Sharing expertise and knowledge is an important part of being professional in the SmiLe community. And, as we are wrapping up this month’s core value focus “Professional”, we put the spotlight on four of our talented CEO’s. They all come from different backgrounds and their careers have taken them along different paths. However, they all share a passion for life science and for developing products and solutions that have an impact on peoples’ lives. In this article, they talk about their professional journeys, and share their top-3 tips for other young and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Thank you, Kristina Masson, Mohamad Takwa, Hanna Sjöström and Maximilian Ottosson for being such exemplary professionals, and for sharing your inspiring stories!
With a PhD in Biomedicine from Lund University, Kristina Masson devoted her early career to cancer research. However, her quest for a clear purpose and her drive to make a real difference to cancer patients made her leave the academic world and eventually become a Biotech founder. Inspired by hard working people, experienced and dedicated co-founders, and strong, supportive women that she has met throughout her career, she and her team has made an impressive journey in the last four years. Today she is living proof of her own motto ‘people who work hard and do good things will be rewarded’ .
After graduating from Lund University in 2009, she moved to the US for a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and subsequently landed a job as a scientist for Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, working with therapeutic antibody programs. This sparked her passion for co-developing pharmaceuticals with a precise patient selection method, and it was during this time that the idea of starting her own business was born.
‘A defining experience in my journey to become an entrepreneur was when I witnessed how good and well-tolerated drugs would fail in the clinic due to lack of effect in enough patients, even though they worked well in a subset. Despite numerous efforts to develop biomarkers and often very strong preclinical data, this rarely translated to patients. When I met my co-founder and we discussed this in the context of our own background, we concluded that we can make a real difference here, and the seed for launching our own platform for accurate patient selection was planted.’
In 2016, Kristina took a leap of faith and moved back to Sweden to found her first company, OncoSignature, the precursor to Acrivon, focusing on identifying biomarkers for cancer therapeutics.
‘Moving back to Sweden and starting a company was a huge step for me at that point. I had little experience and had never run a business, so everything was new to me. Fortunately, I was welcomed with open arms into Medicon Village and SmiLe Incubator in particular. Besides offering a great lab infrastructure they have been extremely generous in sharing their knowledge and giving professional advice in a number of areas such as financing, HR etc. They also opened the doors to an amazing life science community, which is incredibly important for a small start-up company.'
OncoSignature was a strategic steppingstone to successfully establish the platform, and two years later she and two other co-founders, established Acrivon Therapeutics Inc. in the US. The Swedish subsidiary Acrivon AB was founded to support in-house drug development by providing key technology to identify biomarkers that precisely match the therapy with patients who will benefit.
Despite the forward momentum and obvious success during the last four years, nothing has been a walk in the park. Going from being a scientist to an entrepreneur, Kristina has faced a number of challenges. The business world is complex and processes can be time consuming, often making you go two steps forward and one step back. You need to be constantly prepared for plans to change, and you need to be able to balance between accelerating and breaking, keeping your team enthusiastic and motivated while being ready to pull the plug the next day if necessary.
'I’ve learned the hard way not to trust anyone blindly, cover as much as possible in written agreements and don’t hesitate to bring in external help when needed. Business is tough and unpredictable, and deals can fall through at the last minute, so you need to be very strategic about where you spend your money and efforts. Fortunately, there are also supportive people with a moral code out there that make it all worthwhile.'
Today things are moving forward fast for Kristina and her team at Acrivon. Business is growing and the team is expanding with new employees in both Sweden and the US. One of the upcoming milestones is the relocation and expansion of the Boston based operations.
'Starting up a biotech in Boston, with all that it entails, is extremely competitive, and you need to be well networked and recognized in the industry. Thanks to our main founders´ expertise, experience and network, we are building a strong team and a very exciting clinical platform there. The fact that we are making a name for ourselves amongst the stakeholders, even without a website or any PR, is proof that hard work, determination and patience really does pay off.'
Kristinas Top-3 professional tips for young entrepreneurs:
Thyrolytics’ CEO Mohamad Takwa came to Sweden as an exchange student in 2004 and after having earned his PhD in Biotech from KTH he started his first company in 2014. Driven by the impact of a product on people’s lives, together with a passion for innovation and early stage business development, Mohamad has founded a number of successful companies within the life science field. Thus far, he has taken three companies through SmiLe Incubator and all of them have subsequently been either listed on the stock market, or been acquired.
It was during his postdoctoral work at Lund University that Mohamad began to realize that he wanted to pursue a career outside academia. With a solid background in biotech, and a passion for sustainability, he co-founded his first company Bioextrax together with other scientists. Bioextrax focused on developing a unique platform technology for the extraction of bio-based plastics, chemicals, oils and nutritional supplements. Mohamad shares the experience of many other young entrepreneurs, that starting the first company was a struggle.
‘The first years with Bioextrax were really a hands-on experience of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. I was really passionate about what I was doing but I was alone and struggling with scarce resources, and often found myself getting up at three in the morning to drive to Lund just to feed the fermenter.’
After three years with Bioextrax he decided it was time to leave, to reflect on the next step of his career. Having done some consulting work, and contemplating a number of options like joining a company or relocating, his passion for innovation and making an impact on peoples’ lives led him to his next venture, Thyrolytics, a company focused on diagnostic methods for the treatment of thyroid diseases.
‘Thyroidism affects nearly 10% of the worlds population and can have severe consequences for these individuals. We realized that there was a need for easy-accessible, and yet accurate ways of measuring the thyroid hormone levels to benefit both patients and the healthcare sector. Thyrolytics was founded to offer a new diagnostic device that uses a very special class of Seleno enzymes, deiodinases.’
Shortly after having founded Thyrolytics, the next entrepreneurial opportunity presented itself as the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world early 2020, and highlighted the need for efficient testing methods. Together with four international researchers, Mohamad invented a rapid and sensitive technique for detecting coronavirus in saliva during active infection, and founded the company Viraspec, a venture so successful that it was acquired by Aergibio – merely 6-months after Viraspec was founded.
Throughout his career, Mohamad has always had a passion for the early business development validation and all the positive energy and drive generated in that stage.
‘I guess, I’m really at my best in that first stage where one identifies a need, conceives an idea and starts to identify the market potential; with all the brainstorming and decision making that comes along with it.’
Having been involved in this process multiple times has also taught him one of the most important lessons in bringing new products to the market; never to underestimate the importance of understanding the market need, and identifying how your product will ultimately benefit the end consumer.
‘An innovation actually needs to bring new benefits to the customer, otherwise it’s just another invention of academic interest. I’m inspired by Elon Musk, who is a master of identifying those early market needs, and proving that you can actually work with multiple start-ups at the same time and be successful in all of them. It’s all about having the vision and the passion to develop an idea, and ultimately to form a team of talented and ambitious people to make that vision come to life.’
Even though Mohamad is a seasoned entrepreneur, he has found himself returning to SmiLe for support in a number of areas outside his own expertise.
‘SmiLe is an excellent organization with a huge life science expertise, and great coaches. The fact that they have an outstanding lab infrastructure is of course also crucial for early-stage start-ups in life science. In addition, SmiLe provides a great network of sponsors and this has been a great asset to me. For example, Høiberg has helped us in all three companies when it comes to devising the best IP strategy.’
Mohamad’s Top-3 professional tips for young entrepreneurs:
Hanna Sjöström knew early on that she wanted to do business and be a CEO. With an MBA from the Technology Management program at Lund University she was able to combine her interest in new technology and innovation with a business perspective – the first milestone in her career. Driven by results and inspired by meeting people with different backgrounds and the advice of former Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent never to eat alone, her journey has taken her from working with consumer brands like L’Oréal and Coca-Cola to life science and atomic physics. On October 2nd she reached the highlight of her career so far, ringing the Nasdaq bell in Lund as GPX Medical started trading on First North.
Having graduated from the Technology Management Program at Lund University, Hanna landed her first job as product manager for L’Oréal. There she was introduced to the glamourous world of cosmetics and got to work with some of the company’s biggest brands in Stockholm.
After three years at L’Oréal, she was recruited as responsible for the Coca-Cola brands in Sweden where she quickly advanced; first to an extended responsibility for the Nordics and then to a position as Senior Brand Manager responsible for all of Western Europe.
‘My time at Coca-Cola was an important milestone in my career. Working in such a professional and international organization gave me a helicopter perspective and an understanding of international business. During those years I also developed a large, international network which has been a great asset throughout my career.’
After many years in an international environment Hanna wanted to return to Sweden and she joined TePe, a Global oral hygiene company with headquarter in Malmö. As Director Marketing & Innovation, and member of the leadership team, she was responsible for developing the TePe brand. This was also her first ‘light’ introduction to life science.
The real steppingstone into the life science industry came three years later when she, in 2018, met Märta Lewander Xu, one of the founders of Gasporox.
‘At that point GPX Medical was a small subsidiary of Gasporox, focused on developing MedTech innovations based on a patented spectroscopic technology, with origin from department of atomic Physics at Lund University. When I met Märta, they were looking for a commercially driven CEO to create a fully independent company and prepare for a large capitalization. We immediately clicked and realized that with our different backgrounds, combining technology and business, we would be a great team.’
Having accepted the position as CEO in 2018 she went from life science to a world of atomic physics and medicine. GPX Medical develops medical devices for continuous monitoring of the lungs of preterm born infants allowing instant detection of pulmonary complications, which is critical for these vulnerable patients. Realizing the need for life science expertise and the benefits of a start-up network, the company became a member of SmiLe Incubator. After a record fast development phase GPX Medical started trading on Nasdaq First North on October 2nd,2020.
‘During the intense journey with GPX Medical we found our life science base in SmiLe Incubator. We learned how the life science industry works, SmiLe opened the doors to the life science network and the coaches were a great support in many different areas, especially when it came to preparing for capitalization.’
Throughout her career Hanna has always been guided by her natural curiosity and her interest in meeting people with different backgrounds.
‘I love to meet interesting people and I’ve really taken the advice of former CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent ‘never eat alone’ to heart. If I come across an interesting person that I would like to know more about, I pick up the phone and invite them to lunch. It is a fantastic way of meeting interesting people, learning new things and building your network.’
The fact that she likes working with specialists and doesn’t mind surrounding herself with sceptics has also had a positive impact on her career.
‘I have a very strong drive and I always look for opportunities that can turn into sales. One of my strengths is that I listen to other people, in particular those who are experts in their field. I also like to surround myself with sceptics, it challenges my own thinking and forces me to consider all the aspects to make sure that the concept or product really works.’
After the intense period leading up to the listing of GPX Medical, Hanna and her team have now entered into the next phase with intense focus on product development and preparation of clinical studies. The aim is to launch a first version of the company’s medical device for continuous lung monitoring of pre-term born infants in 2023.
‘I’m really privileged to be working with such a talented team of experts. We have come really far by combining our strengths and pursuing our ambitious goals and I can’t wait to see what we’ll accomplish in the future’
Hanna’s Top-3 professional tips for young entrepreneurs
From an early age, Maximilian Ottosson has had an interest in both life science and technology, and when he was introduced to the Nanoscience Engineering program at LTH, he knew he had found his calling. Inspired by the possibilities of nanotechnology and driven by a desire to make a difference in life science and help people as well as doing things his own way, he started contemplating the idea of becoming an entrepreneur already during his studies. Having discovered the business potential of a research project on nanotechnology and turning the findings into a promising business plan, Maximilian and some of his fellow students founded Cellevate soon after graduation.
The idea for Cellevate was born already during Maximilian’s studies, as he and three other students participated in a research project between LTH and the department of biology at Lund University, to study how nanotechnology could be used to affect cell structures. Already before the project was finalized, the group had realized the business potential, and decided to present the findings not as an academic publication, but as a business plan.
‘We realized early on that we were on to something truly interesting and innovative that could really have a business potential. After having presented the business plan we felt that it was too good to just let go, so we went to the bank and set up a company. Together with two professors we founded Cellevate to develop a next generation cell culture system for more realistic in-vitro models that could provide more relevant data and better research.’
As for many young entrepreneurs the first years were shaky, focusing on developing the business idea and trying to secure grants and financing to keep going. It wasn’t until 2016 that the hard work finally started to pay off but when it did, it was something of a ketchup effect; the first investors came onboard, the first paying customer signed up and the first scientific articles were published. And at the same time Cellevate was accepted as a member of SmiLe Incubator.
‘As a new entrepreneur in life science there are many advantages in being a SmiLe member, and being close to the university and the whole, big life science community. Besides the lab infrastructure, which has been essential to us, the help and support from experienced business coaches has been instrumental in developing the company. Through the Southern Sweden Going Global initiative we also received financing to go to international conferences to meet people and talk to customers, which was really important in that early startup phase.’
After having gained that initial momentum, the next few years were spent largely on continuous product development. But despite having developed a unique technology and a solution that offered many advantages such as more predictive early stage data and reducing the need for animal testing, the business case didn’t scale quite like they had hoped for.
‘This realization came when we were starting to shift focus from academic to industrial customers. Looking back, we hadn’t spent enough time analysing how the needs of the companies were different from the research institutions we had been working with, and our strategy needed adjusting. In the beginning, we were targeting both small-, mid-sized and big-pharma with the same arguments, but the interests of large players like Pfizer and AstraZeneca are different from the rest of the market.’
Realizing that they needed to re-think the strategy they took a closer look at the projects they had carried out and found that the most successful ones were actually the ones where they had worked very closely with the customer to develop a tailor-made solution. This discovery led them to re-group and redirect the focus from ready-to-use models to developing a unique, customized service that companies were prepared to pay an extra premium for. This decision turned out to be a turning point that allowed the team to re-gain the positive momentum and turn 2020 into a very successful year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new business model is attracting customers in some of the world’s largest pharma companies and Cellevate is now cooperating with some of the most prestigious academic institutions. New products are about to hit the market, and the team is also working on a number of new, exciting application areas for the technology.
‘One of the most important lessons learned so far is that being an entrepreneur is never a straight journey from point A to point B, you constantly need to re-think and adapt to the customers and the market. I’m really proud of the way that we as a team have been able to tackle the challenges and pitfalls of this startup journey; we’ve managed to re-group and keep going to find a business model that works. Now we are at a point where we are about to scale up and grow our business and I’m looking forward to all the new possibilities and to developing in my role as CEO.’
Maximilians Top-3 professional tips for young entrepreneurs:
SmiLe Incubator is a life science business incubator based in Medicon Village in Lund. SmiLe helps entrepreneurs to commercialize their ideas. There are currently 25 companies in SmiLe, which together with alumni companies, have attracted more than EUR 280 million in venture capital to date since 2014. SmiLe offers business coaching, a large network of contacts and a dynamic community, as well as well-equipped laboratories which is unique of its kind in Sweden. SmiLe is a non-profit organization and receives basic funding from Region Skåne, Lund Municipality, Lund University and Medicon Village. SmiLe´s sponsors are Agilent, Sparbanken Skåne, Awa, Høiberg, Prevas, Setterwalls, Zacco, Aqilion. SmiLe’s listed alumni companies have a market capitalization of almost EUR 750 million (Q4 2019). www.smileincubator.life