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ETH spinoff speeds discovery of new chemical catalysts

Professor Peter Chen is one of the masterminds behind Thales Technologies AG. www.volkswirtschaft-stiftung.ch

Thales Technologies AG, a university spinoff that can speed the analysis and discovery of new chemical catalysts, is positioning itself to meet the needs of the plastics and pharma industries.

This content was published on February 26, 2002 - 20:17

Founded three years ago by Paul Nelson and Prof Peter Chen, Thales Technologies is a spinoff from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's (ETH Zürich) Institute of Organic Chemistry. It has developed a proprietary methodology for screening and analyzing catalysts.

Catalysts play a critical role in the food, energy, materials and pharmaceutical industries. The reasons that scientists want to find new catalysts is to make better materials for airbags, for example, or better drugs with fewer side effects.

The company, which currently employs ten people, plans to increase staff to 20 by this time next year.

Thales will earn revenues by providing catalyst analysis, research and optimization services for makers of polymers (plastics), chemicals and pharma products. It also plans to license catalysts that it discovers by mechanism-based design and high-throughput-screening.

The young company has already discovered two new catalysts and plans to license them within the coming months.

It announced this week that it has received SFr2 million in first round funding from Venture Incubator AG.

It is the discovery aspect of the business that has the venture capital industry interested. An investment manager for one of the large pharmaceutical investment funds told Swiss Venture Update that the discovery and licensing of new chemicals has enormous upside potential, meaning that the revenues from royalties are of a scale that would generate profits for years to come.

Catalyst discovery in a nutshell

Basically, researchers feed the Thales machine, an electrospray- tandem mass spectrometer, a mixture that is known or suspected to have catalytic activity. The machine vaporizes the mixture in a chamber where the molecules are separated and where they can be subjected individually to further chemical reactions.

The different reaction products are then separated once again and run through a detector.

Thales screening system identifies what chemists call 'active species', which are the very few molecules where catalysis actually takes place. They are low-concentration species with a short lifetime, and are usually difficult to identify in the presence of much larger concentrations of inactive species. That is why in the past it could take anywhere from five to ten years to develop a new catalyst.

Thales considerably speeds up this research and development phase and can help a chemical manufacturer to 'prove' a catalyst. So that when they produce the next generation of a plastic, for example, they can synthesize only the relevant elements.

Follow the money

Venture Incubator, based in Zug, is a SFr101 million early and seed stage venture fund, one of the few funds in Switzerland that targets university management teams.

It was founded by McKinsey and the ETH Board. The money came from a veritable who's who of Swiss blue chips, including Hilti, ABB, Schindler, Sulzer, Suva and Nestlé and top Swiss finance industry firms, such as Credit Suisse, Pictet, and ZKB.

An investment vehicle as the Venture Incubator fund is seen by the likes of Hilti or Sulzer as a way to keep their fingers on the pulse of innovative technologies, participate in their growth via venture capital and to possibly expand or develop the markets for their own next-generation products and services.

by Valerie Thompson

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