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Making an Impact – in Business and in Society

Iris Öhrn considers herself a cosmopolitan person, and with good reason. The investment advisor for life science at Business Region Göteborg left her native Cuba to study and work abroad before settling in Sweden.

While up until recently, most of Iris Öhrn’s goals were professional, now she is seeking to have more of an impact on greater society, by helping all people feel like they are included and contributing to the world.

“My goal at the moment is more of a personal character. I want to contribute to more diversity, inclusion and sustainability.”

“I have lived in many countries, have friends from all continents and I am genuinely interested in history, intercultural communication, behavioral sciences and all those things that make us different, but also unite us,” she says.

“Some years ago, I had lot of goals, career goals. I have been in my current position for the last 11 years and I am still as committed and as curious as I was the first day. However, my goal at the moment is more of a personal character. I want to contribute to more diversity, inclusion and sustainability. I am not referring to gender matters. I am thinking about the way we utilize everybody’s knowledge in building a better future for all. When I say everybody, I really mean everybody, because each person is like an entire world to me,” she continues.

That is why Öhrn is involved with many organizations that share her vision, including the European Business Association (EBAN), Medtech4Health, Impulse4women, the International Women Club of Gothenburg and some European Union agencies.

“My contribution to these organizations has been to highlight and advocate for more gender equality within innovation financing and healthcare,” she says. “I really want to make that contribution. I try to integrate it into everything I do for the life science sector in Sweden.”

Investment opportunities

In her work with the department of establishment and investments at Business Region Göteborg, Iris Öhrn meets with companies and investors from all over the world, as she seeks to cultivate investments in the life sciences industry in the Gothenburg area. Business Region Göteborg oversees business development in the city of Gothenburg and also represents 13 municipalities in the region.

“I meet so many new companies and people each day. I have seen many trends come and go, both with regard to investment strategies, but also with regard to innovations,” she says. “Life science is a very knowledge intensive sector and many of my foreign clients are looking for investment opportunities. I work closely with venture capitalists, business angels, corporate funds and public funders.”

 

Iris Öhrn, Business Region Göteborg, and Charlotte af Klercker, Business Sweden, at the Nordics Pavilion at BIO International Convention 2022. Photo: Richard Hayhurst

 

The product of a time

Öhrn’s own experience has shaped her outlook. Born in Cuba, she was educated in a society with limited choices.

“I am what you could say a pioneer or a daughter of the socialist revolution,” she says. “I have always been quite good in science, especially in chemistry and mathematics. To be honest, when you come from such a different society, you do not really choose what you want to be, you try to be the best that you could be.”

“Biotechnology had just emerged in Cuba as a new branch of the economy. I was the product of a time, of an interesting epoch in the history of Latin America. Biochemistry chose me. It was meant to be.”

Biotechnology and biochemistry were in their infancy when she graduated from high school in 1994, Öhrn adds. They were disciplines Cuba embraced and at which the nation excelled.

“Biotechnology had just emerged in Cuba as a new branch of the economy,” she says. “I was the product of a time, of an interesting epoch in the history of Latin America. Biochemistry chose me. It was meant to be.”

She met her Swedish husband while working as a dance teacher in Havana. She had also just completed her master’s degree in biochemistry. The couple then moved to Sweden and she pursued her PhD at Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg. Three years later, she relocated to Spain to start an MBA in biotechnology. “Financing and IP where among the subjects that caught my interest,” she says.

Öhrn also worked in business development at a biotech company in Ireland before returning to Sweden and accepted the position with Business Region Göteborg in 2011.

“I have the best job in the world,” she says. “I keep updated about the latest developments in science. I have the opportunity to discuss business with high-profile executives and I also work with legislators, clusters and public institutions on strategies and initiatives to promote development and growth. The feeling that you matter and can make an impact is very rewarding.”

The value of the life science industry

Knowing that almost all the products and services in which she has a hand in developing will benefit patients all over the world also is exhilarating.

“It is very simple, in one way or the other, directly or indirectly, for now or the future: people in our sector work to find cures, alleviate pain and improve the quality of life of the global population. We are not just working in the world’s largest industry, but in the one with the highest economic and social impact,” she says.

Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that value, which is one of the challenges she faces. Because Öhrn is one of a handful of people in her field, reaching an agreement with an investor can require lots of meetings and involve multiple third parties. “There are very few people in Sweden and the Nordics doing what I do,” she says. “We compete with many countries and cities; many of them offer more incentives or market benefits.”

There is limited funding in the Nordics for the work we do, Öhrn continues. “Decision-makers do not always understand the socio-economic impact of foreign direct investments. Moreover, life science does not contribute, as many other sectors do, to a large number of employees or large production facilities. Consequently, the sector is not always prioritized in the way it should be.”

Unconscious and conscious bias

While her job already is demanding, Öhrn says she is often asked about any adversity she faces as a woman in her fields, and as a Black woman in Sweden. While she knows such biases exist, Öhrn says she is so wrapped up in her work that she never thinks about those prejudices applying to her.

“I know people see me as a Black woman, with a foreign accent, and soon even an old woman. However, I do not see myself as such. Strange enough, in my mind I am not a single one of these women. As a result, I am blind to the signs of discrimination, micro-aggressions, or any other kind of master suppression techniques I might have definitively been exposed to.”

“I have held numerous presentations about gender equality in the healthcare and life science sector. I have also talked about women in the life science sector and all the challenges they experience when they pitch, raise funding, lead teams, or try to sell their ideas to different stakeholders. I am aware there is unconscious and conscious bias like in any other sector. I cannot explain it, but I am quite amazed of my attitude to the matter. I am so involved and care so much about what I do and the projects to which I commit myself, that I have never had the time to reflect about what it is like to be me, with what it might mean for the people in my surroundings,” she says.

“I know people see me as a Black woman, with a foreign accent, and soon even an old woman. However, I do not see myself as such. Strange enough, in my mind I am not a single one of these women. As a result, I am blind to the signs of discrimination, micro-aggressions, or any other kind of master suppression techniques I might have definitively been exposed to.”

“Think broad and think big. A life science career is much more than a career in biotechnology, medical technology or digital health.”

Öhrn’s advice for other women considering her fields is “Think broad and think big”.

“A life science career is much more than a career in biotechnology, medical technology or digital health,” she says. “Think about related fields like food health, intellectual property, environmental science, behavioral science and so on. Why not explore all those areas in which you can make an impact? There are plenty of ONGs, investment firms and public organizations also looking for people with health and life science competencies,” she says.

 

 

Mental balance

When Iris Öhrn is not busy representing Gothenburg, she likes to spend time with her husband and three children and in keeping with her cosmopolitan nature, she takes Flamenco dance lessons. “I really love dance and music,” she says. “I believe it is because as a Cuban, you grow up with the influence of Spanish rhythms.”

Other passions are art and history. “I visit museums and I am currently taking an online university course in art history and architecture from the prehistoric time to the XV sequel,” she adds. “I like the mental balance that natural science and humanities give to me.”

Photo of Iris Öhrn: Frida Winter

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