September 17, 2019
Will the innovations of the Turku-based Montisera cure alcoholism, Parkinson’s disease, lower urinary tract ailments and prostate cancer in the future? Will we have new Finnish export products made of spruce sawdust? The company further processes and commercialises some of the most interesting bioactive compounds of university research, and Kolster ensures that a high degree of refinement is also achieved in the IP portfolio.
Founded in 2012, Montisera is a privately owned company that develops bioactive molecules and pharmaceutical products of the future. It sifts out the gems of Finnish university research and contributes to ensuring that the most promising master’s theses, doctoral dissertations and other research results do not remain unexploited.
“I founded Montisera because, as a geneticist and biologist, I was really annoyed by the fact that promising bioactive compounds of the future are lying on the shelves of universities gathering dust. This means that the patient will not get a new, effective cancer medicine because nobody will take the projects forward”, says Heikki Vuorikoski, founder and Business Development Director of Montisera, and wonders where the other similar companies are hiding in Finland.Picture by Matias Ulfves/Kasvu Open
Along the way, there have been large mountains (monti in Latin) and rapids (sera) to cross – and all of them have been overcome.
The small drug development company has achieved major results in an amazingly short time. It has already further processed three new bioactive molecules to a stage where their efficacy in the treatment of alcoholism, Parkinson’s disease, lower urinary tract ailments and prostate cancer has been demonstrated in animal testing. The company is currently seeking additional funding and is moving on to clinical trials on humans.
When the time is ripe, the patent-protected results of the development work will be licensed or sold further. That requires a strong patent portfolio that enables global business.
The patent cooperation with Kolster began before Montisera was even founded. Prior to that, serial entrepreneur Heikki Vuorikoski had set up six other companies in the bioindustry. All of them were testing houses serving the pharmaceutical industry that later merged with the company Pharmatest Services. Even before this, Vuorikoski’s company Orthotopics was invited to join the Future Biorefinery joint project of Tekes (now Business Finland) and Forest Cluster Ltd to study the health effects of forest industry side streams. Orthotopics began testing forest extracts while also testing bone, cancer and lower urinary tract drugs in other research projects.
In 2011, Orthotopics made an innovation announcement to the Forest Cluster: the hemicellulose it had extracted from spruce sawdust seemed to be effective in treating lower urinary tract ailments. It also had a positive effect on the test animals with prostate cancer in another research project. The innovation board of the Forest Cluster decided to apply for a patent for the invention. Vuorikoski was tasked with the patent application for “his own invention”.
“Kolster has a good reputation in the bioindustry. I received recommendations and I was also aware of several patent applications for the pharmaceutical industry and life sciences drawn up at Kolster. The office was close to my business, so choosing an IP partner was easy”, Heikki Vuorikoski describes the early stages of cooperation.
In the end, none of the forestry companies or research institutes within the Forest Cluster wanted to actively promote the further development of the semi-finished pharmaceutical product since drug development was not part of their core activities. Vuorikoski began negotiating purchasing the IP rights of the invention for a new company he had founded, Montisera.
“In 2015, Montisera acquired all the IP rights to the patent application and invention in this research project of Business Finland and the Forest Cluster originally funded by the state, and in which I am one of the original inventors. In addition, in the spring of 2016, we purchased a knotwood extraction technology from UPM that complements the conifer sawdust extraction method that we use. Kolster helped us review the IP due diligence package and made sure that all transfers of patent rights to Montisera were done correctly.”
The functional spruce hot water extract is now called Qusitol®. Montisera was granted the first Finnish patent for its invention in 2016. As a continuation, the company has initiated an extensive set of applications: in the European Patent Office, the United States, Canada, Russia, China, India and Japan. Of these, Finland, Russia and Japan are already over the finish line. More patent property is expected in the patent portfolio in the near future.
“Marjut from Kolster drafted us a bold patent strategy. The patent’s scope of protection covers all woody plants on the globe whose extracts are used to prevent or treat pelvic diseases such as prostate cancer, lower urinary tract ailments and many other pelvic pains and disorders in humans, livestock and domestic animals. The area of application is very extensive − our patents are ‘bold and beautiful’”, Vuorikoski describes.
According to him, the scope of protection is not tied to one method of production or a single plant species, but instead to a specific sugar content and a very extensive therapeutic area. The protection strategy has succeeded better than expected.
Alongside the Qusitol® hot water extract invention, Montisera has also promoted a synthetic pharmaceutical compound for the treatment of alcoholism and Parkinson’s disease it purchased from a Finnish researcher in 2014.
“The researcher had already applied for a patent for his drug invention – and that patent application had also been drawn up at Kolster. We bought the patent application for Montisera and have continued the development work and extended the patent protection to new countries”, Vuorikoski says.
The drug invention has already been granted patents in the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia and China. The scope of protection of this patent is also quite comprehensive: the compound affecting the central nervous system, the patent also covers Alzheimer’s disease and various addiction disorders, such as gambling addiction, as potential areas of application. It is also a so-called molecule patent for which further areas of application may be found in the future.
“I just heard from our Russian partner that Montisera was listed on a Top 10 list in an international drug development report as one of the key developers of a medication for alcoholism. We have medically proven efficacy in animal testing and a patent covering the entire northern hemisphere”, Vuorikoski says with pride.
Montisera has registered the trademark MedicalGate® for its business idea. It describes a medical gateway through which bioactive molecules for further development, carefully selected by a panel of experts, can pass. Montisera’s goal is not just to create inventions itself, but to buy innovations for commercialisation. It has a global network for further development and testing: universities, science companies, laboratories and contract research institutes. The operating model has proved effective.
“We purchase all testing and expert services from our partners around the globe. For instance, the medication for alcoholism was synthesised in China, and its safety has been tested in Finland, England and the US”, Vuorikoski says by way of example.
For a small company, Montisera has a very significant patent portfolio. From the outset, the strategy has been for all IP to be owned by the parent company, Montisera, and for the company to provide its future partners with licences to use them. Vuorikoski says that a patent for the company’s synthetic pharmaceutical compound, for example, enables licensing by application.
“We can grant licences for the same pharmaceutical compound for different applications in different countries: for example, a licence for Parkinson’s medication in Spain and a licence for medication for alcoholism to a US partner – for a limited period of time. We want to keep the doors open in different directions. I also recently discussed these models with Kolster’s licensing lawyers.”
Montisera is a myth buster in Finnish drug development. The industry is considered difficult and obtaining funding hard, if not impossible, due to long product development paths. However, Montisera has come a long way – with its own sweat capital and the help of foreign private equity investment firms.
“We have only spent less than EUR 2 million, with all costs and salaries, on the very remarkable intellectual capital that Montisera now has. All three promising pharmaceutical compounds are progressing to clinical trials on humans and have strong patent protection”, Vuorikoski says.
According to Vuorikoski, the common mantra is that it is not possible to develop drugs in Finland, we do not know how to commercialise, it is terribly difficult to obtain patents in the pharmaceutical industry, and finding new drug molecules is almost impossible. Montisera, which started with the support of family and friends, has succeeded in what is challenging even for the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. The biggest challenge along the way has been funding.
Foreign private equity investment firms have believed in Montisera. According to Vuorikoski, they are friends of Finnish top research. The first foreign angel investor, “impressed in fifteen minutes”, a doctor of pharmacy, has brought along a network of other investors. Finnish angel investors have joined attracted by the foreign investors, but most of the funding comes from abroad.
Montisera’s goal is to develop export products with a high degree of processing for Finland from spruce sawdust and the Qusitol® hot water extract in the near future. That is why, last year, the subsidiary Montinutra was established for the production of extracts: there is a seven-figure plant investment underway. A pilot-scale production facility, Woodstream™, i.e. a local biorefinery, is scheduled to be built in Kuhmo during 2020. Funding for the plant investment is currently being sought from domestic and foreign investors. Montinutra’s production is planned to start late 2020.
The mission is to create a whole new industry in Finland from spruce sawdust, forest industry waste and side streams between the food and pharmaceutical industries.
Vuorikoski presents powdery sawdust extract that he encourages to taste: Qusitol®. Future licensing partners can process it further into functional finished products for consumers, such as food and natural cosmetics. There are also many opportunities outside the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetics industries. That is why another spruce extract product family has already been developed alongside Qusitol®: Sprucegum™ for technochemical use as an effective lubricant, for example.
“Qusitol® and Sprucegum™ are ethical alternatives from pure Finnish nature to guar gum, which is imported mainly from India and Pakistan. According to tests carried out by Kirsi Mikkonen, Academy Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki, Qusitol® is functionally an even better emulsifier and binder in food and cosmetics than guar gum”, Vuorikoski says.
Vuorikoski describes Montisera and Montinutra as circular bioeconomy, value industry and cascade economy companies. The cascade economy is a term launched by the EU for prioritising the use of raw materials for greater resource efficiency: wood is first made into products with a high degree of processing, recycled and only lastly used for energy.
“Is it wise to burn spruce sawdust for energy, if Qusitol® and Sprucegum™ can replace guar gum imported from the other side of the globe?”, Vuorikoski asks.
Montinutra intends to take its share from the sawmill material flow and process a functional raw material for the next one in the chain to manufacture more valuable products − as a textbook example of the cascade model.
“Tens of euros per kilo is forked out for ethical wood extract produced from a side stream, while about 80 cents is paid for Finland’s prized export product, spruce pulp. It is possible for Finns to use forest industry waste to produce bioactive products that are tens, hundreds or even thousands of times more valuable than pulp, and also conquer the world with them”, Vuorikoski describes the enormous potential for new exports products with a high degree of processing.
Heikki Vuorikoski and Jouni Hakanen, member of the Montisera Board of Directors, explore the side streams of a partner sawmill.
In products with a high degree of processing, the significance of the brand cannot be underestimated.
“We sell our Sprucegum™ and Qusitol® products to major brand owners who manufacture end products for consumers. That is why our ethical, ecological and medically tested product and brand are of great importance in this processing chain”, Vuorikoski says.
The production company Montinutra’s Board of Directors has been joined by Marika Ingman, an influencer known from the food industry who is well aware of the importance of brands in consumer products. She is helping Montinutra with brand building and the commercialisation of the Sprucegum™ and Qusitol® product families. The vision is to generate new business in Finland, achieving a total turnover of EUR 1 billion by 2024, in line with the ecosystem and growth engine strategies of Sitra and Business Finland.
“To support this vision, we have initiated a large number of trademark registrations through Kolster. The most important ones are Sprucegum™ and the Finnish equivalent Kuusikumi™ that we have established in use, and Qusitol®, for which registration has already been granted. Trademarks and their classifications are a whole new world for us, and their significance has now unfolded with the help of Koster’s trademark professionals and our board member Marika.”
According to Vuorikoski, small companies like Montisera may not necessarily realise the high business and brand value of trademarks.
“In the context of funding, foreign valuators put a surprisingly high emphasis on our trademarks. In consumer products, brand value by far overrides science and research – their commercial value should not be underestimated.”
There is now buzz around the Sprucegum™ and Qusitol® hot water extracts. The interest of major partners has been aroused.
“When we start receiving royalties and licence fees, we will acquire more promising bioactive compounds off university shelves and bring them to Kolster to grow in value.”
Montisera will continue to operate purely as an IP portfolio management company responsible for the protection, commercialisation and licensing of innovations, based in Turku. The further development of promising semi-finished pharmaceutical products will be carried out by the new subsidiary Montipharma established in autumn 2019. The subsidiary Montinutra established in 2018 will focus on the production of Sprucegum™ and Qusitol® extracts at the Kuhmo production facility.
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