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“I understand the clinical part of this business”

Sirpa Jalkanen is a professor in the Academy of Finland, board member of Orion, and cofounder with her husband, Markku Jalkanen, of BioTie Therapies (founded in 1998), and Faron Pharmaceuticals (founded in 2007). The companies develop drugs for inflammation and immune-related conditions. In 2016, BioTie was acquired by Acorda Therapeutics.

How did you turn basic research findings into companies?

“When we returned from Finland [from working at Stanford University], I was doing independent research. My group discovered a new target molecule that is important for controlling inflammation and the spread of cancer. We knew people at Stanford who started companies so my husband took a big risk and left his university position to run a company.”

How involved are you today in your companies?

“In the beginning I was involved daily but the mindset in academia and industry are completely different. My basic personality is more like a discoverer, so now I work at the proof-of-concept level. I try to find out if new things work or not. I’m involved at the intellectual level when we talk about developing targets and what we should do next. Because I’m a medical doctor and I’ve taken care of patients, I understand the clinical part of this business. I understand the end users and I know about the genetics of diseases so I give that type of help.”

What has been the key to your success in the life science industry?

“Funding is the critical issue. We were funded by Tekes, the Finnish funding agency for innovation, which supported us all along with different types of instruments. That was very necessary, especially at the beginning. It’s been a difficult journey, so I should emphasize that it’s my husband who runs the companies and he has never given up. He’s the reason for our success.”

You’ve said that Finland is a good place for women entrepreneurs. What can other countries learn from Finland?

“Finland has always been a good place for education. A big reason is that teachers at all levels are highly respected. When surveys ask about the most meaningful professions, teaching is always very high. The training to be a teacher is a university education and it’s hard to get in. Our best students go on to be teachers. Our education system is innovative, exploring different ways to learn and teach. As for the environment for women, we have good maternity leave and daycare. The support for being a mom and still working is well organized at the community level. A good thing in Finland is you can be an individual. You can be president, like Tarja Halonen [Finland’s president, 2000–2012] or be a mom at home if you want. For me, when I was a kid, I always played with boys so working a lot with men doesn’t bother me. I think I know how they think and I’m comfortable in their environment.”

What advice do you have for life scientists and entrepreneurs?

“Trust yourself. A healthy self-confidence is good to have. Know what you can and can’t do and then set your aims at little bit high and trust that you can do it.”


Photo: Hanna Oksanen