Laborsituation Foto: DexLeChem GmbH
Sonja Jost reflects for a moment. Should she say what people want to hear? Or should she be honest and tell the truth? What was it like when she finally achieved her breakthrough? She can still remember the day, of course, „but to be honest, I wasn‘t particularly overjoyed at that point.“ Not that she wouldn‘t have liked to enjoy her accomplishment. „It‘s just that the long road to that moment was full of so much work and so many setbacks. It was only when I found out I was going to receive the Exist stipend that I was able to rejoice. Only then did everything become a bit more real for me,“ she says. That was five years ago.
Interestingly, Jost never intended to start a company. „It was never a dream of mine,“ she insists. But what else was this charismatic woman with the long, dark hair supposed to do with her groundbreaking research findings? So she founded DexLeChem, a spin-off of the cluster of excellence known as UniCat at Berlin‘s Technische Universität (TU). „We are a true child of City West,“ says Jost. Today, close contact between the high-tech company and the university continues to be extremely important.
The name DexLeChem comes from dexter laevus and means right left. Which is what the company is all about: molecules sometimes are the image and mirror image of one another. “In principle, it‘s much like with our own hands,“ explains the TU graduate. The problem with such molecules, however, is that they can have highly contrasting effects: for example, while one molecule can heal tuberculosis, its mirror image can cause blindness. Hence, in pharmaceutical drug manufacturing, a lot depends on producing the desired variant only, a capability which is considered to be the Holy Grail in chemistry.
This can be achieved with the help of precious-metal catalysts. Roughly 90 % of all chemical products go through a catalytic phase. As the entrepreneur explains, „most materials don‘t just react with each other.“ The problem is that the needed catalysts are extremely expensive and, up until now, could only be used once. Until now.
Jost, an engineer, first figured out how these catalysts work in water. She separated the resulting product by means of an oil phase. After that, the catalyst remains in the water phase and is used again directly. Until now, this was not possible.
Today, her procedure is revolutionizing drug manufacturing: in fact, it leads to a less expensive form of manufacturing that is also environmentally friendlier, hence truly sustainable. However, Jost explains, „without an internal ally who was able to provide opportunities and who believed in the innovation, nothing at all would have happened.“ Indeed, it is a difficult task to change well-established production processes. Luckily, Jost found an ally at Lonza, a Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer, which carried out a successful initial reference project using the new procedure. These days, Sonja Jost doesn‘t need to reflect anymore on what to say. She‘s going her own way.