Simon Rittman, shares with our host, Tina Persson, all about his experience with founding a company while still holding a position in academia.
You might have always wanted to be an academic, but what if your academic research brought up a groundbreaking technology that you knew could dramatically revolutionize industrial processes? Would you choose to stay in academia or pivot to industry and bring your idea to market? Well, it is possible to do both!
Simon Rittmann is the CSO and co-founder of Arkeon, a biotechnology company focused on alternative food production technologies. Additionally, he serves as the Principal Investigator at the Archaea Physiology & Biotechnology group at the University of Vienna, where he also shares his passion through teaching.
Simon and Tina discuss the crucial steps and the strategic planning that go into building a start-up as an academic, highlighting the importance of finding the right people to help bring one’s entrepreneurial vision to life. Further in the episode, they delve into the personal qualities needed to take the leap.
They also talk about the concept of a dual career, how to keep “one foot in academia, one foot in the industry”, the motivations behind that choice, and how to manage both.
With Simon’s advice, you will learn that you can have the best of both worlds, if only you are flexible, open to personal growth and pick the right business-minded people to complement your scientific skills and build a great team! Stay tuned!
Tina Persson: Hi and welcome to PhD Career Stories. Today we have a guest, a young man from Austria with a fantastic career behind him and into the future. He has done a career that I know many, many of you followers, and also my clients are very curious about. It's a dual career. He has one foot in academia, the other one is the industry. But shortly, who is Simon Rittmann? Well, I will say he's CSO and co-founder of Arkeon, in Vienna, Austria, and he is also a PI at Archaea Physiology group (in Vienna, Austria). He's also a PhD and a postdoc that he took and achieved in Austria, both in Vienna and in Linz. So very welcome to this podcast, Simon, how are you today?
Simon Rittmann: I'm fine, thank you Tina. How are you?
Tina: Yeah, I'm fine too. And as I told you, Arkeon, Archaea, I would do that wrongly, I knew it. You're very welcome to correct me here. Anyway, as I said, you have a career at the moment with one foot in academia and one foot in the industry. And I wondered, was this some sort of plan that you planned from the beginning, or was it something that you were dreaming about?
Simon: Yeah, I actually didn't have this plan from the beginning. I was always very interested, of course, in working in the industry. But at the same time, I was also very interested in working for academia. But my plan was initially to become a scientist.
Tina: You wanted to be a scientist. So when did this idea come up that maybe I can have both?
Simon: Yeah, actually, I was always jumping between industry and academia in my career. So when I did my PhD here in Vienna, I had many projects together with industry. So it was about six or seven smaller projects with the industry. And it was also a project that I'm just doing my PhD on. So I got very close with the industry and after I finished my PhD, I went to work for a small startup, but I was sitting close to academia. So actually my workplace was in an academic environment so to speak. I was always in the situation where I had contact with industry, but also with academia. In the end, it turned out to be like this more or less for most of my time and now I work for my company and also for the University of Vienna.
Tina: But if you just help our listeners here, you say you didn't have a plan, but maybe it is so that you have a sort of drive here, but maybe you should shortly introduce what your science is about, from the beginning.
Simon: Sure, my science, I was always intrigued by archaea. These are microorganisms with special metabolic features and are very important for ecology, for human well-being and health, but also for biotechnology. And I always wanted to combine this science field, basic research archaea, but I was always intrigued with biotechnology, so I wanted to go and study archaea with regards to the possible biotechnological applications. And so I ended up being in the academia industry at the same time.
Tina: Would you say that, when you work in industry now, you are a CSO and co-founder, and then you are a PI at the same time, how much percentage of your position is in academia? Is that something you like to share?
Simon: I have a very little position, so it's more or less, officially, 10% of my working time.
Tina: 10% of your working time. (...) So 90% is at the startup. This is interesting because I have a colleague of mine in Sweden. He's doing the same thing. He never left academia, but he had these 10%. But he works 100% but still has something extra at the university. So what in you makes you like to work, I guess more than 110%, you most likely work 200%, but what is it in you that keeps you stay connected to academia?
Simon: Well, I like to give lectures. I like to educate students, first of all. So I try very much giving lectures, today actually before the interview I gave a lecture on eco-physiology of organisms. This has nothing to do with my company, so to speak, but it's educational. And at the same time, what keeps me also in academia is that I can do research, applied basic research that I can not do in industry. In my company, we are very focused towards developing our gas fermentation process and in my academic life I have been doing completely different projects, but mostly it's about students.
Tina: Why are you not 100% in academia?
Simon: Yeah, this is a good question. Actually, I was also 100% in academia, but I figured out that sometimes you have to do something in industry to be able to scale a process, to scale your technology, in applied sciences or basic applied sciences, we develop processes or we find exciting new possibilities for biological processes, for instance. But maybe the industry is not ready for it. And so I ended up co-founding a company which was necessary because nobody wanted to take this risk, obviously.
Tina: So you performed science at the university and companies were not interested. So you founded your own company as some sort of middle stage to develop it, to sell it later on, or to grow your company?
Simon: Yeah, to grow the company. It was actually quite interesting because what we found was that this archaea that we investigated, we found were converting CO2 and hydrogen into amino acids. And actually it was more or less not at this time interesting for other companies. So we had to do it ourselves in the end to go this direction, to scale this process. Because the technology produces amino acids for human nutrition only from CO2 and H2O.
Tina: So what I'm hearing between the lines here is that there is a need on the market. You know, we have these big pharmaceutical companies, or biotech companies, but they can't take on early projects from the university. If you want to develop certain things, you can't do it in academia. I just would like to pull that back. If it was possible to develop it further in academia, would you prefer to do that?
Simon: Not necessarily. I was always open to founding a company. I was always playing with the thought to do it, but this time, I think a couple of years ago it was not in question, because I was immersed in academic research. But looking back, it was always like if there would be the possibility I would have been open to do it, so in this example it was our company. So, maybe, there was a chance to do it, there was also the necessity to do it. And of course, from a project at the university, usually there is no further development once the project is finished. In rare cases there's a continuation, a follow-up project. But usually the projects are closed and then the technology is in a premature stage and cannot be further developed at the university. I tried this, but it was not possible. So the solution was to go ahead and found a company.
Tina: But what does this actually say about how the system is working? Is the total system that we have for research, is it optimal or is there a missing link somewhere? Well, it seems to be so from my side here.
Simon: Yeah, it depends. I mean, I cannot say in one or the other direction, in our case there was this missing link. So it actually was not possible to develop this technology further to a stage where, I mean, we came very far, we have to say. So it's not that we just ended up with a small reaction tube, we ended up cultivating and producing in the bioreactor, but this was still too premature for some bigger development so to speak, but for our own development as was perfect. Sometimes one has to be brave and say, okay, I just developed this technology further with some co-founders and work in my own company. Maybe this is really necessary, that scientists take it from there themselves.
Tina: Yeah. Because in the end it has to do with the money so now I'm curious, you're a co-founder of the company, now to help our listeners here, you have a project at the university that comes to a certain end, it's fairly common actually. And then the question is, what do I do with it? And some take a patent for it, you decided to start a company to move it further. How did you learn then to start the company? Because there is a process to start the company. You know, you need funding for the company, etc. And how did you plan that? Did you ask for help or did you have colleagues that could do that for you?
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. So we pitched our technology, and there was a company builder that was interested in this technology and they actually helped to scale our company with us. So we are all co-founders, they're academic scientists. So I've never had a company before, so we had to learn it and it was like a very good support I have to say.
Tina: Where did you find the people?
Simon: I was working at the University of Vienna at this time on the project, my other co-founder at the BOKU University in Vienna, and the third co-founder at ACIB. There was this company builder that was contacting ACIB, Austrian Center of Industrial Biotechnology, and they linked us more or less in the end to pitch. And then we went from there. So actually our company is a startup of the University of Vienna, but two of my co-founders also come from the ACIB and from the BOKU.
Tina: So is ACIB something well known? I don't know what ACIB is.
Simon: It is the Austrian Center for Industrial Biotechnology. It's a research center for industrial biotechnological research.
Tina: So they also have resources for helping scientists to start a company. Is that what you're explaining here?
Simon: Yeah, so at least they're doing the networking. Very oriented at funding startups also. Our project initially was developed at the University of Vienna, but my co-founder, but one of my co-founders, Günther, came from BOKU, and my other co-founder, Gregor, joined from ACIB. Depending on how you see it, we are a startup of the University of Vienna and the initial technological development took also place at the University of Vienna.
Tina: And who, you know, where did the money come from so that you can run the company? What kind of support did you need there?
Simon: We had of course this project where we did this development. Academic research up then the pre-seed came from the company builder and the seed came from different investors.
Tina: How did you find the investors?
Simon: Best with a network of our co-founder pre-seed investors.
Tina: Is that a certain organization that you have in Austria that can support with a seed or early seed money?
Simon: There are also such organizations, but we did not do this.
Tina: Do you know how long they will support you?
Simon: Oh, they're still supporting us.
Tina: Yeah. Do you know how long?
Simon: Yeah, as long as it needs. As long as it needs.
Tina: They believe in the project. That means that you went from being a scientist and when you were in this mixture here where you know, okay, I want to take my project, I can't stay at the university with this project. I need to take it further to the next step. And then, you know, what did you need to develop? You know, if you will look at you as a person, what does it take for you to take that step?
Simon: I mean, as a scientist, you always have to be very flexible, but for me personally, as a personal development, it means reflecting all the time, about my role in the company, about, it's not like that there is a linear trajectory as it would be maybe in an academic career, but the industrial career is very much different, especially if you're running a startup because this environment changes very fast and so you have to adapt to the environment all the time.
Tina: But how did you learn that?
Simon: Well being open and also communicating. So we have a very good team and we are communicating very openly and also honestly about the needs and the issues. And it's very important that the company moves forward, and not you as an individual, it's not that the individual is the most important. It's the company and the technology that it's developed.
And in academia, sometimes I have the feeling it is very much focused on the person.
Tina: Around here, it's a different focus.
Simon: It's a different focus, it's a focus on the company on developing this technology to a stage where it's more mature.
Tina: In science, it's about you and the articles you publish.
Tina: Unless you stay in teaching (...). But of course it's a different focus here. Because you are the CSO, so it's a sort of a natural role to take. But would you say that, if you look and put yourself in perspective of, (...) but the pool of scientists. Would you say that, are you special? Do you have certain characters or risk-taking abilities that made you take this step?
Simon: Definitely, I would say, because, I mean, it's always a risk if you change something. But yeah, this is a very difficult question. But in the end, if you leave academia, I mean, I have not left academia, I'm still at the University of Vienna, but to go into this direction is a very, not every scientist would take, I suppose so.
Tina: I'm quite sure. And why I say that is because, you know, I'm coaching scientists, coaching PhDs and they are sort of, you know, what you have done many want to do, but they don't know how to take the step. And I say, you know, you need, of course, to have an idea, but you also need a project that you can take to that level. Then of course, you need to get the seed money. And if you now, look at it, for you it was a sort of a natural process. But if you think now about a PhD or a postdoc in this situation, let's say they are sitting in, you know, Max Planck or in Germany or France or in England. We have listeners all over the world. Well, I have an idea here, I would like to take it to the next step. What would you advise them on where would they start? How can they start? What would be your advice from your perspective?
Simon: You know, not to give up, certainly, because I mean, not infinitely, you can pitch, at some point you have also to focus and work on your projects. But if you have found something which is really groundbreaking and can make a technological difference, then you should go ahead and pitch this to companies, to company builders and try to to get the money and to found your company. This is what we did. And in the end, we were lucky to have made it into this amazing company. At Arkeon, we have 37 employees, not even two years after funding. So it was an amazing journey. But you have to just try it, to make it. This is the advice I can give. Nobody will call you and ask, have you developed a technology? So you have to go out and do it, and show that you have developed something.
Tina: You have to sell your idea. Now, we may be coming to something that is sort of a weakness for some scientists, and that is to sell, to pitch your idea. You know, take it from dreaming to actually sell your idea and reach out to people and take feedback. Did you get feedback?
Simon: Yes, we got, I mean, from whom, you mean scientists?
Tina: Could be both, you started to pitch your ideas, so I guess you got feedback.
Simon: Yeah. We also got feedback but sometimes it's mostly not the person's feedback on the pitch. In the end the feedback was yes we want to go with you in this direction. And so in this one example, but in most examples of us, I mean it didn't happen, but it's also you must not be alone to do it. This is what I want to say. So it's good that there is a scientist and a technologist, many scientists who want to do it, but a scientist alone, you cannot do it. It's a business in the end. So you need some people from the business, from the financiers who understand this. You need to form a team. And I really cannot advise that you would do it alone. Alone I would not have done it definitely, but with a team of very capable people and also our company built a very good understanding and network in the business world and this was very, very important for us. So it's also about, you have to form a team, starting a company alone is, in my opinion, not advisable.
Tina: Now I would say it's probably very, very difficult, particularly in life sciences, because you need different sorts of competencies when you start the company. But then I come back to that, if they are sitting there and they have an idea, how do you start building your team?
Simon: You have to find a counterpart or counterparts with whom you want to go, and you have to be convinced to do it, and then you have to work for your idea, for this project and this is what you need to do. It's not about writing papers, but it's about writing a business plan, maybe you need it, maybe not, it depends. It's about the market. It's about a completely different world that you want to immerse your company, your idea in. And it's not about selling your research, so to speak, in the research paper, but to make it a real business. And this means that you have to learn new skills and talk a different language and be always open for communication. Yeah, not that you get all of a scientific feedback.
Tina: It 's very useful.
Simon: Exactly, you have to let go. You have to be able to explain your science in a very easy going way. You have to find a very picturesque language to explain your very complicated science that not many people might understand, but you have to sell it in a very easy going, in a smooth way, to someone who wants to do business with you or invest in you, your company.
Tina: It's a different language, it's business suddenly, it's not only about your research. And I believe that that is what happens with many when you leave academia, and this is again going back to if you look for a job, and I say, you know, why do you want this job and who are you?
And then you talk about your science. But yeah, I know, but I want to know who you are and why you want to work in my company. And this is actually going back to the same, that if you go with your research, you have to start to sell yourself. Do I believe in Simon? Do I believe in Simon that he can run this company? That is, of course, important. You say connecting to a team, getting the people around you. I think that's absolutely essential. So listen carefully. It's not only about your research. You can have the best strategy in the world but if you don't have the right team, it will not work out very well. And I also believe and correct me if I'm wrong here, that you need to be on a learning journey, that running a company is not all about you and what you think, it's also about what other people around you think and where you can go to be sort of get that sort of business mindset around it. Would you agree with that?
Simon: Absolutely. So it's, I mean, at Arkeon we are a team of people and we all have the same goal to scale our technology and to scale this process. And this is what we are working on. It's not about the individual, about our careers, but it's about Arkeon, about the company. And this is where I want to make the point that you have many very capable persons who are working on different aspects of R&D, but also of engineering, business, food, in Arkeon and together we are Arkeon, and not just someone who developed this technology. I'm not attached, you know, to this technology, that I would always be the one who understands it or who does, who has developed it initially or found this amazing capability of these organisms for excrete amino acids. But it's, we brought it to a different stage. And you have to go, you have to want to go this path, this way.
Tina: Maybe also back to now, we know you left and we learned that, Simon, you went from scientist, starting a company, learned many new abilities, some of them you probably already had. You built a team, you connected with people, learned to know new people that you had in your network so you could seed your money, seed money to your company. But you also took a deliberate decision that even though, yes, working as a CSO and co-founder, it means working over 100%, it's many hours per week, I guess, but you still made a decision to stay with one leg in the academic part. And do you think you will continue to do that or is it so that you one day say “Actually, I think I’ll go back to academia”.
Simon: I cannot answer this, but I'm open to both worlds, and now my journey brought me to this company, where I'm very happy, so it's fine. I like to be in both worlds at the same time. This is really something that I feel quite well, I have to say. I have the connection, I have the pure academic research, but also the pure industrial research. And the good thing is I do not have to mix, so I don't mix my academic and my industrial research. So, they’re separated, and you have also to be able to do this, yeah? Because some scientists might not be able to distinguish between this project or a company or the science. And I can do this very well, I have to say.
Tina: Yeah, yeah, I think it's very important. But also, still, you're not only teaching, you have science going on and funding at the university as well.
Simon: Yeah, I have two research projects at the university and so I'm running a research group, but I'm also doing a little bit of teaching.
Tina: Yeah. So how did you strategically plan where to be associated so you could stay? That was your former department, or?
Simon: Yeah. So it was, of course, also goodwill of the university, that they allow me to still be employed at the university. Not every university might do this or want the researchers still employed at the university. So this is also something that you still have to give the university also something, and this is the research I am doing and the teaching I'm doing. And if the university might see that it’s valuable for them, then it would go this way, yeah.
Tina: Yeah. But I hear something, as I listen to you - is that you take it very naturally, you know? But what I can hear between the lines here is that you are a good salesperson, because you need to convince people in the end. Both when it comes to starting a company, you need to be able to convince people “join me”, you know? “Join me, give me the money, join me”. And this is, you know, something that I'm trying to convince, you know, people in science - if you want to stay, you want to have one leg in, I say “Do you know what? You have to tell them why!” Because if there is no benefit to have you there, you know, why should they keep you for this 10, 20% and pay you? So you need to sell that in, as well. And you succeeded with that, Simon!
Simon: Yeah, I suppose. Yes.
Tina: Yeah, you did! So we are going back to you as a person. Is it so that you (...) have built an ability to make yourself useful?
Simon: Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, if I can bring to the university and to my company at the same time, also in this aliquot, the benefit that they want to see, then it's okay. But if one or the other would say “well, you do not perform”, then it's not possible. So I have to perform in both words. And this comes also with consequences, of course.
Tina: Yeah, it comes with consequences. You have to perform, (...) and what is the consequence?
Simon: Yeah, you have to like your job and you have to like to work. And this is…
Tina: Would you like to share how many hours you are working?
Simon: [laughter] No.
Tina: No! [laughter] Listen carefully here, look here now. And (...) please do that, because I know when you come to me and you want to be coached and you ask me questions, you know, sometimes to have a dream job and do what you really like comes with the consequence that you love your job, which means you put many hours in just for your passion, somehow.
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. It's my passion, science was always my passion. And it will never stop, I suppose. But, of course, if you find something as a scientist which is valuable as a technology to be scaled, to be worked on, that really brings a benefit to the planet even, then this is more than you can ask for as a scientist. And then, in my case, it was the logical path to follow.
Tina: Yeah. You created your dream job, Simon. It's a little bit what I hear. And you did that by having an incredible networking ability, and you adjusted and you made yourself very useful and you took a chance when you had it. But it's also the ability to surround yourself with the right people at the right moment. This is a little bit what I can hear between the lines now, when we come shortly into the end of the podcast here. But, when you hear me wrapping up a little bit here, is there something else you would like to add? (...) To say that, you know, if you listen to me and what I have done, if people want to do what you have done, what sort of short advice would you give them?
Simon: Yeah, to be always very open, flexible and, with regards to a company, to develop yourself also - to find new roles, to inspire people, to give them advice. And also sometimes, in science, to say “okay, on this point, we follow this trajectory or this research project and then I let go”. Or if it's really useful, develop it into a technology that is useful. Yeah. Give everything to develop it and work hard on your technology and you have a good chance that you succeed with the company afterwards.
Tina: Thank you a lot, Simon! Thank you a lot for coming to the podcast and sharing your amazing career.
Simon: Thank you for the interview, Tina.
Tina: So, with that said, I'm turning my head to you guys, here now. This is PhD Career Stories and this was Simon Rittmann, CSO and also PI as sort of dual career, who shared with us his amazing career. So, if you would like to listen to more podcasts, you can go to www.phdcareerstories.com. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And, as always, never hesitate to contact us because we are also looking for people that can work for us at the podcast, because we are growing. Many people like to be interviewed and we have a lot of work behind the scenes here. So, with that said, contact us also if you know anyone that you know has an amazing story. So have a lovely day and take care!