Writer: Maegan Snyder
In 2012, Swissaustral, a small international biotech group headquartered in Switzerland that has research facilities in Chile, decided to open a branch in the United States. When looking for a place to expand, company leaders wanted to be sure to position the company not only where its market was present but also where they could find a wealth of resources to help the company grow. Their final decision? Athens, Ga.
“There are many reasons why we decided to come to Georgia,” said Felipe Sarmiento, business development manager and director of Swissaustral USA and a Georgia alumnus. “Athens is fairly close to Atlanta, which offers innovation, collaboration and business opportunities in biotechnology and life science areas, and it has the busiest and most efficient airport in the world—an excellent gateway for travels and the trading of goods.”
But perhaps the biggest selling point, according to Sarmiento, was the proximity to UGA.
Swissaustral develops high-performance enzymes from microorganisms isolated from extreme environments, such as glaciers, volcanoes, acid lagoons and the like for their application in research and industry. Because of their unique characteristics, these “extremophilic” enzymes are suitable to perform optimally under the harsh conditions of current industrial processes in the pulp and paper, textile, laundry and pharmaceutical industries, for example.
“The university is well-known in our area of science and boasts numerous opportunities for collaboration across different departments, colleges and institutions, including the Georgia BioBusiness Center (GBBC), the Bioexpression and Fermentation Facility and the Georgia Genomics Facility,” he said. “UGA also has the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). We didn’t know it then, but the SBDC would be one of the major factors in the successful expansion of our company.”
Sarmiento’s first interaction with the SBDC was in graduate school at UGA through a technology commercialization course offered by Cem Oruc, director of commercialization assistance at the SBDC, and Stefan Schulze, associate director of the GBBC. It was then that he learned about the SBDC’s FastTrac TechVenture Program—a seven-week program offered in collaboration with the Kauffman Foundation and Emory University Office of Technology Transfer designed to give technology and science-based entrepreneurs a proven framework and network of connections to help grow ideas into innovations. The program is largely sponsored by the Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
“The main goal of the program is to train technology- or science-based entrepreneurs in business fundamentals,” Oruc said. “Those who come to this program are scientists, not business people. They walk in with an idea and want to see if there is a business opportunity.”
The TechVenture program teaches participants how to evaluate technology for its business potential as well as how to protect intellectual property, secure financing, formulate a business plan and more. Like other program participants, Sarmiento was able to take the tools and resources he acquired in the program and apply them to developing Swissaustral’s United States branch.
“Since attending the program, we have been able to set up and start running the company at a business level, generate collaboration agreements, create a potential customer base and begin marketing our brand in America,” Sarmiento said. “The TechVenture program helped me to achieve these goals by giving me part of the tools, knowledge and guidance I needed for this endeavor.”
Participants in the program also have the opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs throughout the program, and facilitators provide ongoing business-coaching sessions and one-on-one assistance.
“We have a really impressive group of facilitators and people supporting the program,” Oruc said. “I think this is a great example of collaboration between two leading universities in the state and is a testament to the dozens of people working together to create the next generation of technology startups in Georgia.”
So far Sarmiento is the only full-time employee in the United States, but he expects to hire more students and bring in one or two employees in the coming year. Worldwide, Swissautral has about 30 full-time employees, graduate students and post docs.
Oruc and the SBDC continue to support Sarmiento as Swissaustral grows, with the U.S. office hopefully turning a profit soon.
“The SBDC is not just for helping you create or start your business, they also help you as you grow,” Sarmiento said. “Starting a company in the United States is not easy, and there are so many things you have to do and consider. We are expected to grow and create jobs here. Having the resources of the SBDC made our jobs easier.”
In the past four years, SBDC has worked with more than 120 researchers and technology entrepreneurs representing more than 50 companies and startups through the FastTrac TechVenture program.