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Life Science Billion Makers

Saeid Esmaeilzadeh and Ashkan Pouya

Ironically, there is less serendipity in the success Saeid Esmaeilzadeh and Ashkan Pouya have achieved as business-makers than there is traditional hard work.

The two long-time friends, who came to Sweden with their families as children after fleeing Iran, co-founded Serendipity Innovations, a company that develops businesses with innovative technologies that provide practical solutions.  After 13 years of operation, Serendipity’s portfolio includes listed and privately-held companies in the fields of clean technology, medical technology, biotechnology, advanced material and animal health, with about half representing the life sciences.

Included among them are Diamorph, Episurf and Xbrane. The group of companies held by Serendipity is valued at between 3.5-4 billion SEK. Esmaeilzadeh and Pouya either own or have a majority share in all of the companies; while each served as CEO of Serendipity in the past, Esmaeilzadeh currently is chairman of the board of directors and Pouya an executive chairman.

“We have a few portfolio companies in different phases, some in the technology development phase and those that have products in the market,” Pouya noted. About three are still in product development, added Esmaeilzadeh. “It’s all an organizational issue; it’s all about having the right people in the right places,” said Pouya.

The Three Princes of Serendip

The two chose the name serendipity for their venture because “lots of new important, discoveries are made through serendipity rather than through planning,” according to Esmaeilzadeh. Also, the word has a tie to their heritage; in the Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the main characters always were making discoveries by accident.

Serendipity’s strength is in helping entrepreneurs get from an idea to an operational business with a marketable product. According to the company website, its products range from “environmentally-friendly alternatives to existing products to novel products that pave the way and set new standards in their respective fields.”  “We found a gap we could fill with our knowledge of academics and business,” explained Esmaeilzadeh. The technical process is a slow one, noted Pouya. Scientists have ideas for businesses or devices, but often need help with the process.

Why wasn´t it there all the time?

When that process works well, the gratification is immense. “It is satisfying when you work on your idea and when you think the world is irrational…then when you succeed, you can make things more efficient and find a solution. When it [a new product] is there, you feel like, ‘Why wasn’t it there all the time?’ It becomes the new normal.”

In one personal example, the father of a friend of Pouya’s died in December 2016 of a hemorrhagic stroke. This occurs when a blood vessel ruptures inside the brain, causing blood to accumulate, putting pressure on the brain. Then in the early part of this year, a Serendipity company launched a catheter that can flush blood away from the brain after this type of stroke, allowing the brain to recover much faster. Before this device, all doctors could do after the stroke is wait for blood to drain away from the brain, while the risk of complications or death increased the longer the brain was bathed in blood.  “If we had had it a few months earlier, his father might have survived,” Pouya noted.

A good entrepreneur has to be very driven

In assessing a potential business venture, the most important things to consider are its focus and the people running it, said Esmaeilzadeh. “They have to have a certain drive and super-engagement, be high performers and have both competence in developing products and the business. Usually good creative people can make good stuff, even if the idea is not the best.”

Added Pouya: “We always look at their idea, how good and confident they are and we also get involved in the later phases and we look at industrial dynamics.”

Being a successful entrepreneur in the life sciences requires the same skills as any entrepreneur, Pouya noted. “A good entrepreneur has to be very driven and somehow a pragmatic visionary,” he said. “They have to drive toward their goals but be pragmatic about it; they must be able to drive but adapt.”

Good entrepreneurs also have to be hands-on. “When you start a company you have to be really involved with it to make it successful,” according to Pouya. “You have to try to work very closely with customers in order to frame your final product. Generally, there is a gap between what you think is good and what is a viable product. There is huge value in interacting with customers in the early phases of a company.”

A good combination

Their 30-plus year friendship and different skill sets have kept the business moving forward. “Ashkan and I have complementary skills and there is a high level of trust within the organization,” said Esmaeilzadeh. “I’m very empirical in my approach, and use trial and error. Ashkan is very analytical and he’s very good in developing strategies. It’s been a very good combination.”

Theirs is a story of immigrant success: both came to Sweden with their families as refugees from Iran in the 1980s and the two found time to write a book, “The Billion Makers – The Refugees that Built a Business Empire,” telling the story of their friendship and partnership. “The book is having a good reception and has a pretty good chance of becoming a movie,” Pouya said. “Some people bought the rights to make a movie. That’s exciting.”

“Everyone who did something extraordinary in the world are my role models, everyone who achieved something great in the world,” said Pouya.

While Pouya described arriving in Sweden as “like coming to another world; I had to learn a new set of rules and culture,” the community was very welcoming, he said. “For me, it was not that hard,” Esmaeilzadeh said. “I was 8 years old. I got friends rather quick.”

Esmaeilzadeh and Pouya got to know each other through their parents. Even though they lived in different cities, they saw each other several times a year growing up.

It is important to have a good team in place

As time went on, Esmaeilzadeh was drawn to academics, earning his doctorate in chemistry in 2000 and two years later becoming Sweden’s youngest associate professor at the University of Stockholm at age 28. Pouya was focused on entrepreneurial pursuits. “I really wanted to start my own business and I was talking to Saied all the time about it,” said Pouya. “He was into his academic career, but if he encountered an invention [that was interesting] he would call me about it. We started to work on that and it was fun working together. So we decided to build a company together.”

Starting out meant, among other tasks, working on product development, understanding organization and learning how to sell a product in other countries and grow a business. “It can take several years to learn all that and then do it over and over again,” Pouya said.

“What was interesting for me was the challenge to learn about a new field, something that I always was curious about, and learn new areas,” added Esmaeilzadeh.  “Our experience has been that it is important to have a good team in place. We’ve been working together for a long time and that can be challenging. It’s important to build trust on a professional and personal level.”

Since March 2015, Esmaeilzadeh also has been a member of the Swedish Government’s reference group of Entrepreneurs.

To be an entrepreneur is somewhat of a lifestyle

Their business ventures have not left much time for other interests, but both enjoy spending time with family and friends. “To be an entrepreneur is somewhat of a lifestyle,” said Pouya. “It’s what I’m passionate about. Sometimes I need to do different things. I have children and I spend as much time with them as I can. But my whole creativity goes to work.” (Pouya does have a background in martial arts; he won the world title in combat jujitsu in 2000.)

Serendipity’s earliest successes are still high points for Pouya. “Starting the first company was very important,” he said. “There are so many things about how companies function…and production… you learn so much from building a small company from scratch. Then with the second company, it was the first time we had to organize in a different way, learn how to work with other people and delegate responsibility in a different way than if I were the CEO.”

The early years are memorable for Esmaeilzadeh as well. “I remember six or seven years ago when we really started to build an organization around our ideas, so we could expand our operations and could handle more investments. We got more professional.”

We hope to create a new industry group

Sweden provides a rich atmosphere for creating successful technology companies, both said. “There are many good things with Sweden; it is a very technology-intensive country,” Pouya said. “It also has simple and straightforward regulatory structures. It has lots of good technology and good people.”

Esmaeilzadeh agreed. “Sweden has a number of people graduated from universities, a high level of education and good competent people to hire,” he added. “It has a society and environment open to new ideas, especially in the Stockholm area. Sweden has changed a lot over the last 10 years; it has a very transparent society and business environment and a high level of trust. A handshake means a lot. Also there is good infrastructure and well-developed patent laws.”

The Swedish/Nordic life science industries are strong, according to Pouya, although some flexibility could make them stronger. “The entrepreneurial environment is well, the technology is great, but sometimes people are slower to adapt to something,” he said. Germany, for example, has a lot of interesting models for trying out new products so patients can get access to them much sooner, Pouya noted, and could possibly provide Sweden with some ideas.

Among the challenges of their work is the length of time needed to prepare products for market, get contracts signed and get products moving, noted Esmaeilzadeh.

Both Pouya and Esmaeilzadeh envision a future for Serendipity filled with more companies with new and better ideas.  “We just want to find more opportunities,” said Pouya. Added Esmaeilzadeh, “Our goal is to build on what we started. Within 10-to-20 years, we hope to create a new industry group in Sweden.”

Photo: Tommy Fondelius