Glimpse behind scenes at Startup Labs Bahrenfeld
Vaccines are the top priority in the latest phase of the fight against coronavirus. Yet, the development of effective drugs is also progressing and pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, has applied for emergency approval of Paxlovid in the United States. Meanwhile, Astrazeneca's Evusheld medication has been approved. And the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) is testing thousands of active substances for their suitability as Covid-19 medication. DESY's X-ray light source, PETRA III, is the ideal tool for investigating the virus and potential medicine on the molecular level. X-Spectrum is among the developers of X-ray cameras that document this research process. The start-up is one of several benefiting from the newly-opened Startup Labs Bahrenfeld. Hamburg News took a look behind the scenes.
X-Spectrum's highly efficient X-ray cameras
As a DESY spin-off, X-Spectrum specialises in detectors for X-ray experiments in large-scale research facilities and laboratories. Its photon counting detector "Lambda" enables a frame rate of up to 24,000 frames per second and is ideally suited for use at the PETRA III synchrotron which is hailed as one of the world's best storage ring X-ray radiation sources. The brilliant, intense X-ray light generated there allows researchers from all corners of the globe to delve deeper into a given object. "Ordinary cameras cannot be used in this environment. The X-rays would simply go through the device," said Julian Becker, CEO of X-Spectrum. The detection efficiency of his X-ray cameras reaches the current "theoretical maximum". "So it doesn't get any better. But the application also requires enormous computing power for data analysis. That's why we offer not only the camera itself, but a complete system that includes a control PC with installed software, ensuring seamless integration into the most common synchrotron beamline control systems," he pointed out.
Startup Labs Bahrenfeld - innovation centre for deep-tech start-ups
Founded in 2014 by five DESY employees in detector development, X-Spectrum now has 25 staff. "We are an international team embedded in one of the world's leading research centres and work with industrial partners and scientists from many major research centres around the world," said Becker. The company's seat is pivotal to its growth. X-Spectrum was one of eight start-ups to move into Startup Labs Bahrenfeld, opened by DESY as an innovation centre for deep-tech startups, in late September. "The idea is to support the transfer from science to industry and to create an environment in which business ideas from research can grow," said Dr Arik Willner, Chief Technology Officer at DESY. The plans foresees making a total of 2,200 square metres of floor space divided into offices, laboratories and workshops available. However, only 140 square metres are currently available and Becker is pleased to be among the first tenants. He noted: "We need a very specialised infrastructure. Working with X-rays requires lead-reinforced walls. Constructing such an environment ourselves would be expensive and extremely time-consuming."
Dinaqor - gene therapy-based medicine
The lack of highl-specialised laboratory space elsewhere in Hamburg used to be a problem for Alexandra Rhoden, Head of Development at Dinaqor, who said: "We are a platform company specialising in gene therapy-based medicine that focuses on developing novel solutions for patients with severe, inherited forms of heart disease." The start-up, a spin-off from the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), has developed technology to produce miniaturised artificial heart tissue. "Finding suitable laboratories in Hamburg with the appropriate structural requirements is difficult," said Rhoden. Thanks to a five-year lease in Bahrenfeld, Dinaqor can now concentrate on developing the technology. This should lead to more efficient gene therapies that ultimately improve heart functions and perhaps even a cure. "Gene therapy is still in its infancy. So we have to check every step carefully. We use artificial heart tissue for that purpose." Rhoden and her colleagues obtain that from stem cells: "We reprogramme a patient's skin cells back into stem cells, which we can then differentiate into heart cells to produce artificial heart tissue that shows real beating behaviour," she said. The scientists can draw important conclusions from the contraction pattern. "We map the the genetic disease and track any progress with medication or gene therapy."
Cycle - time distribution and synchronisation systems
Another DESY spin-off, Cycle GmbH, is developing products in extremely small time units - femtoseconds - and enormously high precision devices to enable ultrafast experiments, e.g., at the European XFEL or other large research infrastructures. The company develops fibre lasers in the femtosecond range and precision devices that ensure that all components of a research facility such as the XFEL are tuned to each other with an accuracy of a few femtoseconds (a quadrillionth of a second). Essentially, the work involves highly complex time distribution and synchronisation systems. Professor Franz Kärtner, founder of Cycle GmbH, has developed this technology since the early 2000s: "I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the time and we founded our first university spin-off. But the time was not yet ripe for our technology." Things are different now, the physicist said: "We want to grow vigorously during the next five years." The growth course is being fuelled by a major contract from the European Space Agency (ESA), for whose ground stations Cycle is currently developing the next generation of laser-based low-noise microwave transmission. Founded in 2015, the start-up now has 20 employees and supplies complete precision time distribution systems to customers in Europe, the United States, China and Japan.