Academia and business don’t always mix, but Agnete B. Fredriksen of Norway has found the formula. While doing research for her doctorate degrees at the University of Oslo, Fredriksen and co-workers invented a technology to create vaccines that help the body’s immune system fight cancer and other diseases. She co-founded the company Vaccibody in 2007, learning about the business world along with her studies. Now as the Chief Scientific Officer at Vaccibody, Fredriksen is comfortable overseeing research while engaging in business development and strategy.
What are some of the challenges of taking an idea and research and then creating a company to move that idea forward?
“There are multiple challenges; we all understand the difference between academic research and the research you do in a company. Fortunately for me I did [the transition] slowly, so I was able to learn step-by-step, but every day there is something new in the life sciences field, especially taking the first product to the clinic. There have been multiple new tasks every year.”
What are some of the keys to success in this industry? What are the skills needed?
“You really need to have drive to make it work, because if you have drive, the motivation and are willing to work hard, you can really understand how to get to your goal in the most efficient manner. As long as you have the drive, you can learn the rest.”
“It’s also important to be open to learn, be efficient, be able to take in a lot of different data points and be able to prioritize work. You have to deal with investors, academics, clinicians, all aspects of business development and you have to take all this information and make decisions based on that.”
How do you feel about the role you have at Vaccibody today?
“I like that I can be exactly at the center of everything. The fact that I can take in the needs and wants from internal and external partners and make decisions on how to best move forward to achieve success is really motivating. And I get to be part of something that may help patients.”
What is the most fascinating part of your work?
“Making a difference for patients and being in the center of the entire new exciting field of immunotherapy. There is now more reason to believe that cancer immunotherapy is the future of cancer treatment, that cancer could be a disease that is chronic, not fatal, and in some cases even cured.”
What are your thoughts on the Nordic/Norwegian life science industry, its research and its business climate? What do you think is working well and what could be improved?
“I definitely feel things are going in the right direction in Norway. We need tax incentives for startup companies and early stage investors, and there is still not much seed funding. It takes time to build up the entire infrastructure that we need.”
“Sweden and Demark have a longer biotech history than we have. The success of a company like Novo Nordisk in Denmark has created a lot of job opportunities and builds competence within the biotech industry in Denmark. There are also more venture capitalists based in Denmark facilitating the important interaction with investors.”
“Since Norway is now suffering with the oil industry, there has been increasing interest in supporting the biotech industry. It’s very important when you start a new company that you take into account the experience of companies in your own backyard, but also internationally. However, we are still at a very early stage; there are still a lot of incentives needed and a lot of work that needs to be done to develop a stronger biotech community in Norway.”
What are your future plans? Do you expect to stay with Vaccibody, take on other roles there or do more research?
“I really thrive where I am in now. I would really like to follow Vaccibody as long as I can; I really like the work I do here. At some point, at a new company, I may consider to take on a CEO position. Taking something from academia to build a clinical stage biotech company has been very educational and I would like to use this experience in a future job.”
“I am still very involved in research, but I am not in the lab anymore. I am planning and prioritizing experiments. I still enjoy it, I don’t have to have my hands in the lab, but I like to see the research and see where we have to go to get to the next point.”
What would be your advice to other researchers who want to turn an idea into a company?
“Just do it, there is nothing more fulfilling than exploring your own idea. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn from people who have done this before. You may be an expert on your own technology, but there are so many aspects of a biotech company that you need to understand.”
Photo: Leig Ingvald Skaug/CMedia