Smolke: "Failures are the best lessons learned" - BioInnovation Institute

Smolke: “Failures are the best lessons learned”

Smolke: “Failures are the best lessons learned”

Different kinds of companies require different types of CEOs. The words come from the Stanford Professor and prominent life science entrepreneur, Christina Smolke when asked directly during her ‘Talk at the Square’ at BioInnovation Institute (BII), why she hasn’t decided to step down from the highest position in Antheia and transition into a position as CSO with a core focus on science.

Smolke co-founded Antheia in 2015 based on outstanding research to harness the most beneficial molecules from plants to create active pharmaceutical ingredients. The company has built an engineering platform that would, in theory, replace the need for plant-derived compounds, using engineered yeast cells as a ‘small factory’ to produce molecules at a commercial scale. Molecules that could be used in the production of essential medicines to the benefit of both human and planetary health.

“In a therapeutics company, it makes sense to get an experienced CEO on board who knows from A-Z how to bring a drug to market and has done it multiple times before. Antheia is offering a synthetic biology platform and it is a trickier ‘product’ to sell to investors. For us, it is valuable to have one steering the company who understands the whole scientific and technological foundation that the company’s business model is built upon.”

While based on historical records it seems fair to question the decision to remain CEO as a scientific founder, Smolke’s scientific profile can’t be disputed. She was recently awarded the Novozymes Prize for Chemical and Biochemical Engineering; she has been a Professor at Stanford University for more than 10 years and has also figured on MIT’s 35 under 35. The achievements speak for themselves.

But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, and she has received more no’s than you can count on two hands. Something that people tend to easily forget when only looking at her accomplishments.

“The journey with Antheia started as an uphill battle and there were many bumps on the road. As a Professor, I applied for numerous grants, and most of the grant applications were rejected as funding institutions are still rather conservative. Our project was more risky and very ambitious, but failures are the best lessons learned,” says Smolke.

More than $100M in funding

In the end, persistence paid off and seven years after co-founding Antheia, the company reached more than $100M in funding after raising a Series B investment of $73M in June 2021.

Based on her own experiences, Smolke is keen on giving a piece of important advice to other life science entrepreneurs.

“The investor landscape is broad and there are many different routes to take when fundraising. So, make sure to map the whole investor landscape and to think out of the box when looking for potential investors,” she emphasizes.

Thinking differently and challenging the status quo has laid the foundation of Smolke’s whole career, even though at times it would perhaps have been easier to cut corners.

“Passion is the driver and in an early-stage life science start-up you need to surround yourself with people who share your passion and vision for the company and some who are willing to put the hard work into making the vision become reality,” she ends.

The interview with Christina Smolke was made when she visited BioInnovation Institute to give a ‘Talks at the Square”. You can already sign up for the upcoming Talks at the Square events with Dr. Sang Yup Lee and Kristina Lagerstedt here:

Join our Talks at the Square with Sang Yup Lee (29 April)

Join our Talks at the Square with Kristina Lagerstedt (2 May)

Read our impact report and get acquainted with the progress that BII experienced during 2021

Read more
Impact Report 2021