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Thinking outside the box in Umeå

If any city could lay claim to the title of Sweden’s intellectual capital, Umeå would be it.

Located in northeastern Sweden and home to about 120 000 people ­­- and growing – Umeå made its mark in the life sciences’ field in the 1980s with work in molecular biology. That research drew the attention of AstraZeneca when it needed to broaden its molecular biology knowledge base and researchers in Umeå spun their findings off into other specialties.

Competing with the world

With numerous life science companies and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Umeå University and Norlands University Hospital within its borders, Umeå has become known for research in infectious diseases, neurogenerative disorders, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, blood medicine and distance medicine.


“This is a good place to be thinking differently.”

“This is a good place to be thinking differently; that is how new ideas develop,” said Jennie Ekbeck, CEO of Umeå Biotech Incubator, which provides support for developing biomedical businesses. “If you are thinking great thoughts in Umeå, probably ten other people are thinking the same thoughts. You are not competing with your neighbor; you are competing with the world.”

At the same time, there is a high level of collaboration among Umeå’s researchers; they share knowledge and give each other encouragement, Ekbeck said.

Umeå Biotech Incubator. Photo: Malin Grönborg

Building an ecosystem

About 3 000 people in Umeå work in the life sciences’ sector. The city’s strength in research helped the universities to grow and create an atmosphere that attracts talent, Ekbeck added.

“Other cities have had pharmaceutical research companies come and then begin to build an ecosystem with a lot of potential. Our goal is to build an ecosystem, attract capital and grow and stay here,” according to Ekbeck. “The universities also need the customer point of view; academics need to understand what they need to develop for business.”

The best life science incubator in Europe by 2023

One of the challenges for Umeå, and all of Sweden, is to grow larger life science companies. Currently about 88 percent of life science companies in Sweden are micro companies, Ekbeck said, and there are a few large companies, such as AstraZeneca.

“There are not many mid-size companies; we need to develop the micro companies into small and midsize enterprises. And Umeå’s biotech incubator is aiming to become the best life science incubator in Europe by 2023.”

Umea Biotech

Umeå university, Mahsa Fallah and Lisa Lundberg. Photo: Johan Gunseus

Public private partnerships

Another plus of working in Umeå is that Umeå University and Norrland’s University Hospital have a unique tradition of working closely together, creating an extremely short decision path, according to Robert Winroth, a member of the Västerbotten County Council and chairman of the board of VLL Innovation AB, which seeks to build partnerships between the healthcare sector and businesses, and is located in Umeå. The city also boasts a science park and the area provides a unique model for public-private partnerships, he said.

Norrland’s University Hospital has six profile areas: the treatment of plexus brachial injury, cardiovascular genetics, airborne intensive care transport, neonatal intensive care, stereotactic functional neurosurgery and radiotherapy.

Biotech and ICT

Winroth noted he expects the rapid expansion of technology in healthcare to continue.

“I see a merge of biotech and information and communication technologies (ICT),” he said. “It is a very exciting area; we have a lot of companies in this area, and of course, a very heavy focus on artificial intelligence (AI).”

Recruitment is key

While the city has done well drawing researchers, Winroth said making it easier for talented young people to come and stay could be effective.

“We might need a different kind of recruitment packages.”

“We might need a different kind of recruitment packages; design career pathways for younger researches, so they want to stay and grown their careers in Umeå. We need to focus on what makes us unique.”


7 X life science companies in Umeå


Nordic Biomarker: Manufactures latex reagents for coagulation and clinical chemistry analyzers.

Lipum: Developed a biological anti-inflammatory drug candidate to treat rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile iodiopathic arthritis.

Quretech: Working on creating first-line drugs that combat antibiotic resistance.

HiloProbe: The company’s biomarker test detects and characterizes cancer cells in lymph nodes of colorectal cancer patients.

InfiCure Bio: Focuses on preclinical development and validation of drugs that target chronic inflammatory and fibrotic conditions.

Uman Diagnostics: Developed a test for traumatic brain injury and slow neurodegenerative brain disease using cerebrospinal fluid or blood.

Betagenon: Seeks treatments for energy-balance disorders.