Success Stories

Getting practice into teaching means not lecturing phone books but getting students to look for solutions

Biochemist Vladimír Velebný, whose company Contipro is one of the three most successful hyaluronic acid producers in the world, will participate in teaching the subject of biotechnological processes as part of the follow-up Master's degree in Biotechnology at the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University. Hyaluronic acid already has a huge application in cosmetics, but there is much more potential for development in the healthcare sector. Students will learn the latest news in this fast-developing field and at the same time get a glimpse under the hood of a master in turning knowledge into a successful business.

doc. RNDr. Vladimír Velebný, CSc.

graduate of the MU Faculty of Science
Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry

CEO at Contipro

A native of Litomyšl, he studied biochemistry at the Faculty of Science of Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Brno (now Masaryk University). He worked at the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University in Hradec Králové. In the spring of 1990, he started a business for the production of hyaluronic acid. His company Contipro employs over 300 people, one third of whom work in research and development. The company has more than 120 patents and 260 publications in impacted journals, with more than 15 publications added annually. The company exports its products to 70 countries around the world.

Photo: Archiv Contipro

You will join the Biotechnological Processes course in April. Will this be your first teaching experience?

Not the first one. I was a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University in Hradec Králové, where I was also a practitioner. I worked on the preparation of a new field of medical nanotechnology at the Faculty of Chemistry of the Brno University of Technology, where I also taught. So I already have some teaching experience. I try to prepare for it so that it is not just a dry lecture. I want it to be fun for the students and give them an insight into practice.

Do you think it is important for students to acquire practical skills during their studies?

That's very important. The graduates who come to us have excellent theoretical knowledge, but they are often not prepared for practice. They can write up the results and publish them in a professional journal. But this is important for science, for scientific institutions. But in practice it has to be translated into concrete products that can be sold. That is what the Czech Republic needs, high-quality new and innovative products.

What will you teach your students?

Our course will focus on medical biotechnology in fermentation production. My younger colleague Matouš Čihák is helping me with the preparation. We build on what the students have already learned, but we find it very factual. It's a bit like a phone book with an overview of how to produce what. But such knowledge is meaningful until someone starts making it differently. We want our interpretation to be interactive. So that the students themselves can think of and design a suitable process and can justify what they used and why. To be able to apply their knowledge. We'll see how it goes.

Such preparation takes a lot of time. How to motivate experts in the field to pass on their experience to future generations?

Given the level of income in many fields, it is probably not possible to motivate experts with financial rewards alone. That would be very expensive. The best thing is when you simply enjoy it, when you have something to pass on and you have the desire to pass it on. The desire to pass on experience must be in the person. Another motivation can be that by cooperating with universities and getting involved in teaching, you will find skilful future employees among the students.

Photo: Archiv Contipro

Is that the case with you?

Determine yes. Our company is located in the middle of beautiful countryside, but far away from big centres. It's not easy to attract young people here. That's why we'll be happy if we can attract students to work here, for example on their thesis. We have top-quality laboratory equipment, we have experts, we are even able to provide accommodation for students, which we have set up in former family houses. All this because we have big visions and development plans, and we need skilled young people to realise them.

Your business is research-based. Why did you decide to go this route?

The idea arose during the former totalitarian regime. I managed to work for half a year at the University of Paris-Est Créteil in France and I also went to lecture at other scientific institutions, one of which was the Institute of Leather, as it was called. There, in one part of the building, the scientists were doing basic research on collagen and in the same building they were doing applications, for example, in the manufacture of handbags. They made small batches, and they immediately tested what worked and how it worked in practice. And that's when I realised that that's not how it was in our country.

You mean in research. How was it?

Back then, in our country, if you solved a research task, you wrote a report, someone patted you on the back, gave you a few thousand crowns as a reward and filed it in a drawer. And that bothered me terribly. I was convinced that science should be done to help people, not to end up in a drawer somewhere. That was my main motive. So in February 1990, shortly after the revolution, I started my own company.

But how did you know what business you were going to be in?

I have worked in connective tissue research and development, focusing on elastin, collagen and hyaluronic acid, which are the basic three components of connective tissue. By studying the literature and patents, I have assessed that hyaluronic acid has the greatest development potential.

You founded the company in the early 1990s?

At first it was a manufacturing cooperative, because the Companies Act was adopted later. There were seven of us co-operators, each of us put in a hundred crowns as a cooperative contribution. We found a place on the square in Ústí nad Orlicí and bought the necessities.

Photo: Archiv Contipro

Without any business experiences?

I inherited my entrepreneurial spirit from my father. While working at the Faculty of Medicine, I earned money by mixing sports nutrition for bodybuilders. And I took advantage of that in the early days of the business. I knew how to make it and who to sell it to. Having a strategy is very important. We started with the production of sports nutrition; we bought a discarded kitchen mixer from the school canteen and a plastic baby bathtub and produced the nutrition mix by hand. Then we ventured into cosmetic products and once we accumulated some wealth, we switched to biotechnology. We rented laboratories in Ústí nad Orlicí and started developing acid production.

Why did you move to Dolní Dobrouč, today's company headquarters?

Originally, we tried to find suitable premises in Hradec Králové, where I lived with my family at the time, but it was expensive. When the former Unified Agricultural Cooperative in Dolní Dobrouč was for sale for a very reasonable price, we decided to buy it in 1992. I come from Litomyšl, my family is scattered around the Orlické Mountains, I knew it there.

You have managed to build a company that is one of the three most successful in the world. What are you better at than the competition?

We have a strategy. I soon realised that if we only produce hyaluronic acid as a raw material and sell it that way, we are at the beginning of the process and the added value will be limited compared to if we offer applications along with the raw material. Moreover, as producers and suppliers of raw material only, we would still face the risk of competitors with cheaper or more efficient production coming to the market. We therefore offer our customers more than just raw material.

What exactly do you provide?

We make high-quality hyaluronic acid, but at the same time we invest a significant part of our profits in research and development. We are looking for new forms of hyaluronic acid that can expand the product’s application, such as acting as drug carriers. There is little use for the acid itself in powder form, which you have to dissolve in water. I have therefore identified seven areas for further development, and these are the ones we are focusing on in our research.

Can you tell me which ones?

Gels, nanofibers, microfibers, thin films, drug carriers, beads, and foams. Examples of specific uses for nanofibers and microfibers include various wound dressings. Hyaluronan is a substance inherent to the body, so if we can bind an active ingredient to it, the body will take it up, break it down and the active ingredient will be released. The next stage of development is then applications. It can be used in wound healing after tumour removal, in ophthalmology and in many other areas.

Photo: Archiv Contipro

The substance you produce seems to have miraculous effects. What is the magic of hyaluronic acid?

It is an organizer of connective tissue, i.e. skin, but also other tissues. It can be imagined as a string of beads composed of beads of only two colours. In tissue, it has the ability to bind different substances to itself. It works as if you dip a bottle cleaning brush into noodle soup and the noodles, in this case collagen, get caught on it. Hyaluronic acid not only has the ability to organize connective tissue, but it can also attract and hold water molecules to provide tension to the skin. This is one of the reasons why it is used in cosmetics. And it is irreplaceable in this respect. All attempts to replace it have so far failed.

So how do you get it?

It is obtained by biosynthesis. This is done using bacteria from the genus, which includes the scarlet fever bacteria, that synthesize it themselves in order to deceive the infected organism. In the first few hours, a body infected with scarlet fever will not recognise that it is merely bacteria coated with hyaluronic acid. Due to this coating, the body perceives it as a substance that is its own and therefore does not trigger the defence mechanism in time.

Aren't such bacteria dangerous?

Native scarlet fever bacteria are very dangerous. The organism catches the infestation only after more than 40 hours, when the hyaluronic acid coating starts to break down and the bacteria that have multiplied in the organism during that time have a significant effect. However, we were able to get rid of these bacteria with the help of uncontrolled mutation. We have selected strains that produce hyaluronic acid but are no longer dangerous to man or beast. We've learned how to cultivate them. When these harmless bacteria create their coat of hyaluronic acid, we simply strip it out, clean it properly, and get a clean product.

Are you the only ones in the world who do this in production?

Our technology is unique in a way, especially in its cleaning. Our competitive advantage, however, lies mainly in the fact that we have set a strategy from the beginning to supply high quality hyaluronic acid. Thanks to higher prices, when cosmetic products containing this substance were considered luxury goods, we built up capital which we could then invest in research and development of new forms and applications. Our workplace is equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Each year we purchase approximately CZK 250 million worth of technology and approximately CZK 750,000 worth of information, including scientific and patent literature.

Photo: Archiv Contipro

But research and development is not just about investing in instruments and equipment. It is mainly about people, how do you manage to attract quality experts?

We have a well-proven motivation system. We offer quality housing and quality education for our employees’ children. We run a public kindergarten and elementary school located in nearby Žamberk, where native speakers teach English from the first grade. We train PhD students and give lectures at universities.

You yourself will now be giving a lecture at your alma mater on your business experience. Why did you decide to study biochemistry and why at the Faculty of Science in Brno?

My father, a chemistry and physics teacher, was a great motivator for me. He graduated from the Faculty of Education at Masaryk University. And then there were practical reasons; in short, it was easier to get to Brno from Litomyšl. The biochemistry textbook by Josef Koštíř, which I got my hands on sometime during my first year at grammar school, was probably responsible for my choice of study field. It was about life and medicine, and that really interested me.

What advice would you give to current students who want to be as successful in their careers as you are in your business?

To take an intense interest in what they want to do, what they want to pursue. And most importantly, not to stand still. To develop, to learn and to be interested in the world around them. To have at least a basic understanding of what is going on in areas related to their field so that they can collaborate with others and be a partner for discussion. In short, to live an active life, to be that vacuum cleaner of knowledge.

Thank you for the interview.
Tereza Fojtová

Translation: Kevin Roche

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