Univercells signed this week for the second-largest round of funding for a Belgian biotech company in 2020. The specialist in vaccine production from Gosselies, near Charleroi, refueled 50 million euros with a wide range of investors. This includes well-known names such as the AB InBev family de Spoelberch, the entrepreneur Christian Dumolin and the federal and Walloon investment companies FPIM and SRIW.
But the most famous lender was undoubtedly Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder had invested 30 million euros in Univercells since 2016. There is now a tranche of 15 million on top.
Despite this substantial investment, Gates has not yet traveled to Charleroi for a surprise visit, says Hugues Bultot, the CEO of Univercells, laughing. Maybe that will happen in the future. According to our contacts, we are one of ten companies that personally follow Bill and Melinda Gates.
Together with the engineer José Castillo, Bultot founded Univercells in 2013. Barely a year after its start, the Walloon biotech company Gates was able to entice Gates with its micro-factories, a technology that makes it possible to make vaccines on a large scale in a much smaller production environment. This allows Univercells to make as many vaccines as major players in the sector, such as GSK or Sanofi, but at a much lower price.
I think it is important that production is located with us, so that more people from the region can get started.
Before founding Univercells, 54-year-old Bultot had already started three biotech companies with Kitozyme, Artelis and Masthercell. De Carolo nevertheless followed an atypical course for a biotech entrepreneur. After studying law, economics and criminology, Bultot ended up in the banking world in the mid-1990s.
‘I started working for Synergi, the Walloon risk subsidiary of Generale Bank,’ says Bultot. ‘It was there that I first came into contact with biotech and decided to become an entrepreneur.’
MastherCell, one of the biotech companies that built Bultot into a success story, was acquired by the American Catalent for 315 million dollars at the beginning of this year. When that deal was closed, MastherCell had some 500 employees, about the same number as Univercells today. This is not common in the biotech sector, which often involves small research teams. ‘I think it is important that the production is located with us, so that more people can work in our region,’ says Bultot.
‘I grew up in Charleroi during the decline of the steel industry,’ says the entrepreneur. ‘On the way to school I saw the steel mills closing one by one. My father was a banker for the Municipal Credit of Charleroi. He saw a huge number of his clients lose their jobs. That is why it was a dream for me to bring factories, industry and innovation to Charleroi again. ‘
‘It took a long time before I could make that dream come true, but that now seems to be working. Wallonia has long been in a kind of shock, but a psychological turnaround is underway. We are rediscovering our entrepreneurial spirit and we notice that we can be just as ambitious as Flanders. ‘ The entrepreneur does not hide this ambition. “The next step for Univercells is to become as big and successful as Galapagos.”