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Jaume Amat

CEO of Specific Pig

Degree in Technical Engineering in Telecommunications from La Salle. He joined the biotechnology at Archivel Technologies. He was general manager of Archivel Farma, during which time the company carried out phase I trials on the Ruti vaccine for latent tuberculosis, and participated in the creation of Laboratorios Argos. He created Bioemprèn from which he continues to promote ideas and business projects in the biotechnology arena in Catalonia. He has been CEO of Specific Pig and Rob Surgical Systems and a member of the Board of Directors at VCN Biosciences and Manremyc.

Start-up Specific Pig is the first European company of offer comprehensive breeding, marketing and biomedical research with miniature pigs as an animal model. Researchers use pigs as an experimental model for their physiological, physical and behavioral similarities with the human species, but the drawbacks include size and associated costs. From this market need Jaume Amat detected in his time at Archivel Farma, he explains in the following interview, Specific Pig has been working on a project to create 35-kilo miniature pigs with a highly specific genetic makeup to facilitate handling and housing and cut food and drug costs. To conclude this R&D&i project, the Catalan company has opened a second round of funding for €100,000 they hope to close in late 2013.

How did you come up with the idea for Specific Pig, a company for breeding and biomedical research with miniature pigs, with partners Bioemprèn, Semen Cardona and the IRTA?

In 2006, when I was at Archivel Farma, we began to use miniature pigs as an experimental model for tuberculosis and saw that there were very few choices. That idea stuck with me and when we started Bioemprèn in late 2009, one of the projects I put on the table was to validate this idea: the significance of pigs in biomedical research and the needs and opportunities in the sector. After one year working on a market study, and when it was clear I wanted to create a center to provide service for biotechnology and biomedicine companies, I needed to learn more about the pig sector. I went to speak with various Catalan companies. Maria Àngels Rial of Semen Cardona, who is an entrepreneur, understood the importance of creating miniature pigs with specific characteristics for healthcare and traceability and signed on to the project.

Why did you choose El Prat de Llobregat (Barcelona)?

We visited many farms around Catalonia, but we wanted to be as close as possible to the research centers and biomedical companies. In some towns, municipal regulations prohibited us from having a breeding area, which is considered a farm. Finally, the opportunity arose to use the facilities in El Prat de Llobregat, a privileged location that belonged to the IRTA. It took a year to finalize the agreement, because the Eurovegas project was being negotiated at the time and we didn’t know if it would affect that building. Finally, we reached a long-term lease agreement and the IRTA joined the company’s equity holders.

Are you a farm and laboratory for third parties?

Yes, and that is what makes us pioneers in Europe. A center that integrates breeding facilities and biomedical research specializing in pig models. The only other companies offering miniature pigs for research are one in Denmark, which doesn’t offer the same transversal service, and various CROs (Contract Research Organizations) that carry out research and offer pig models but don’t specialize in this area.

So, you have the whole market to yourselves.

We’re in the early stages of the project but we’re constantly receiving encouraging input that we haven’t gone crazy! We already have five projects on our waiting list, both to start using the experimental surgical facility and for only the animal models, including companies that want to validate medical devices and surgical techniques, Catalan hospitals and research centers. We’re also negotiating with an Israeli company that wants to work with us on liver-transplant research and learned about us through the information published on the Biocat website regarding the company’s launch in June.

It is true that pigs are becoming more widely accepted as a good experimental model?

I think so, and I hope we are contributing to this. More than just acceptance, it’s also a matter of critical mass because when you carry out a study you often want to be able to reference others and if these have been done with other animal models they aren’t comparable. Some of the hurdles in incorporating pig models have been that good animals aren’t available or are very expensive and most centers don’t have the space to house animals of this size. We want to universalize miniature pigs, and if we have a good model, good facilities, know-how, and can help researchers switch from other animal models to pigs, it can go well.

The milestone you’re working towards now, then, is to create and produce a miniature pig fitting market demands as soon as possible.

Yes, we are working to develop our own strain of miniature pig that we expect to have in three years. As these animals are the result of specific crossbreeding and protected by know-how, they aren’t within everyone’s reach. While we work on our model, which will be called Specipig, we offer conventional pigs (Landrace and Large-White) for research. I’m sure that if we can offer a quality miniature pig at a reasonable price, conventional pigs will disappear as experimental models.

Are there any other projects on the horizon?

We have the full potential of the project to progressively roll out. Now we offer conventional pigs with high healthcare status and understand the needs of the sector, in terms of animal breeding. Regarding services, we offer animal facilities and experimental surgical facilities, but we aren’t yet ready to lead protocols, so we hope to be able to ratchet up this portfolio of services and contribute increasingly more value and experience. If all goes well, the center in El Prat will allow us grow modularly without taking on too much risk.

After more than 10 years in the sector, participating directly in various start-ups and managing various models of collaboration between the public and private sectors, which model would you recommend to entrepreneurs?

There are two things to take into account: what is ideally done with technology and what people want. I always say, perhaps because I have seen it first hand, that sometimes there is no one better that the researcher to lead development of a technology. We have success stories, like that of Antonio Parente for example, who founded Lipotec and came from the science side of things.

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