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Asper Biotech and Estonian biotechnology sector

Asper Biotech and Estonian biotechnology sector

Publish date: 2015-01-26

Estonia is one of the eastern Europe leading countries in the field of biotechnology with a strong research facilities. Eneli Oitmaa, the CEO of Estonian company Asper Biotech, describes a market of genetic testing and its future as well as depicts bright and dark sides of Estonian biotechnology area.

Tags: biotechnology , estonia , market , Asper Biotech , Eneli Oitmaa

Is Estonian biotechnology market demanding for such companies as Asper Biotech? 

Eneli Oitmaa: Estonian biotechnology market is rather small, we have something like 10 major companies, that all are still SMEs. Then there are a number of start-ups that are still struggling to get their products to the market. Asper Biotech has been there since 1999, so it is one of the mature companies focusing primarily for export. As for the local market, we are in Estonia only 1.2 million people and the services (genetic testing of rare disorders) we offer are still targeted for a very small fraction of the population, so there are clear limitations for the business volume. Nevertheless the market has been growing due to the new tests we have launched the past years in the area of oncogenetics and reproductive medicine. We see a great potential also due to the increased awareness that Estonian Genome Project is creating amongst governmental organizations and general public. 

What is your main target market? Is it Europe or USA?

Eneli Oitmaa: We have recurring customers from 45 different countries and the countries with most of the business are Estonia, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands. As for the near future we plan to target mostly European countries, however due to the unique tests especially in the ophthalmology area, we will see samples coming from all over the world.

What type of genetic testing analyses do you offer?

Eneli Oitmaa: Our activities are combination of medical diagnostics and research work. As for research we usually develop custom DNA tests for the project and perform screening of large number of samples. Main activities at Asper Biotech however are in medical genetics area, where we offer DNA analysis along with medical interpretation. This enables the doctors who are not professional geneticists to understand the meaning of the results and apply them in their everyday practice. Our portfolio includes more than 100 different DNA tests primarily in three clinical areas - eye diseases, oncology and reproductive medicine. In eye disease portfolio tests are mainly for diagnostics. In oncology we are looking for mutations that indicate the risk of getting cancer and we also have tests for pharmacogenetics to find the most suitable drug candidate. In reprogenetics we have a number of tests for prenatal and newborn screenings, diagnostics of infertility and carrier status testing.

Do you think that the market of genetic testing will be expanding in the nearest years?

Eneli Oitmaa: Absolutely, we are confident that this is going to be an integral part of our everyday lives. There is though a lot of science to be done to verify the links between genetics and different phenotypes. Being a diagnostic laboratory means that we are quite conservative on the validity of the science, but on a monthly basis we see new great science that we can turn into useful applications. Aside from the diagnostics of inherited conditions, we soon have enough (validated) knowledge to predict genetic risks for multifactorial diseases. Personalized treatments that are based on patients DNA profiles are starting to become a standard. And then there are a lot of other applications coming such as personalized diet programs, better training plans, etc. So we see a great future for Asper Biotech as a company offering high quality service as well as for all people from the streets who could live a better life due to the more informative decisions they can make based on genetics.

What are the company’s plans for the future? Focusing on further development of genetic testing or addition of other services?

Eneli Oitmaa: First of all we will keep offering great service for the customers who have get used to with our high standards. Aside from the careful laboratory work, customers should be able to rely on us making the decisions when a genetic variant is validated enough to be clinically relevant. We will continue accumulating expertise in the area of eye diseases, oncology as well as in reproductive medicine. Main innovation that is coming from Asper Biotech is not anymore linked with specific laboratory technology rather with greatly improved processes leading to shortened timeframes, better interpretations and presentation of the results. We are going to develop comprehensive services that are not only based on single technology rather concentrate on getting the answers to professionals that they could immediately apply in their activities. This sometimes means combining multiple technologies, sometimes even go beyond DNA level.

Has the Estonian biotechnology sector changed significantly during all these years when Asper Biotech is on the market?

Eneli Oitmaa: In the early years of Asper Biotech biotechnology included a lot of hype, entrepreneurs as well as investors were keen on establishing new companies with challenging business plans. If we look at the landscape of biotechnology companies today then the business plans are less ambitious and more focused on getting the products out to the market. There are a number of digital healthcare startups that are working on personalized medicine and e-health. General problem still is the same that there are not enough entrepreneurs with experience in biotech or healthcare. Fortunately some of the entrepreneurs and CEOs are starting new companies and they are way more experiences and networked than years ago.

Are companies from eastern Europe, such as Asper Biotech competitive for their western counterparts?

Eneli Oitmaa: We have never considered ourselves as an eastern-European company. We have been from the beginning an European company and have been always considered to be the one also by our customers. If we had to position ourselves then we have been a Nordic company which always has further supported the high quality imago of Asper Biotech. As for the competition though, the costs of running a business in Estonia are a bit lower than doing that in Germany, so we do have our advantage in cost structure. We have never positioned ourselves to be the cheapest possible option for our customers. As for the downside sometimes it has been more difficult for us to reach out to big hospitals in western European countries due to the regulatory/political reasons. There are other examples of companies in Baltics, Poland or Czech Republic who have been successful in their specific niches and sometimes even way better than companies from US or Western-Europe.

by Maciej Smolarz

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