African biotech entrepreneurs put themselves on the map
Altis Biologics competes with the world’s leading biotech players at a fraction of the cost. I caught up with [Endeavor Entrepreneurs] Nuno Pires and Nic Duneas, the bright minds behind South Africa’s innovative bone tissue provider.
What exactly does Altis Biologics do?
We are a regenerative medicine company focused on developing and bringing regenerative biological products to market, with an emphasis on orthopedic and dental tissue regeneration. Indications include severe fractures, non-healing bone fractures and and spinal fusion.
Do you regard your company as a pioneer in this field?
We hold international patent protection for our novel high BMP extraction process. Our technology was first proven using human donor bone, but human donor bone is scarce. Our technology is licensed in SA to a human tissue bank, that Altis helped set up, and which has since become a leading tissue bank in the Southern hemisphere. Our human derived BMP product is also the very first injectable BMP-based product in the world. Our Altis-OBM range of porcine derived BMP products are also injectable, which makes it ideal for operating room conditions, as well as harsh conditions like military field applications.
Is the company in a positive state of growth?
Surgeons have been using the product with fantastic results. We recently received approval from One Military Hospital for the reimbursement of the product, and last week Discovery approved the reimbursement of our dental/periodontal range. We also just moved our facility from a very small and cramped area at the Tshwane University of Technology, to a larger facility at The Innovation Hub (TIH).
What do you regard as the biggest success of Altis Biologics? The biggest challenge?
Success: Successfully developing Altis OBM, and seeing it work in patients.
Challenge: Raising capital in SA for a medical tech company like us. Our competitors spent $600m and $200m to get to market, and to date we have managed to get to where we are with around $2m!
What role does Altis Biologics play in the continent’s development?
We are a world leader in our technologies, and have developed technologies/products that provide African surgeons an affordable equivalent to what our competitors charge $5,000/device. Because of this price tag, the technologies offered by our competitors are only essentially available in first world countries like the USA and Europe. We change that.
How would you describe your personal journey with the company?
The challenge of being a bio entrepreneur is SA has been tough, but somehow we have always managed to overcome the barriers that we have been faced with. There have been many hardships, but there have also been many successes, many of which looked impossible to achieve. Some people regard us as a “flagship” of SA biotech entrepreneurship and admire our achievements, and that alone makes us extremely proud of what we have achieved.
What role has Endeavor played in the company’s development? How has the Mentor Capital Program helped you?
Endeavor has linked us up with people who understand our difficulties and are able to provide solid EXPERT advice. They have also given us access to highly motivated MBA students who provide a professional but different perspective to our company. Our greatest shortfall is that we ran out of funds just as we joined Endeavor, as there is no doubt that if we had the financial resources to travel we would have been able to conclude an international deal by now. Endeavor plugs you in to the people you would not normally gain access to and opens doors that would normally be locked to us.
Do you consider yourself a born entrepreneur?
I don’t think I would use the words born entrepreneur. It would be more accurate in my case to say, a “self-made entrepreneur.” I guess in my case it’s a combination of personality, education, and solid work experience all coming together under the personal ambition to create something myself.
Do you have any expansion plans for the future?
Yes, we are in the middle of a capital raise which we hope will bring in sufficient funds for us to gain international approvals as the two largest target markets are the USA and Europe. We may therefore also need to set up operations in those two continents. So the future still holds many challenges for us, but with the right support (like Endeavor), we have no doubt we can succeed.
If you could advise the entrepreneurs of tomorrow one thing, what would it be?
In terms of business strategy: If there is an obstacle that is preventing your progress, then always remember if you can’t go through it, then you can always go around it, over it, or under it, or just change the obstacle (change your strategy).
In terms of brokering an international deal: When you have positive momentum, throw all your efforts behind closing the deal NOW! Momentum disappears over time, as do deals that aren’t concluded when things are looking good. Don’t forget that ‘awe’ only lasts so long, so capitalise on it. People also move on so all your efforts can be wiped out in a single day with the departure of a critical champion.
In terms of funding: Always raise more capital than you need (if you can), and always start raising capital at least 1 year before you run out. SA is just too small if you have high ambitions. So start looking internationally as soon as you are up and going.