In October 2018, the search for a CEO of BioInnovation Institute ended when the Novo Nordisk Foundation announced that Jens Nielsen would step in and take the role upon him from February 1, 2019. 100 days have passed since his first day as CEO, so we decided to ask him a few questions about his career and BII.
Jens Nielsen is a highly respected researcher and entrepreneur not only in Denmark and Sweden, but also internationally. Based on his impressive academic career and knowledge from founding companies, he was chosen to lead BII on the continued journey to help entrepreneurial researchers bring their life science closer to the market.
During his career, his research has resulted in more than 700 publications and more than 50 patents, and he has led a research group at Chalmers University of Technology (CTH) in Sweden and held a position as Chief Science Officer at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability at DTU in Denmark.
The list of honorary positions and awards he has received throughout the years is long, but despite his academic accomplishments, he did not grow up in an academic family. His family on both his mother’s and father’s side are entrepreneurs and he was the first in his family to finish high school. Jens Nielsen himself also felt absolutely certain that he would leave academia to work in the industry after graduating from DTU, but a very persuasive professor made him think twice. He saw an academic potential in Jens Nielsen and advised him to go down that path and Jens Nielsen agreed to it on one condition. He wanted to continue the close collaboration he had already built with the industry.
“I had learned that it gives quality to academic research to address a specific problem and it is in the close collaboration with industry that solutions become applicable. Because of that, it has always been important for me to keep that dual view in my work and it has fostered my entrepreneurial interest.”, says Jens Nielsen.
From board member to CEO
Due to his work with the Novo group, he learned about the BioInnovation Institute years ago when the Novo Nordisk Foundation began to discuss the idea of an institute for commercialization of life science research. He was asked to join the Board of Directors during the first three years of establishment and a few months later he was offered the position as CEO.
In the past 100 days, he has split his time and energy between his group at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering at CTH and BioInnovation Institute, which he is committed to developing into an independent spin-out from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
What does a successful BII look like?
Our main focus is to foster investable companies that can make an impact on global society by creating jobs and new solutions. We take in start-ups that don’t have anywhere else to go and enable them to develop by giving them a home where similar companies experience similar problems. We give them a network of mentors and investors and support them in the early stages, and I believe that we have already proven that we fill a void.
What attracted you to the job?
I like to see things grow and prosper, and I like the process of building organizations. I also enjoy interacting with people, brainstorming and hearing other people’s perspectives. At BioInnovation Institute I had the opportunity to do all of this and to make business out of science. I remember how big of an eye opener it was for me to file my first patent many years ago. I would like to help start-ups to overcome the many barriers there are by mentoring them and connecting them with the right people.
How did you approach your new role?
My first task was to meet the BII team and establish a culture of trust. I am sometimes asked which accomplishments I am most proud of and that is my ability to build cultures. I am in favor of delegating responsibilities and I think it is very important to show trust in people and support them in their capability to make decisions on their own. I am available to help when needed, but I will always ask the team member what they believe is the best solution because they know better than I do. And when you foster this kind of culture, most people rise with it.
What do your days look like?
They are filled with meetings from 8-18 which currently leaves very little time to work with the start-ups. I hope that will change, but right now I spend a lot of my time securing the continuation of BioInnovation Institute beyond 2020. It is important for me to meet with our stakeholders from the universities, companies, committees and I am also investing time in understanding the processes at BII and that is simply learning by doing. In general, I see a strong tailwind from all sides which confirms the need for BII and we must use that in our continued voyage.
Which role do you see the universities play in fostering entrepreneurship?
Universities should be a place of free thinking and it takes an element of anarchy to think freely and allow ideas to arrive. It is opposite to what happens when you build a company and because of this, I don’t believe a university is the right place to teach entrepreneurship. Instead, initiatives like BII must work closely with the universities to support the ideas that are generated from here.
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in academia?
Instead of trying to develop a start-up yourself, my advice is to engage with experienced entrepreneurs. Find someone who will drive the project full time while you can hold a part-time role. Eventually, you will have to make a key decision around where you want to be and engage fully in that because it is very difficult to commit in both worlds and although I have done that, I will not recommend it. Building a start-up can be a big risk financially, but if you have been successful in academia you can use the same energy and drive in the business world.
You like to read books – which would you recommend to entrepreneurs?
I would like to recommend two books that have fascinated me. One is “The Marshmellow Test” which is about the importance of stamina and about resisting instant gratification to win in the long run. The other is “Outliers” which is about how it is important to spend a lot of hours in order to achieve skills and competence in any field. People who do well may seem lucky to others, but in most cases they have just worked really hard.