Author profile picture

One is developing molecular glues to better treat difficult-to-treat cancers in the future. The other plans to save a gigaton of CO2 emissions with iron fuel by 2050. What binds them together is that they are dealing with two of the biggest societal challenges of our time.

Also, the companies they work for both won a Gerard & Anton Award last year and are housed in a building owned by Twice, an incubator that provides high-tech start-ups with office and lab space and mentoring.

Loes Stevers, senior scientist at Ambagon Therapeutics, and Mark Verhagen, CEO at RIFT, meet at Catalyst on the Eindhoven University of Technology Campus for a conversation about motivation, lightning-fast growth and the opportunities Twice offers companies in the start-up process.


What began as the Eindhoven University of Technology student team, SOLID, has now grown into a spin-off, Renewable Iron Fuel Technology (RIFT). The start-up is developing a circular iron fuel for heavy industry as an alternative to gas.

Ambagon Therapeutics

This Dutch-American company is developing‘molecular glue’ therapies. The therapies target previously undrugged or difficult to drug disordered proteins, – with an initial focus on oncology and opportunity to expand to other diseases.

Mark: “First, I would actually like to know: what is a molecular glue?”

Loes: “Normally, molecules in a drug bind to a particular protein, causing something to happen to the protein. We make molecules that strengthen naturally occurring interactions between two proteins, producing a particular effect on a cell. Like, for example, rendering ‘bad’ proteins inactive. That’s what we call molecular glue. This way we can slow the tumor growth of various, hard-to-treat cancers, such as lung cancer or leukemia. We’re trying to apply that trick with different proteins to target different diseases.”

Mark: “Is the glue injected?”

Loes: “Well, yes, the glue is the drug. How that gets into the body depends on the drug you make. It may be injected, but ideally can be given as a tablet. We are trying to find molecules that have the effect I just described on proteins and cells. Right now, we are in the early stages of drug development. It could be several more syears before these molecules may get to patients and help them. What about you? I have to say that when I think of an iron fuel plant, I can’t really picture it, either.”

Mark: “For the energy transition, there are two options: hydrogen and electricity. But in many cases, neither an electricity cable nor a hydrogen grid has enough capacity for heavy industry, although that sector accounts for 52 percent of all CO2 emissions. Iron fuel has more capacity and can help companies in heavy industry become more sustainable. We do this by extracting energy from the combustion of iron powder. This releases a lot of heat that can be used for steam production in industry. We can convert the combustion product, rust powder, back into metal powder using renewable energy.”

Loes: “And how far along are you with that?”

Mark: “We are testing a production plant in Arnhem, where we make the fuel, and a plant in Helmond, where we burn it. Last summer we demonstrated that the most critical parts of our technology work and won a fellowship from Breakthrough Energy, Bill Gates’ organization. We now have another 1.5 years to complete our prototype. In 2024, the first commercial implementation should begin. When we started 2.5 years ago, we went back to basics. We wanted to look at our technology through a commercial lens to choose the right direction. You’ll probably recognize that: in the technical field, there are so many turns you can take. It’s hard to determine what the right turn is.”

“In the technical field, there are so many turns you can take. It’s hard to determine what the right turn is.”

Mark Verhagen

Loes: “Yes, that is sometimes difficult as a scientist. You prefer to know everything about everything. With every experiment, you solve one question and three new ones are added. In doing so, you always have to keep in mind: how do I get to the end goal that our investors want to see and that patients can benefit from? You can no longer, as in an academic lab, think: this is interesting; I’m going to continue with this.”

Mark: “No, then in 100 years there still won’t be a product. Setting the right priorities is the biggest challenge. You don’t have a chance to make the same mistake two or three times, because then you will have burned through your money. The bigger RIFT gets, the more I have to leave behind. It’s a matter of gathering the right people around you. Twice can really help with that; they have a huge network.”

Loes: “Does that usually work out, setting priorities?”

Mark (laughs): “Actually, you are constantly running from one problem to another. It’s a learning process, but it gets better and better. You might ask yourself: is it my priority to free up an hour for an interview when there are 100 things I still have to do in the office today? But Twice is always flexible and thoughtful. So: yes, it is my priority to be here. Twice gives companies the opportunity to start low key.”

“With every experiment, you solve one question and three new ones are added.”

Loes Stevers

Loes: “Yes, that is very nice about Twice: you can start small, but there is enough room to grow big. Three years ago, we were all here down on our knees laying a floor and putting together Ikea furniture. Now we have five offices and three labs. Of course, I have a different position in the company than you do. But I have been involved with Ambagon since the beginning so I know why certain choices were made.”

Mark: What do you love about working at a start-up?

Loes: “Before this, I worked at a large pharmaceutical company. There I noticed that everything moved more slowly. At a start-up, choices are made very quickly. As a scientist, I can influence the direction we take as a company. If I find something in the literature that seems interesting, there is room to do something with it. Plus, everyone on our team wants to contribute something to society. We are working on something that we know is going to make healthcare better. That’s the biggest reason I do this work.”

Mark: “I was visiting friends this weekend who have small children. Then I realized all the more: we have to put our shoulders to the wheel on challenges like the energy transition. Otherwise, we will pass the problem on to the next generation. If no one dares to take that risk, it will never be solved. If you can build a team around you with people who all share that same drive, it’s almost magical.”

Marc Kuipers, directeur bij Twice

Over Twice

Twice wants to strengthen the climate for hightech start-ups in the Brainport region. The incubator does this by, among other things, renting out offices and lab spaces and helping with advice and financing. In addition, the young entrepreneurs can also expect intensive guidance, helping them to turn their idea or technology into a mature company.

“We help entrepreneurs grow their businesses in a good and healthy way. One way we do this is by opening up our network. For example, we have an arrangement with accounting firm EY who have a special department for high-tech start-ups,” says Marc Kuipers.

Kuipers has been a director at Twice since February last year. Before that, he worked in commercial real estate, but he was looking for a position with a greater social interest. “I absolutely found that at Twice. I love seeing high-tech initiatives emerge and grow. It’s very nice to be able to contribute to the success of young companies as a start-up incubator.”
Start-ups basically enter into a rental contract for seven years with a four months notice period. Using a growth model, they move through Twice’s six buildings.
New entrepreneurs with an idea can start at The Gate, a counter they can use for free. Then the start-up can develop further in the Alpha hub, where the first prototype and pilots are created. Once the first sales are made, it can move on to Twinning. βèta, and Catalyst are there for the final phase, where the company is supported on its way to maturity. Kuipers: “The best part is when we see the companies grow through our buildings. From an idea, to a prototype, to initial sales and then a mature company.”


This story is the result of a collaboration between Twice and our editorial team. Innovation Origins is an independent journalism platform that carefully chooses its partners and only cooperates with companies and institutions that share our mission: spreading the story of innovation. This way we can offer our readers valuable stories that are created according to journalistic guidelines. Want to know more about how Innovation Origins works with other companies? Click here