Prokaria Ltd was founded under the name of IceTherm in June
1998 and its operations started in October that year. It is
a spin-off from a long-term research project on microorganisms
living in geysers and hot springs (thermophiles) by the Technological
Institute of Iceland, TII, (a non-profit governmental research
institute) and the University of Iceland. This work had been
partially carried out by the university and TII in EC funded
projects. The company was initially funded with seed money from
individuals. In 2000, the company embarked on a first round
of venture capital funding and raised 15 million Euros, which
should cover the cost of research for the next three years.
The company is based on two decades of research on thermophiles
headed by Dr Jakob Kristjánsson, currently the president
and CSO of Prokaria. The founders include Dr Kristjánsson,
an expert on thermophiles and Professor of Biotechnology at
the University of Iceland, Dr Kári Stefánsson,
CEO of deCODE Genetics and Hannes Smárason MBA, the Executive
Vice President of deCODE Genetics. As of June 1st 2001 Prokaria
had 30 employees and recently moved into new 1000m², fully
equipped laboratories in Reykjavik.
The completion of the human genome project and increased environmental
concerns are just two of the reasons why the demand for new
enzymes, drugs and other products is increasing rapidly. Prokaria
uses heat-tolerant (thermophilic) bacteria isolated from Iceland's
unique geothermal resources to search for novel genes. Prokaria's
products are aimed at three main markets: the biotechnology/genomics
industry for research and diagnostics, food/agricultural/chemical
companies and the pharmaceuticals industry.
Thermostable proteins have a wide range of applications because
they are more robust than other proteins and are active in extreme
conditions. To name an example, Prokaria plans to use heat tolerant
proteins as processing aid for feed and food production and
to convert biomass into biofuels. Due to their thermal stability
it will be possible to increase production rates and to kill
undesirable bacteria without destroying the heat tolerant enzyme.
Similarly, heat tolerant enzymes will play a major role in the
chemical industry because of their higher specificity, and the
increased speed and efficiency of biocatalysis in chemical reactions.
Thermophilic bacteria in hot springs are the oldest life forms
on earth and therefore contain a number of essential protein
families, which are found in many living organisms from simple
pathogenic bacteria to humans. As protein structures can be
highly conserved, Prokaria is using the protein diversity of
hot spring bacteria to elucidate the essential structural elements
found in many important drug targets. The knowledge gained from
the resulting structural models can aid and speed up the long
and difficult process of modern drug design and development.
Prokaria's existence is based on the sustainable use and conservation
of nature, in particular microbial biodiversity in geothermal
areas, and on the development of environmentally sound technology.
They seek to minimise the impact of field operations and to
optimise their environmental performance. Prokaria has already
identified 3500 strains of thermophilic bacteria and aim to
identify 1,600 new strains over the next five years. They now
plan to make information on their activities accessible to the
public via the Internet.
Keys to Success
Several key factors give Prokaria a strong competitive position.
Firstly, Prokaria has developed a discovery pipeline that can
provide a wide selection of diverse proteins belonging to gene
families with applications in biotechnology, chemistry, agricultural
and pharmaceutical industries. This discovery pipeline also
serves as a powerful tool for drug discovery and design. The
underlying methods will from part of the novel technologies
and intellectual property in Prokaria's growing patent portfolio.
By studying diverse candidate proteins from hot spring bacteria,
key structural elements can be identified in selected protein
families. As thermostable proteins are ideal for structure determination
they may provide homology models of many important drug targets
in pathogens and humans to speed up the process of designing
drugs from lead compounds.
Secondly, the collection of samples from Iceland's geothermal
areas is regulated by the government and requires a licence.
In exchange for investing 3.5 million Euros in research and
development in Iceland over the next five years Prokaria has
been granted preferential access to 28 of Iceland's 60 geothermal
areas. The regulation also stipulates the payment of royalties
to landowners for any strain isolated from their springs if
resulting products are commercialised.
Thirdly, the strong technological position of the company and
their computerised GENEMINING system ensures the rapid
discovery of new genes.
Fourthly, the strategic alliance with deCODE Genetics provides
scientific support and access to their laboratories and powerful
Finally, the main competitors of the company are based in the
USA and Canada giving Prokaria a unique position in Europe.