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Alfons Nonell

CEO and founder of Mind the Byte

Pharmacist Alfons Nonell decided that the back room wasn’t the place for him and his curiosity led him to experiment with cloud technology before it was common in his sector. Four years ago, seeing the future potential of the cloud, he started up Mind the Byte at the Barcelona Science Park. This bioinformatics company specializing in computer-aided drug design has six employees creating products and providing services with pay-per-use SaaS technology.

Named after Mayan gods, these products and services for computer-aided drug design use technology to give small companies the same options as large ones. Software as a service and the cloud have helped position Mind the Byte in a sector devoted to saving time and, thus, money in drug development. Alfons Nonell is at the helm of this innovative company that aims to make access to drugs that care, alleviate and cure us faster, cheaper and more universal. 

What is Mind the Byte?

We’re a bioinformatics company created four years ago focusing on computer-aided drug design that offers both products and SaaS technology (software as a service). This means clients don’t have to purchase and maintain licenses; they can acquire them on demand. It is a highly customer-focused philosophy, in which users only pay for what they need. 

How does a pharmacist end up becoming an entrepreneur?

I studied pharmacy and did my thesis on chemical theory and then a post-doc in computer-aided drug design. At that time, when there wasn’t any money in it, I developed ideas of how to apply these concepts. The truth is, while I was studying I was sure I wanted to go into research and had never even considered starting a company. I finished in 2003 and entrepreneurship seemed very far off. But during the post-doc I did start to have ideas that I wanted to move forward with. But I didn’t even know what a business plan was when I started out.

Who helped you in the very beginning?

When I started up the company, I got help from Barcelona Activa, ACCIÓ and the BioEmprenedorXXI award promoted by Biocat, "la Caixa" and Barcelona Activa. These are great tools most people don’t even know are available. The rest I learned as I went and from some missteps. 

What was your goal in creating Mind the Byte?

I was sure I wanted a tool for researchers to share information. But it was also clear that first we needed money, so I offered services by myself, working from home. In the meantime, I worked in two directions: I was developing this tool while making the first prototype with Amazon Web Services and in 2013 we took the decisive step of going onto the cloud in order to set ourselves apart from the rest. From there, we started offering cloud platform services and then offered our SaaS more consciously and Amazon recognized us as a partner.

You were pioneers in using Amazon Web Services in this sector...

I tried it for fun in 2008 as a solution to a calculation problem, but in 2012 we went to sell a service to a client and while we were explaining our working methods we realized it would be interesting to work that way. Everyone thought it would be the future in two or three years and we wanted to give it a try. 

What does it mean to be a partner of an industry giant like Amazon?

Anyone can use these tools but, additionally, we’ve been recognized and, in fact, there are only five of us in the world in this sector with the quality seal. This means they’ve looked at what we’re doing, they provide immediate support, customer service whenever we need it, and access to systems architects, among other things. And now we’ve just launched a tool, Imols, set up and developed on this platform. Without them it would be very difficult to do some of the things we do. They provide a web server with a load balancer (it’s always ready and depending on the number of users, turns on more or fewer servers). The sky is the limit with cloud technology. 

When we talk about computer-aided drug design, are we talking about democratizing drug design?

The goal of computer-aided design in itself isn't so much to democratize as to cut costs and optimize processes. We’re talking about developments that take between 10 and 15 years and from €400 millions to €1.5 billions to reach the market. What computer-aided design says is not to do the test with 40,000 molecules, like you had to in the past, but to use this funnel to rationalize the process: we take 500 and give you their toxicity. Imagine what it’s like to synthesize, validate and test molecules only to find out months later that they are toxic… Computer-aided design, which will make up 20% of R&D in the pharmaceutical industry this year, will shave between one and three years off the time to market. 

However, your most distinctive trait is the cloud. What advantages does it have?

The cloud is estimated to cut technology costs between 50% and 65% because you no longer have to invest in machines, licenses, maintenance and installation staff or wait because of technical problems… Plus, it gives you access to many different programs at once and, as we create simple tools, you don’t need any specific training. We are democratizing the cloud: we offer customized service and aim to break the economic barrier in accessing technology. 

Who benefits most from this?

Academia and small companies, which can go beyond what they previously thought possible. Although it can also be used by large companies. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to develop new drugs so any reduction in costs is welcome.

You recently went on a trade mission to South Korea and Japan. What were your goals?

We had previously been on a prospecting trip to BioKorea and saw that it is a very green market with incredible potential for growth, so we want to be there when it explodes. Based on that, we reached an agreement with Pharmaphenix to use their offices as a meeting point. In February, we were more focused on scouting for clients and boosting confidence in South Korea, while in Japan we were looking to market our SaaS. They know software as a service well but don’t apply it as we do to drug discovery.

What do you need, as a company, to make the most of the possibilities in this sector?

We need funding to develop more, sell and grow. There are six of us now but we have to be able to open up to other countries in order to position the company as a benchmark in computer-aided drug design with SaaS and the scientific cloud. So far, our main clients are here at home, although we have also worked with some from Ireland and the United States. We also take advantage of European projects like Translink, in which we work with partners in countries like France and Sweden, to gain contacts and know-how. And there is also InKemia, which acquired a 5% stake in the company some time back.

The third edition of your yearly SciCloud conference is coming up.

Yes, on 14 April (9 o’clock) we’re kicking off this scientific cloud conference. We first promoted it in 2013 when we became Amazon partners to talk about the cloud in general with an Amazon Web Services engineer. After that we held a second edition focusing on security and privacy with Microsoft Spain and a patent lawyer, among other speakers. This year we’re focusing on big data and health. After the controversy surrounding the Ministry of Health’s VISC+ program, we decided to invite the head of the program, Josep M. Argimon, who will share the panel discussion with Alexandre Perera, of the CREB, and Arcadi Navarro, head of the European Genome-Phenome Archive. Beforehand, there will be two keynote sessions with Guillem Serra, head of the Health and Pharma sector at BDigital, and Karma Peiró, a journalist specializing in information and communication technology. 

Who can attend?

Anyone. We’re at the Barcelona Science Park and we mainly focus on this type of audience but the conferences are very educational. We try to make them entertaining so that people see the need for linking these things.

In a dream world, what is the final aim for Mind the Byte?

It’s a bit philosophical but one of the reasons I started the company was to help make drugs accessible to everyone. I don’t understand how 2,000 kilometers to the south of us people are dying because they can't get the antibiotics they need. It’s something that is hard for me to stomach. It may seem utopic but if we can simplify the drug design process, we’ll help democratize them. Our tools make it possible to design good molecules at affordable prices and that will end up having an impact on society: bringing drugs to more people in less time. 

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