Q&A  | 

Biotech innovator Maribel Berges: “pay attention to the details and success will come”

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Maribel Berges is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Affirma Biotech S. L. and a mentor for The Collider. As a multi-time entrepreneur with extensive experience in the biotech space, she has witnessed the importance of tech-transfer and start-up support programmes first hand, committing considerable time to helping her counterparts get their ideas off the ground. For Maribel, the recent growth of such initiatives in Spain presents a unique opportunity to innovators—and with her new venture, she too is seizing the moment. We talked to Maribel to discuss her recent projects and uncover some insights on launching a biotech startup, as well as lessons she’s learned from her active entrepreneurial career.

You’re the CEO of Affirma Biotech SL. Could you explain what this entails and what your responsibilities are?

Well, Affirma Biotech is a very young company. We were joined by another partner one year ago, and we’ve just closed our first round of angel investment. Right now, I’m the only full-time person in the company, and I’m in charge of both funding and the initial technical steps. We’re working closely with suppliers, and hopefully next year we’ll be able to obtain more capital and grants and expand into a bigger team. When that happens, I’ll be in charge of strategy, funding, and business development.

How did you wind up in your current role?

Basically, I wanted to start a company in the area of anti-infectives. I realised that this is a problem that is going to grow in the coming years. During the pandemic I was looking for technologies, and finally found what I thought was a good opportunity. I then decided to start the company right away. 

How have your previous positions/experiences influenced your current role?

I’ve been in the biotech space for about 20 years now. I was the CEO of another start-up for one year and am still cooperating with them. They needed strategic and financial organisation, so I did some restructuring. Previously, I had been the CFO at Janus Development. This company acquired products from academia and biotech, developing them until proof of concept and licensing them to external partners. We did a lot of projects, and I was in charge of business development and financing.

Could you explain or share your strategic vision and experience in biotech innovation?

Biotech has grown significantly in Spain in recent years and I think we should protect our innovations. I’m not talking exclusively about patents—I’m also talking about financing these innovations properly so they can compete in the global environment. We’ve been doing a great job through agents in the system like The Collider, CaixaImpulse, and the tech transfer offices at universities. We’ve given a lot of educational opportunities to potential entrepreneurs, but I think we also need to give them better financial resources so they can compete in the international environment. 

Still, we have a very good opportunity because there’s strong scientific research being done, there are interesting entrepreneurial projects creating new companies, and we can take advantage of licensing.

Could you share your opinion on scientific entrepreneurship support programmes?

I’m involved in several programmes, and I was formerly in a tech transfer office. I am the academic director of CaixaImpulse, and I collaborate with The Collider. I think we are doing a very necessary task by giving researchers the framework to either license their technologies or incorporate their companies, and I’m really happy with the quality of education we’ve given them. The result isn’t necessarily immediate, but the task is very important.

Could you talk about your experience as a mentor at The Collider? How and why did you get involved, and why do you think initiatives like The Collider are important?

I got involved with The Collider through a former alumni of mine who knew I would appreciate the programme. I had a first meeting, and they asked me if I could be a mentor. Since then, my experience with the programme has been excellent. The organisation is very upright, and the environment is good. The one thing I’ve noticed is that digital medicine programmes and pure biotech programmes have a very particular set of needs and objectives. We’re in a small space when it comes to digital health programmes, because they don’t always have as much sales potential. In some cases, they’re not entirely aligned with the objectives of The Collider. Nevertheless, we still give them feedback, some opportunities to learn, and some productive relationships. Overall, it’s been a very positive experience.

What is the importance of tech transfer? What opportunities does it present to new start-ups?

Tech transfer is a pillar of innovation and is absolutely necessary. Tech transfer is difficult because you’re trying to communicate between two worlds—academia and business—that use totally different languages, have different objectives, and often different priorities. Nevertheless, tech transfer is a pillar of building an innovative economy. It’s traditionally been very relevant in the UK, the United States, Germany, and other countries where the culture of innovation is well established. Here in Spain, we’ve made enormous advances in tech transfer in the last 20 years through universities and supportive institutions like The Collider, among others. We still have a lot to do, but we are doing our job as well as we can.

What has been the most rewarding lesson you’ve learned in your career?

There have been several, but the last thing I’ve learned is very important when you start a company: making small changes drives us toward success, but it may take a long time to see the impact of those changes. We need to be confident that we are taking the right actions in order to be successful with our projects. We need to follow our plans as established, and be patient with the results.

What’s a quote that you live and/or work by?

It’s a quote from Churchill: ‘Success is working from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm’.

What professional advice did you wish you knew when you started?

Aim big from the beginning, but understand that you have to start from the small details. There are so many things that we may not realise will be important for the future, and we might underestimate the details. But if you’re detail-oriented with every part of the project, it truly shows through in the end result.