CEO of Notify Therapeutics, Karin Lykke-Hartmann, spent +20 years working as a scientist before transitioning to life science entrepreneur. As a professor in reproductive medicine at Aarhus University, Denmark, and an expert in reproductive science and translational medicine, she developed a first-in-class treatment for infertile women without standard hormone therapy.
Since September 2021, Notify Therapeutics has been part of the BII Creation House program. We talked with Karin Lykke-Hartmann about her journey as CEO of a women’s health start-up.
What was your way into women’s health innovation?
I have always been interested in reproductive science, specifically what happens to and in an egg on a molecular level before it is fertilized. Which molecules are present in the early cells in the ovaries and what are they signaling? When my group started investigating this ten years ago, it was no more than a scientific curiosity. Still, as the project matured, the team saw that it had the potential to help women who did not respond to the existing fertility treatment. I had already filed other inventions, but none of them had ever been pursued due to a lack of market potential. This one was different and after some meetings with the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) at Aarhus University (AU), we decided to file a patent. I had no idea how much work was ahead of me now.
What happened next?
Jointly with the TTO at AU, I started by making a few phone calls to pharma companies to tell them about the invention and to learn what they thought. I wanted to know what was required from them to buy it, but I quickly realized that the project was in its very early phases, and that really surprised me. I had been in the lab for ten years, and the industry, investors, and everyone else I talked to kept saying that it was very early stage. I thought it was advanced and ready, so I really had to get my head around that and adapt. From there, I started going for non-dilutive funding from, among others the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Innovation Foundation. I built the project step by step to become just a little bit less very early stages. The funding was enough to make progress but not enough to hire a team, so I was on my own, I was dependent on the advice provided, and the project was still embedded in the academic world.
When did you transition into CEO with a team behind you?
Being accepted into the BII Creation House was a game changer. It was enough money to hire a team, and it also meant I had to start a company. I was a bit scared about that because I had never owned a company and was concerned about what would happen if I failed. Knowing how far I had come and that so many people believed in the project made me go for it. In the process, I got an insight into how a project is evaluated from a business perspective. It was fascinating and different from what I am used to in the scientific world. I was so happy to see that I had found a solution to an unmet need that business people also acknowledged as a good case.
What does a day look like for you?
It is a lot of planning and a lot of meetings. The team is spread across many locations, so most of our meetings are online. We discuss our next steps, and I constantly pitch to investors and improve our slides as we get feedback and new data on the progress. I enjoy being out there and like working in a team. In academia, students come and go, but in Notify Therapeutics we are deeply committed, which makes us strong.
What is it like to work in a space that is on the rise?
Initially, it challenged me that I was not working on therapies for very ill or terminal patients, but the interest in women’s health is increasing. Infertility is a severe disease, and most of us know people who have been through fertility treatment, and some of us know couples who failed. It is becoming less of a taboo, and that helps a lot. With more media attention, more investors are also interested in hearing about our invention, and I am quite often invited to speak about my journey in this space.
Any words of wisdom to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t be scared. There will be many things you don’t know and that you will have to learn, but it will be fun as long as you are willing to adapt.