What is the job of an engineer at a manufacturer of nutritional supplements? He is one of the two managing directors and shares his knowledge in all business areas of the company. At least this is true for Dr Gerald Sitte. In the following interview he tells us about the challenges in making a start-up company a success story.
Who are you and what is your responsibility at Longevity Labs+?
Together with Herbert Pock, I am the managing director of the company. Among many other things, I am in charge of operational issues associated with our plant in Graz. I used to work in the automotive industry. I spent years working for the Magna where my job was to build up the company’s business in Europe and Russia. Before that, I did my doctorate at the Institute of Business Administration at the Technical University of Graz where I also spent four years as a lecturer.
And you had no intention to pursue this career?
It is certainly interesting to pursue a career in the scientific field. But I believe that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea to follow a university career. It just wasn’t the right thing for me and I decided I’d rather go into business. I did not stop teaching altogether, though. At the University of Applied Sciences Campus 02 in Graz, I still work as a part-time lecturer. My main focus there is the supervision of master’s theses in Accounting and Controlling, and formerly in Marketing, too. It’s fun to keep in touch and work with young people.
How come you ended up at Longevity Labs+?
Well, the second managing director (Herbert Pock, ed.) is a former school mate of mine. We also went to collage together. He is an associate of a consulting firm who originally held shares in Longevity Labs+. They supported the start-up in terms of business development and taxation issues. On some of these activities I came in to help them out on a project basis. This is how I got involved. Primarily, I used my experience in industrialization, market building and expansion issues to advise the company. Until we finally decided to restructure the business, to go big and to go all in. That’s when Herbert and I took over the management of the company
Restructuring was obviously important. Which other milestones would you mention?
Apart from the actual incorporation of the company and the arrival of our investor Dr Androsch as a major stakeholder, which allowed us to accomplish so many things, one milestone certainly was the product approval: Going through the whole “Novel Food” approval process and convincing the European authorities that spermidineLIFE® is both unique and, first and foremost, safe for consumers. The second fundamental step was to scale up our manufacturing process – from producing a few grams of the extract inside our lab to large-scale industrial manufacturing. A third milestone was to expand our production capacity here in Graz and to get our value chain to a point where spermidineLIFE® could be introduced to the market following strict hygienic standards. And at the same time, we also conducted a relatively comprehensive trial in our potential market.
What were the insights of the market trial?
During our trial in the market we have conducted surveys with nearly 1000 people over 3 months. Among other things, we wanted to know how satisfied they were with the product, what they thought about the product presentation and how they thought about the product name – at the time the name was still quite controversial. Another point was the way the product is administered. The result on this question, for example, was that taking two capsules per day is okay. Ultimately, I’d say that most of our current approach was either confirmed or influenced by the market trial, like the fact that we only work with purely natural spermidine. But the best thing about the trial actually was that the participants in the trial were largely satisfied with spermidineLIFE® and that they simply felt great when taking it.
Is this something that motivates you to work for Longevity Labs+?
Yes, of course. All the positive feedback by our customers – not just during the trial but still today – is very inspiring and motivating. It’s not just a few individuals but many people who give us this kind of feedback. I am particularly happy to get acknowledgment and positive responses from pharmacists and doctors who have a different perspective on the product. When you get invited by a doctor and a customer’s wife who is around tells you how grateful she is that she and her husband are feeling good now that they take our product that is tremendous motivation for us to do our job.
Is direct interaction with pharmacists and doctors something that is important for Longevity Labs+?
Of course it is. We introduce products in the market which are scientifically tested and for which there is a demand by the end users and doctors. And we strive to take their requests and suggestions into account and to develop our products to meet these requirements. Even though we follow an intense expansion policy in the cooperation with global distribution partners, we assure that we can supply our local Austrian market ourselves to keep in touch with our customers. In our first year that was pretty exciting since initially all the feedback that came in was forwarded directly to the management as our team was still quite small. 50 percent of the time someone called us, it was me answering the phone and to speak with the pharmacists and end users. It helped me learn a lot – not just about the industry at large but especially about how our product and our company were perceived by others.
What exactly are your main responsibilities today?
Since I am in the office full time, I am the first point of contact for all the day-to-day operational issues. Our long-term strategies are discussed with the entire management. But when it comes to operational challenges in our daily operations such as production, research, development or the supervision of surveys and studies, it is me that everybody calls on. All admin and office related stuff including legal issues is on my desk while Herbert is more involved in marketing and sales issues and our global expansion.
Studies? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
That’s probably one of the main differences between us and most of the other manufacturers of nutritional supplements, at least in Austria. There are only very few out there conducting their own studies. We have a different approach to this because we were the first on the market with our spermidine product and were able to fall back on 10 years of academic research. It is essential to us to train our people in that regard and to invest in studies to introduce only products based on proper scientific research.
What kind of studies are this?
The first major study we were involved in was in Berlin at the Charité university hospital which looked into the loss of memory among aged subjects. In the future – I cannot yet say too much about that though – we will also run a few studies in the field of geriatrics. Over the next year, we will launch four or five studies: impact studies and application studies with human subjects to see how and in what dosage the product is most helpful for different kinds of people.
So we managed to unveil one of Longevity Labs+ New Year’s resolutions. What more have you planned for 2021?
2021 will be marked by the launch of new projects and first steps towards one new line of products. We have a very close cooperation with researchers and the people in our scientific advisory council for developing new products. Generally speaking, our expansion process is quite crucial for us. We are about to sign a contract with a distribution partner in Italy. One aim is to successfully negotiate contracts with distribution partners in other European countries, as well. Expanding beyond Europe is equally important to us, though. We have already established our own company in the United States. And distribution agreements have been signed in Southeast Asia and Russia. But the Corona situation obviously made it very difficult for us to proceed, as approval processes for nutritional supplements, for example, were put on hold altogether. We hope to get a kick-start in this respect soon.
How does Longevity Labs+ manage the tradeoff between doing business and legal requirements for nutritional supplements?
That’s indeed very, very difficult. Mainly, because requirements are treated differently in each and every country, apart from the EU. And even the EU market is not completely consistent. (Laughs) What is allowed in Europe, for example, is often forbidden in the US and vice versa. Another challenge are the countless different research results on spermidine – preclinical ones and now also a number of clinical studies – showing what spermidine can do to our bodies. But we are not allowed to communicate this as a manufacturer. Most legal restrictions are very strict which complicates the communication and information process with our consumers. And what increasingly bothers us here is the growing number of unscrupulous competitors some of which are offering dodgy products with dubious information on excessively high spermidine content to quickly fill their pockets which brings the entire product category into disrepute.
What are the international research topics that you follow as a private person?
That’s an interesting question. What immediately comes to my mind is less of a research topic in itself but rather the question how some people approach research and new challenges. Elon Musk, for example, who is looking at everyday problems and ways to deal with them when he presses ahead with projects like the Hyperloop or Space X – that’s pretty impressive and can show us a lot about how to go about things. There is the classic way to solve a problem: start off with an analysis, develop and evaluate concepts and then at some point in time implement one or several of them like the large corporations are mostly doing it. And then there is the “other way” of doing things: just try even if you know you’ll fail the first few attempts. I think that’s pretty exciting: “Other ways” to identify problems and find solutions.
Is that the engineer in you saying: Looking for solutions and finding them?
Yes, of course. 10 years of studying at a university institute of technology leave their mark. Especially when it gets to how to approach new challenges. But I would rather consider myself a “drawing room engineer” no longer that much in touch with every technical detail. Now, there are plenty of examples in the economy that proof that it can be very successful to simply try and see what happens. As a company, there is a lot to gain from following this approach to ensure continuous improvement. That is what I require from myself and from our employees. As long as we were still a small business, we were super creative and innovative. Everyone did everything and took challenges wherever they manifested. Today, we have reached a size as a company which requires the establishment of processes and structures. Of course, this can be detrimental to creativity and problem-solving skills here and there. What we do not stop telling our employees, however, is the following: Be creative. Think differently. Make mistakes, take responsibility for those mistakes and learn from your mistakes. That’s the only way to keep up dynamism and creativity.
The core theme at Longevity Labs+ is to maintain health as long as possible. What advice do you follow to keep young?
Well, first of all, taking our own product. (Laughs) Of course, I do. By the way, this is the very first nutritional supplement I have ever taken but I have been very diligent in taking it since I started three years ago. Furthermore, I try to eat healthy food as much as I can as a business man. What I certainly do for my work-life balance is to take time for sports and exercise out in the open. Everything within reasonable limits to avoid an “overdose”. So basically I try to live a more or less balanced life. Above all, it’s important to me to have the proper balance between my professional and my private life.
Was dieser Gegenpol ist, verrät Gerald im folgenden Video: