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Reshaping the cell therapy sector

The previous founder and CEO of BioLamina has gone back to business development, and with his newly founded company he aims to redefine cell therapy development even further.

Newly founded Alder Therapeutics is a preclinical phase stem cell therapy development company and, according to Kristian Tryggvason, co-founder and CEO, it is “the next big thing.” The company builds upon data from animal studies that have shown the benefits of the photoreceptor cell differentiation and cardiac cell differentiation methods. These methods have been further developed by Kristian’s father and co-founder of BioLamina, Professor Karl Tryggvason, together with Duke-NUS Medical School and other external parties.

After talking with my two ‘soon to be’ colleagues, I thought this might be the next big thing and sought to start this company myself instead.”

“The idea behind Alder Therapeutics began during my time working with BioLamina. It owned a patent together with Duke-NUS and my job was to license it. We got into a deep due diligence process with one party who really liked the science and dug further in to it. In the end the deal did not go through, but I had a deep insight into the two programs and thought that these might be the best cell therapy programs out there,” he describes.

“After talking with my two ‘soon to be’ colleagues, I thought this might be the next big thing and sought to start this company myself instead.”

Together with Stijn Heessen and Ricardo Baptista, Kristian was able to raise EUR 3 million in seed funding from Flerie and Linc and earlier this year they licensed the technology from Duke-NUS, transferred the manufacturing process to a CDMO, and generated analytical methods that further bolstered the company’s operations. Alder today has two cell therapy candidates – allogeneic stem cell therapies – for diseases with high unmet need, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) and chronic heart failure.

“The USP for Alder and our lead program is that we can make excellent photoreceptor cells with a fantastic manufacturing method that treats Retinitis Pigmentosa, an orphan disease, in three different animal models,” says Kristian. “As the manufacturing costs are low and the reimbursement is high, there is also a great commercial opportunity here once the drug is ready to be used. The beauty is that the way we developed this and the cardiac treatment, we can use it for multiple cell therapy programs later on, once we have shown that the lead program works in a human Phase I/IIa trial.”

As founder and CEO of the company Kristian is responsible for driving preclinical development, and managing all PR, marketing and fundraising activities. He hopes that he and his colleagues can announce their next financing round, as well as enter toxicology studies by the end of 2024.

“We should also be finished with the CMC part for Phase I/IIa study within this time period,” he says.

 

 Team Alder Therapeutics: Ricardo Baptista, Chief Technology Officer, Kristian Tryggvason, CEO, and Stijn Heessen, Chief Operations Officer. Photo: Ulf Sirborn

 

Always wanted to start a company

Entrepreneurship is nothing new to Kristian. Fifteen years ago, in 2008, he founded BioLamina together with his father. His father had performed research on extracellular matrix proteins, and had been able to produce full-length, human recombinant laminin proteins, something many research groups had tried but had not been able to do. Karl Tryggvason recognized that this accomplishment was an excellent research tool with the potential to facilitate the development of cell therapies, and he encouraged his son to co-found a company based on it.

Once I had analyzed the idea and the concept, I thought that if I want to start a company, I might never find an idea or concept that is equally good.”

“I was looking for a new opportunity to pop up, and I had always wanted to start a company. Once I had analyzed the idea and the concept, I thought that if I want to start a company, I might never find an idea or concept that is equally good,” says Kristian. “Even if I was afraid that I might fail in building the company and ruining the fantastic idea, I thought I just had to take the chance.”

A good decision as it would turn out. BioLamina is today a profitable EUR 100 million enterprise with more than 70 employees and more than EUR 17 million in annual sales across 35 countries. The company’s products solve many of the technical problems associated with maintaining human pluripotent stem cells in a naive state and pushing these stem cells towards different specialized cell types, such as neurons, heart cells, and liver cells.

“The laminin technology makes culturing any cells on plastic dishes feel like they are safe in the body environment and therefore they are much easier to handle,” explains Kristian.

The toughest challenge was really to convince scientists around the world that they should test and use these (back then) expensive products in their manufacturing by extrapolating data from quite limited scientific data.”

When I asked him about BioLamina’s greatest success factors he stated that firstly their product truly makes it easier to develop cell therapies and in detail handle the manufacturing process. “The success factors were a result of recruiting a fantastic team that was unafraid to try and convince all the key opinion leaders of the benefits that the products from a tiny Swedish company had (most customers were in the US and UK). The team was really dedicated to making sure cell therapies would become a reality with the help of our products,” he says.

“The toughest challenge was really to convince scientists around the world that they should test and use these (back then) expensive products in their manufacturing by extrapolating data from quite limited scientific data,” he adds.

“Once they tested them and used them for years, more and more scientific publications showed that our hypothesis was usually right, and with the help of the products, the scientist could do miracles within their areas. This we did with a fantastic team that travelled around the world talking to scientists. What we learned in one place, we spread to others and the community as a whole benefited from that. It is the great team, persistence, belief and great products that helped here.”

Obtaining key investors is like a dating game

Regardless of running BioLamina or founding Alder, Kristian says that the best part of his job is that he gets to work closely with “fantastically intelligent people that, similar to me, want to develop treatments or want to make the healthcare sector better to save lives or increase the quality of lives of billions of people.”

“Making a difference gives me the kicks,” he says.

Having founded and run BioLamina, Kristian has built a huge network within the cell and regenerative medicine field, enabling him to find the talents in the field, and to understand the field and its competitors. “I believe you learn something from every job you are in, in addition to things that happen outside your job,” he adds.

His advice to other life science entrepreneurs is that obtaining key investors is like a dating game – a similar manner to finding your husband or wife.

“You need to meet a lot of candidates to find someone you really feel comfortable with and for them to feel comfortable with what you do. If you are not looking for institutional funding, the people most likely to invest in you are those that can relate to what you do. If you are trying to build a drug development company, talk with people that have maybe become rich within that space, or at least that have invested a lot in that space,” he advises.

A cell therapy expert

At the beginning of his career, however, he was not sure what he wanted to work with and he has stated that he did not want to work in the same field as his father.

“I was really lost after high school and didn’t really know what to do. I had no idea what I wanted to become. That summer I met the CEO of a small biotech company when they were in their fundraising stage and I spent time with them for a week after they had pitched to VC companies. I thought it sounded like fun and asked him what I needed to do to be able to become good at what he was doing. He said you should get a PhD first,” says Kristian.

“So that’s when I started studying molecular biology [he has a M.Sc in Molecular Biology from the University of Oulu], then a PhD [from the Karolinska Institutet], and then an MBA [from the Copenhagen Business School]. I find the area very rewarding, as we are trying to develop new ways to treat people. I have always been fascinated with that.”

In the beginning it was difficult to make monoclonal antibodies and the technology was not there. Today it is a routine job.”

With more than a decade of experience in the cell therapy field, Kristian Tryggvason believes that in the future there will be a huge development in manufacturing in a similar way that happened with monoclonal antibodies. “In the beginning it was difficult to make monoclonal antibodies and the technology was not there. Today it is a routine job.”

When asked about Nordic life science strengths, he says that the region has been the home of huge pharmaceutical companies, and therefore there is a lot of competence within different areas of drug development.

“Another strong area is proteins and protein technology. Companies like Novo and Cytiva are good examples within this category,” he concludes.

This interview was originally published in NLS magazine No 04 2023, out November 2023

Featured photo of Kristian Tryggvason

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