Tamlyn Oliver Managing Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
The region bets big in the quest for international renown.
Putting neighboring-city rivalries aside, government agencies and the life science communities in Stockholm and Uppsala, Sweden, have joined forces with plans to create an internationally renowned life science cluster. The region is boldly ambitious. Its ultimate goal is a position among the top five life science clusters globally. As this would mean unseating the likes of Boston, MA, San Francisco and San Diego, CA, the New York/New Jersey area, Cambridge, U.K., or France, this could be an arduous journey.
As many regions have learned the hard way, establishing a vibrant life science cluster is anything but easy. It is horribly naive and terribly expensive to think that you can build it and they will come.
But Stockholm-Uppsala is building it. Right now a new city district in Stockholm is taking shape to enhance an already burgeoning community. The university hospital New Karolinska Solna, which will be at the center of Hagastaden, is being conceived as an innovative healthcare provider. The surrounding neighborhood will also include almost 6 million square feet of business space intended for the life sciences as well as 5,500 new apartments (housing is in short supply in Stockholm). Upon completion in 2025, approximately 50,000 people will work in the city district, according to Ylva Williams, CEO, Stockholm Science City Foundation.
“This project is focused on building an environment promoting collaboration, and also unexpected meetings. We do have deep life science competence at the universities, the companies, and the hospitals. I am convinced that increased cooperation will be key to success,” Willliams adds.
This life science hub is being built in close proximity to Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Stockholm School of Economics. It is expected that the 100,000 students and 5,300 researchers at these universities will help entice multinational and nascent businesses to the area, Williams explains.
It’s not just the city and regional governments focused on building a world class center. Last fall, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrick Reinfeldt committed $320 million to the life sciences in Sweden. The majority of the investment will be made in the Stockholm-Uppsala regions. Sweden’s Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) will receive $100 million, and an additional $220 million will be invested in drug discovery, clinical research, antibiotic research, health in aging, and the use of patient registers.
SciLifeLab “combines state-of-the-art research infrastructure with a broad knowledge in translational medicine and molecular bioscience in order to translate discoveries into both tools and therapies,” explained Ola Bjorkman, CEO of Stockholm-Uppsala Life Science. The $100 million investment from the Swedish government more than doubles the government’s current funding of this research powerhouse.
SciLifeLab has two nodes: Stockholm and Uppsala. Both centers opened in 2010 and are considered to be national resources, providing services to the research community. Facilities include genomics, affinity proteomics, mass spec, functional biology, and bioimaging platforms. An R&D platform for commercializing drug targets is in the works at SciLifeLab Uppsala and should be operational in 2014.
Innovative research has long been a staple of the region. The first recorded life science invention from the area was the ultracentrifuge invented by Nobel Prize winner Theodor Svedberg in 1926. Twenty years later, in 1948, electrophoresis was conceived by another Stockholm-Uppsala based Nobel Prize winner. More recently, Pyrosequencing technology was invented at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and commercialized by Pyrosequencing AB, an Uppsala-based company that has since been acquired by Qiagen.
The region has more than its fair share of serial entrepreneurs. Many of them are university professors commercializing their research. Sweden’s professor’s privilege allows faculty members to own their intellectual property, even if obtained through public funding.
One of the region’s most prolific professors is Ulf Landegren, who formed Parallele Bioscience with Mostafa Ronaghi, one of the co-inventors of the Pyrosequencing technology, in 2001. The company was sold to Affymetrix in 2005. Dr. Landegren, an expert in molecular detection and amplification at Uppsala University and a SciLifeLab professor, has subsequently gone on to found Olink Bioscience and Qlinea.
A frequent collaborator with Dr. Landegren is Mats Nilsson, who was also a co-founder of Parallele, Olink, and Qlinea. Dr. Nilsson, a professor of molecular diagnostics at Uppsala University and a member of SciLifeLab, who is known for developing single molecule and single-cell gene analytic techniques, also founded Halo Genomics, which was acquired by Agilent in 2011.
Perhaps the most successful of the region’s entrepreneurs is Bengt Agerup, now chairman of the board of Olink and also founder of nxt2b, an investment firm. Dr. Agerup, a former Pharmacia executive, started Q-Med, which was subsequently sold to Galderma in 2011 for $1.2 billion. Q-Med’s main product was the dermal filler Restylane.
Dr. Agerup’s nxt2b is a privately owned VC firm with sizeable coffers; it invests only its own money and does not seek external capital. It has taken a stake in more than 30 companies since 2011. Companies in its portfolio include Olink, Vivolux, a drug discovery firm focused on cancer therapeutics, and BioLamina.
BioLamina was started by another serial entrepreneur, Karl Tryggvason, and is run by his son Kristian. The company offers a range of laminin cell culture products that, it says, help users to culture both stem cells and tissue-specific cells. Dr. Tryggvason, the dean of research at Karolinska Institutet, also co-founded BioStratum and NephroGenex.
Another VC firm in the region helping scientists get their ideas off the ground is Karolinska Development (KD). It also has a portfolio of around 30 companies, including Axelar, Aprea, Pergamum, Dilafor, and Clanotech. About 40% of its companies are based around research from Karolinska Institutet. KD has significant ownership in most of its portfolio companies, provides coaching and support, and typically tries to exit after proof of concept in Phase II trials.
Serendipity Innovation is an atypical VC. This funding group does not invest in business plans; it instead invests in prominent researchers and their ideas. The strategy involves working closely with customers to facilitate development of products and services that actually meet their needs and requirements. Serendipity has been operating since 2004, and has established more than 10 companies, including BinaryBio, which provides solutions for protein modeling, protein structure determination, docking, simulation, and distributed computing on heterogeneous architectures, and Xbrane Bioscience, which touts an innovative protein production platform.
Another commercialization option available to Swedish professors is taking advantage of the services offered by the universities’ innovation offices. Stockholm and Uppsala based universities are rapidly building this infrastructure and helping researchers who are less interested in starting businesses and more interested in focusing on their research and having someone else commercialize their discoveries.
The ingredients for a succesful biocluster include access to money, an educated workforce, innovative research, an entrepreneurial atmosphere, and support to get businesses off and running. All of these things are established in the Stockholm-Uppsala region right now.
Drs. Landegren, Agerup, Nilsson, and Tryggvason are just a handful of the scientists-turned-entrepreneurs driving growth in this region. If they can continue to be prolific and successful, if the scientists they have mentored over the years can follow in their footsteps, and, perhaps most importantly, if the trend toward selling nascent companies to multinationals reverses and small firms begin growing in Sweden, then Hagastaden should be bulging at the seams prior to its completion in 2025.