Mathias Uhlén is a very well-known person in Swedish biotech. Since 1988 he has led a group at KTH School of Engineering Sciences in Chemistry, Biotech and Health and since 2012 he has also been the Scientific Director at DTU Biosustain. His research has led to more than 600 publications, and 14 start-ups have come out of his group at KTH – four of which have IPO’ed – two in Sweden, one in Norway and one in Korea.
In the 90s his group developed a new method for DNA sequencing – pyrosequencing – which transformed the field of genomes and medicine. Since 2003, he has led the international effort to map the human proteome and transcriptome systematically and with that created one of the largest biological databases in the world. It is named the Human Protein Atlas and it is an open access source with an average of 20 citings every day.
When asked about his motivation, Mathias Uhlén points to two things: In the long run, he is motivated by wanting to make a difference either by providing basic research or by commercializing innovations to change people’s lives. In his daily life, he is motivated merely by the creative atmosphere that comes from driving a project forward and having to make good decisions every single day.
In 2010 he founded the SciLifeLab in both Stockholm and Uppsala which with its two locations bring more than 1000 scientists together every day from Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm University and Uppsala University. Today, he holds a board member position in SciLifeLab.
At his visit to BioInnovation Institute, we asked Mathias Uhlén a few questions about his work and visions.
What do you see happening in entrepreneurial biotech in Sweden?
In Sweden, we have teacher’s privilege which means the university researchers own their innovations. Although it has both pros and cons, we see a high number of life science start-ups come out of the universities and it is important to have a lot of flowers to pick from so to speak. For many years Sweden has had a great entrepreneurial environment and in 2017, Sweden actually had the third highest number of IPO’s in the world after the US and China. But I must admit that it was a good year.
What is your vision for SciLifeLab?
What we did with SciLifeLab was to move faculties from the different universities together to create a multidisciplinary environment. We needed the infrastructure to bring everyone together and today that is in place at SciLifelab. I am still part of SciLifeLab as a board member, and a scientist and my vision is that SciLifeLab becomes one of the major hubs for data-driven life science in the world.
How do you see BII and SciLifeLab benefit from one another?
I am extremely impressed by the setup for promoting life science innovation and entrepreneurship here at BioInnovation Institute. I see that a lot of the science and innovations that come out of SciLifeLab could move to BioInnovation Institute to further develop. Denmark and Sweden form a little Silicon Valley in Europe because both countries have very good scientific bases and entrepreneurial platforms: In the later years, the universities in both countries have also become much better in helping people form companies to commercialize research.
What are the most important things for a life science start-up to be aware of in the early stages?
It is very important to define your competitive edge and position in the market, and it is also necessary to be number one in your niche. Simply because it is tough to make it if you are number two or three. But a niche can be many things – geographical, clinical or scientific and a small niche equals small money while a large niche equals a lot.