent opportunities are developed, if possible with a partner, which serves as proof of the concept of the potential business unit);
- Business units (when an opportunity is successful in the incubator it becomes a business unit and we dedicate 80%-85% of our resources to it);
- Spin out independently (either because it already generates profit or because the necessary growth and financing are very characteristic of that opportunity).
Arjuna Therapeutics is an example of technology that started in the Incubator, then became a Business Unit and finally was spun off in a restructuring process. Although NANOGAP is still the majority shareholder, it already has a fully independent management team with new investors who are ready to turn this technology into new cancer treatments.
None of this would be possible if the intellectual property was not properly developed in the Incubator and if the freedom to operate was not properly protected and studied with the Business Unit. It is important to work on the “packaging” of the technology in the form of patents that allow for the different spin-offs with the various applications and always with one factor in common, the development of the AQCs’ technology platform.