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Careers interview: Lao Saal, CEO, SAGA Diagnostics

Lao Saal SAGA Diagnostics

Surviving an episode of cancer as a teenager set Lao Saal on a path to seek out better ways to detect, monitor and treat the deadly cells.

That determination drove him to earn medical and doctoral degrees at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 2008, and in 2016, start SAGA Diagnostics AB, in Lund, Sweden. Serving biopharmaceutical companies as well as healthcare and researchers, SAGA applies ultrasensitive technologies for measuring circulating tumor DNA in order to help steer cancer therapies and monitor their effectiveness.  SAGA is a spin-out from his research group at Lund University, where he is an Assistant Professor and head of the Translational Oncogenomics Unit.

A new kind of challenge

A drive to improve cancer outcomes and clinical practices shapes Saal’s work, which he describes as at the intersection of “research and clinical applications.”
“I wanted to start SAGA Diagnostics because I felt that we could bring our new technologies to the benefit of patients more quickly by commercializing them ourselves rather than by just moving solely along the research track,” according to Saal.  “I also wanted a new kind of challenge.” Prior to SAGA, most of his experience was in medical research, although he worked for an internet start-up company in the 1990s.
“Starting a company is a challenge,” Saal continued. “Regardless of the type of company or product, founders often face the same kinds of challenges: Stress, doubt, pushing through the difficult times, working exceedingly long hours and trying to balance work and home life. It’s been demanding, but I’m really proud of our team and how far we’ve come and I’m very excited for the future of SAGA.”

I know what it feels like to be patient

Saal is excited that individuals already are benefiting from SAGA’s work. “As a diagnostic company, we are testing samples from real people who are in difficult times,” he said.  “Although we do not know who they are personally, it feels good when we can deliver a diagnostic result that we know will make a positive difference for that person.  I know what that feels like.”

A well-rounded education

An American, Saal met his Swedish wife when they both worked at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. in 1999. While Saal’s own illness influenced his career choice, his interest in mathematics and science began at an early age. He attended kindergarten and first grade in Japan and after returning to the U.S., an instructor sparked a lifelong interest in history. “I had a fantastic history teacher in elementary school, who made the stories of ancient Rome and Greece come alive,” Saal said.  “I also always enjoyed the sciences, like biology and chemistry, but in college decided to major in history while also taking all the pre-requisites for medical school.  I believe that having a well-rounded education can be highly beneficial to the practice of medicine and also research, as it gives one a certain open-minded perspective that helps to form connections between people, as well as to find new links between problems, variables, data and solutions.”

A highlight of the workday

Brainstorming with other creative people is another highlight of the workday. “One [of my loves] is the collaborative feeling of working together with your team, which at this point is still small, and discussing and bouncing off ideas and improving the technologies and products,” he noted. “And it feels great when all the hard work is recognized by getting a big grant, some kind of accolade, or the closing of a deal.”

Changing the face of oncology

SAGA’s recent innovations have involved diagnosing and monitoring cancer using “liquid biopsies,” according to Saal. “These are new technologies that allow us to measure the amount of cancer in the body, monitor changes during treatment and help steer optimal therapy by testing bodily fluids such as a blood sample. This is ushering in a revolution that I think will change the face of oncology in the coming five years.”
Within this area, circulating tumor DNA analysis is an important breakthrough. “Circulating tumor DNA is specific to cancer, unlike most other types of biomarkers,” noted Saal.  “It also has a very large dynamic range, from being at absolute zero, which means no detectable cancer, to having levels of many tens of thousands of mutant DNA copies per milliliter of blood.”
New treatments that harness the power of the body’s immune system to fight cancer are real game-changers as well, he added.  “Interestingly, there are important potential uses for circulating tumor DNA in immuno-oncology too, which we are looking into.”

Good things come to those who persevere

After all the work of starting a business, being a CEO brings with it new challenges. Saal also has a better understanding of the value of patience. “Things can take longer than hoped,” he continued.  “In particular, for the size of capital that we want to raise, it has been a time-consuming road.  I also think that the market for circulating tumor DNA analysis has been particularly challenging to explain to investors, because it is unlike almost any other type of diagnostic test.  But we’re landing investments now, so good things come to those who persevere.”
Currently SAGA is raising additional capital to finance expansion of operations, to service more customers, initiate additional partnerships, and see its ultrasensitive technologies applied more widely in the market, according to Saal. “Our initial customers primarily have been pharmaceutical companies and researchers, but increasingly, as more cancer-type-specific evidence comes out, our testing will be entering clinical practice rather soon, too.  So we hope to rapidly grow the company, expand in to additional territories and markets, and in the coming years become the brand-name SAGA that everyone thinks of for ultrasensitive circulating tumor DNA testing.”

Build a strong team

Saal’s top piece of advice for those eager to run a company: Don’t go it alone.  “Build a strong team around you, delegate where relevant and don’t be afraid to ask for and accept help,” said Saal. “The CEO should know the company best, so generally you should trust your gut and your instincts to make the right decisions.  However, you also need to be mindful of your emotions, and be cognizant of when emotional reactions might be clouding a decision.”

RIGHT PHOTO: SAGA WINS 1ST PLACE IN NLSDAYS 2017 STARTUP PITCH COMPETITION. PHOTO: CAMILLE SONALLY

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