Portugal may not be known as a biotech hot spot or entrepreneurial haven. But for Pedro de Noronha Pissarra, Portugal is home, and having spent 8 years studying abroad, that is where he wanted to settle. He founded his biotech start-up, producing therapeutic proteins, in 1997.
Officially Pissarra went to London in 1988 to study biotechnology at King's College. But as a member of the Portuguese national rugby team, his main goal in moving to the UK was to pursue his passion for rugby. But things do not always go as planned--a shoulder injury soon put a brake on his sporting career.
Fate may have closed one door, but she opened another. Through a new scheme set up by the Portuguese government to encourage people to study abroad, Pissarra won "a very chubby grant" in 1992 and stayed on at King's to start a PhD.
As an undergraduate, Pissarra had thought his career path might lie in agrobiotech, because "one of Portugal's strengths is in agriculture." But his PhD marked a change of direction: His project focused on metabolic engineering and "was industry oriented." That was just how Pissarra wanted it: "I always somehow knew that I wanted to start a company," he says.
He spent a year of his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. There he witnessed the frenzy surrounding the early days of U.S. biotech--already there were "funny people around the laboratory at MIT that were looking for good ideas to start businesses," he recalls.
However, returning to Portugal in March 1996 was, he remembers, "like a bucket of cold water on my head." Full of energy and enthusiasm, he realised he was overqualified--there were no biotechnology companies in Portugal at the time, and most of the pharmaceutical companies were simply manufacturing generics and did not have R&D departments. "My background was useless for the national pharma scene," he sums up.
"I had to take the decision either to go abroad or to create my own company," he remembers. Inspired by what he had seen abroad, he decided to set up on his own, and found the confidence to do so through the master's degree in science & technology management and commercialisation, a course run jointly by the Technical University of Lisbon and the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. "I would recommend that anyone with a technology background do a management degree," he says. Not only will it make you "aware of management issues that are common sense, but tend to be left at the back of your mind," it will also help you turn a good scientific idea into a business selling point.
Pissarra's own business idea came from his conversations with Portuguese pharmaceutical scientists. He realised there was a market for cheap copies of therapeutic proteins such as interferon alpha, erythropoeitin, and human growth factor--so called biogenerics--that were about to come off patent.
Once again his timing was fortuitous. In 1997, the Portuguese government created a scheme to promote collaboration between universities and industry. Pissarra, pictured at left, set up his company, Biotecnol , just in time to benefit from a ?500,000 grant. That covered 80% of the company's start-up costs, and the rest he raised by undertaking consultancy work for a local pharmaceutical company.
Next he convinced a former colleague from King's, Irishman Andy Kelly, who is now Biotecnol's chief scientific officer, to come to Portugal. "I would not have started this without Andy," says Pissarra. Kelly followed his PhD in molecular biology with a postdoc at King's. "Most of the scientific work developed at Biotecnol was carried out initially by him and then by his team," says Pissarra.
With their joint expertise, they started cloning proteins. But they quickly realised that without a customer their company would not last long. So, "I knew I had to get back to Europe and find partners," Pissarra says. An opportunity arose to work on the biogenerics operation for production of a hepatitis C treatment with a company called Vida-Rhein, a joint venture between German-Dutch company Rhein Biotech and a local Portuguese enterprise. In 1999, Biotecnol won the contract and raised their first million Euro. "It was a big achievement at the time," he says.
But the euphoria was short lived. Although the Vida-Rhein contract confirmed that his business idea was viable, Biotecnol "lacked critical mass and structure." It is also difficult for an inexperienced company to build up its credibility in the business world, he points out.
2001 was a bad year. Biotecnol fell out with its investors, who wanted a quick return after just 1 year--an impossible expectation in biotech. It was also the year in which the international biotech bubble burst. At the time, Pissarra felt that investors preferred putting their money into sexy technology, rather than a viable business plan.
With no more investors in sight, Pissara and his colleagues had no choice but to undertake a management buyout. To survive, and carry on paying salaries, the company changed its business model and went back to providing consultancy services.
It was what Pissarra refers to as a Darwinist phase of business development--when natural selection sorts weak companies from strong. "We had to adapt and learn quickly," he says. The experience taught him a lot. Most importantly, "although we did not have cash," he says, "we always believed we were going to make it."
As a result, he believes, Biotecnol acquired a healthy dose of maturity, and he got to know the company better. "We found out we had a strong foundation," he says, adding: "By then, people that stayed with the company were those who were worth it."
Pissarra's success in keeping his business afloat surprised many. Few people believed that such a small company could survive the downturn. "When I went to international conferences people were saying: 'You are still there!' " he says. Nonetheless, it was the people Pissarra met through networking at such meetings that helped the company "gain experience and credibility."
And having survived, the company began to thrive. Pissarra struck a deal with the Pharmis Group just 3 months after entering into negotiations. The result was not only investment, but also know-how in registration and marketing, and a presence in Brazil and Spain.
Today, Biotechnol has 29 employees and is still growing. At first, recruitment proved tricky, as local graduates tended to have an academic frame of mind, not adapted to working in industry. Now, however, the company is considered to be the largest employer of highly specialised people who, otherwise, would have gone, or stayed, abroad. The company is onto its third business model, offering a mix of services and product development. It now has three additional contracts with multinationals and has started developing its own products and filing for patents.
Starting your own business "is not for the faint hearted," he sums up. In the last few years, Pissarra admits to "more grey hair," but more importantly, "I have developed a hell of a pragmatic attitude towards life." He remains philosophical. "Today we have an experienced management that has seen a lot, but I know that we have not seen it all," he says.
"I don't regret for a minute the decision I took in 1996," Pissarra asserts. "What is most rewarding is that although initially we were young people with almost no experience, we had many valuable resources other than financial ? ambition, very strong will, incredible persistence, and tough discipline."