CryoCloud: From idea to application in 18 months
Written by Alex Cloherty: an interview with Dr. Robert Englmeier, CEO of CryoCloud
Photo taken by: Ben Engel
In 2021, Robert Englmeier attended the BCF BioBusiness Summer School. Within a few months, he had started building his own business.
From joining the BioBusiness Summer School, to founding a biotech startup
Dr. Robert Englmeier’s background is in biochemistry, and it was a PhD in cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) that brought him from Munich to the Netherlands in 2016. In 2021, in the final months of his PhD, Robert enrolled in the BCF BioBusiness Summer School to explore his post-doctoral options within the life sciences industry.
Of attending the BioBusiness Summer School, Robert says:
“Seeing people sharing their stories of how they transformed their ideas into businesses, and now create products and drugs that eventually help others was extremely motivating. I hadn’t personally seen that process before attending the BioBusiness Summer School. Usually in academia you work on a scientific project for years, and at the end you write a paper. Then you see that your results help other people in terms of citations. Actually hearing from entrepreneurs who developed new technologies or therapeutics to directly help patients was inspiring.”
Robert also remembers that he was impressed by the wide range of career paths that were presented at the BioBusiness Summer School. “The possibilities ranged from IP law to drug development to design of medical devices, and roles ranged from business developers to scientists. That was really cool to see the breadth of options within the life sciences industry,” he recalls.
Within a month of attending the BioBusiness Summer School, Robert was ready to turn his own idea into a business. In July 2021, he reached out to his future co-founder, Ilja Gubins, and pitched his idea. “Fortunately, Ilja said yes and wanted to start working on it together,” Robert recounts. They joined the UtrechtInc incubator programme and together with a third co-founder, Boy Persoon, got to work building CryoCloud. The trio graduated from the UtrechtInc incubator programme in June 2022, and currently, as of spring 2023, they have already developed a working cloud application with more than 600 hours of use time, and which is actively helping researchers to determine protein structures.
Building a business from scratch
When asked to describe the field of cryo-electron microscopy, Robert will tell you the following:
“Cryo-electron microscopy is a Nobel prize winning technique that is revolutionizing structure-based drug design and provides mechanistic insights into how proteins work. But it’s still very exclusive: there are high set-up costs attached to it, and often it is still inefficient. The throughput is relatively low and a lot of steps require manual intervention.”
From his time as a PhD student, Robert was very familiar indeed with the challenges in the field of CryoEM. In particular, he recalls a period during his PhD at which he was overwhelmed with projects, and kept running into problems with data analysis. “I would run into errors writing scripts & converting data formats, or waiting in for data analysis results computing for days. And that was so frustrating, to get blocked by technicalities. I wanted to solve protein structures, to do the biology, and I had to struggle with making software packages interoperable & wait in queues on our server.”
It's a frustration shared by many CryoEM scientists. Currently, data analysis is time consuming and expensive, and often requires not only extensive computational infrastructure and experienced IT staff to manage it, but also months of analysis time by highly specialized scientists. This means that there’s a considerable entry barrier for scientists who want to start using CryoEM – and often significant frustrations for scientists who already use it.
Robert remembers, “At one point, I had a 30-hour session battling with a microscope, living off only vending machine food and catching naps in an office chair, and I had just had enough. But that gave me an idea! With CryoCloud, we are now developing a cloud-based application for analysis of CryoEM data that is instantly accessible and aims to automate all steps. It allows scientists to get started with data analysis right away, so that they can determine protein structures in a way that is faster and more efficient than ever before. We want scientists to be able to focus on the biology, and remove the current requirement for intimate computational knowledge.”
Now, biologists who are trying to achieve a protein structure can just log in to CryoCloud with an account, upload their datasets, and then start running computational jobs at the click of a button. “And we take care of launching the cloud infrastructure in the back that supports their data analysis,” Robert explains. “Ultimately where we want to go, is to automate as many computational steps as possible, so that users can get valuable biological insights simply at the click of the button.”
Life as the CEO of a startup
Looking back, Robert has learned a lot through his role as CEO of a startup company. Nowadays, he’s taking on many of the diverse roles that he heard about in the BioBusiness Summer School back in 2021. “It’s not just product development – I’m also doing fundraising, sales, legal, administration, and many other things. And especially in the early stage that we are at, I have to adapt very quickly and jump between different tasks.”
Although taking on all of these new tasks is surely a challenge, Robert still finds the experience exciting and motivating. “You need to think about having impact and providing value, and not just as a hollow phrase, but in terms of making a product that helps your clients so much that they’re willing to actually pay for it. And with the limited resources that we have as a small startup, you have to be fast and adapt all the time while you’re trying to get to that point.”
Having a great team also helps. “I really like working with people, and I’m extremely happy with the team, and proud of what we already achieved,” Robert says. “But I also enjoy talking to clients, partners, potential investors, lawyers, and scientists. It allows me to share my ideas with such a wide range of people, and I get a lot of valuable feedback from discussing with these diverse professionals. It’s also just a lot of fun to interact with people from such different backgrounds.”
But what motivates Robert most is getting positive feedback from clients. “It’s so rewarding to see that what we have developed really helps scientists to do their work! That was the whole motivation to develop CryoCloud: to help scientists in solving protein structures faster and with less effort, and make their lives easier.”
What’s coming next
CryoEM is a quickly developing field, which has big implications for both basic biology and drug development. Robert hopes to continue to see the power of CryoEM being harnessed for structure-based drug development – and he plans to make sure that CryoCloud can support scientists in using CryoEM to develop better drugs, faster: “Recently, we’ve seen exciting developments with AI-based tools for protein structure prediction & drug design. It is critical to make these tools easy & accessible, so that they cannot only be applied by a few, but by a wide range of scientists on projects where they can have the biggest impact. And that’s our goal with CryoCloud: to democratize CryoEM & empower scientists with powerful hardware and streamlined data analysis.”
As the CEO of a 2-year-old startup company, Robert is putting his all into his business. And his passion for cryoEM is clear! “For now, my personal mission is the same as CryoCloud: to unlock the full potential of cryo-EM and contribute to major breakthroughs in life sciences & drug development.
Click here to learn more about CryoCloud, and here to find out more about this year’s edition of the BioBusiness School.