4Gene: Fragrances for Consumer Goods and Industry

The biotech startup 4Gene develops and produces aromas. One of the advantages provided by what are known as aroma glucosides is that they can be activated at a specific point in time. The startup calls this ‘flavor on demand.’ The founding team introduces themselves and their product in our interview.

Munich Startup: Who are you and what do you do? Please introduce yourselves!

4Gene: Heimo Adamski, 63, CEO
Commercial assistant in computer science, many years of experience in sales & marketing in corporations and startups, business development, organizational and strategic corporate development.

Dr. Thilo Fischer, 56, Director Application Development
Biochemist, former professor at TU Wien and LMU Munich (biochemistry and physiology of plants), winner of PRIZE 2010 and the INVENTUM Patent Award 2012 for Austria, author of 60 peer-reviewed publications and holder of numerous patents.

Dr. Fong-Chin Huang, 51, Director Research & Development
Molecular biologist with pharmaceutical biology as her area of expertise. She conducts research in the field of the chemical & enzymatic synthesis of natural substances, specifically the biosynthesis of glycosylated plant compounds. She has been involved in successful patent applications and has multiple years of experience in industry.

Tobias Vallon, 41, Director Operations
Graduate biologist (technically oriented), long-term employee of the Institute of Biochemical Engineering at the University of Stuttgart, process development with various microbial systems from lab to pilot scale (300 liters), collaborative experience with BASF SE and Evonik Industries AG, biotechnological production of fine chemicals.

A working group had already come up with the idea behind the invention back in 2013 at the Associate Professorship of Biotechnology of Natural Products of the Technical University of Munich under the direction of Professor Dr. Wilfried Schwab. Back then, the proof of principle was worked out during voluntary after-hours research. In 2015, the team was completed and public funding was raised to develop the technology full-time. Dr. Huang and Dr. Fischer had already known each other for many years through the Technical University of Munich. At the time that public funding was applied for in 2015, Mr. Vallon and Mr. Adamski joined the team.

Munich Startup: What problem does your startup solve?

4Gene: When working with aroma molecules, the manufacturers of consumer products in the cosmetic and food market segments face four significant challenges:

  1. the volatility of aromas
  2. the ability to activate aromas
  3. the availability of natural aroma glucosides
  4. their stability when stored

Our solution provides answers to all four of these challenges.

Volatility – Our technology platform allows us to use biotechnological processes to change the state of aroma molecules from volatile aromas to bound, non-volatile aromas. This is done with a glycosidic bond, which is why the final product is called an aroma glucoside.

Stability – The aroma glucosides that we produce are available in different forms. Storing and processing them, for example, is much easier in powder form. We currently believe that these inactive aroma glucosides can be stored about 40 times longer.

Activation – Aroma glucosides can be transformed from their non-volatile state back into a volatile state with what are known as triggers. From this point in time, people are then able to smell them again.

The technology platform with all of its biotechnological processes is suitable for both natural aromas and chemical synthetic aromas. The current preference, however, is to work with natural aromas.

For the first time, 4Gene is making natural aroma glucosides available in large quantities and at an economical price for the development of consumer goods.

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

4Gene: That’s true, it’s been attempted for quite some time. Many companies produce long-lasting fragrances and activatable fragrances with various processes. Until now, this was made possible by adding additional chemical substances or by encapsulating aromas. Some have also grappled with the production of aroma glucosides, but have yet to produce any relevant results in research projects.

4Gene: “The biggest challenge was getting focused as a startup”

Munich Startup: What have been your three biggest challenges so far?

4Gene: The first challenge was definitely the acquisition of funding during our time at TU Munich. The funding (thanks to EXIST) enabled us to complete our proof of principle and our proof of concept.

The necessary move out of the university, negotiating a license agreement with the university, finding office and lab space and getting investors on board to finance lab equipment was also a major challenge.

Despite everything, the challenge that beat all challenges was getting focused as a startup. Aromas are used in nearly all spheres of life, which means they are also processed in nearly all spheres of life. The spectrum starts with the use of glucosides as ingredients in food, in cosmetics, in industrial applications and in personal and home care products. From aromatherapy tiles to cut-out switches for machines; from lipstick to pizza aroma – everything was possible. Focusing on specifically selected target groups and especially selecting these target groups with all their advantages and disadvantages was certainly the most difficult, but also the most important decision to date.

Munich Startup: How is business going?

4Gene: Due to a non-disclosure contract that we have in place with large consumer goods manufacturers and other partners, we unfortunately can’t reveal any details.

This much can be said: New ingredients in consumer goods have a long lead time until they finally become part of a product that’s for sale on a supermarket shelf. We’re currently working on several projects that are very advanced in some areas.

For short-term success and motivation in the team, we’ve developed some products that we sell through partners and in our own online shop. First and foremost, of course, the focus is on our mask spray due to the current situation in this country.

“As a founding team, things aren’t going to work without a certain willingness to take risks”

Munich Startup: What do you think about Munich as a startup location?

4Gene: For us as 4Gene, Munich/Freising is ideal as a location. Employees with the qualifications that we need can be found quite easily due to the degree programs that are offered in Freising/Weihenstephan.

For employees from other parts of Germany and abroad, however, the living expenses and rent in Munich are a major drawback when it comes to answering the question as to whether you should move to Munich to work for a startup or not. Especially when the job, as is often the case with us, can only be performed on-site in a lab instead of from any location.

The Munich universities and all other institutions that support the startup scene can generally be rated as good based on our experience. Of course things can always be improved, but compared to the information we heard at EXIST events with other teams from across Germany, it’s okay.

Munich Startup: Risk or security?

4Gene: As a founding team, things aren’t going to work without a certain willingness to take risks. Taking risks, however, doesn’t mean making decisions without preparing, but rather taking deliberate and targeted action that is goal oriented. With every decision that gets you closer to a goal and is a success, confidence grows and, with it, the certainty of doing what is right and what is important. One approach is to ask “why” about every decision that needs to be made: Why are we doing this? Why is it good for our customers? Why can it only be done this way and not differently? At least in our team at 4Gene, asking “why” has worked very well and helped us make the right decisions.