Groundbreaking vaccines against cancer, infectious diseases, and the coronavirus are being developed at Oslo Science Park. The road to success has been unnecessarily steep, according to Norway's most successful biotechnology entrepreneur.
Photo: Angelique Culvin Riccot
Biotech company Nykode Therapeutics (formerly Vaccibody) is experiencing busy days. In just the past year, they have more than doubled their workforce, gone public, initiated the construction of a new laboratory, and landed a lucrative deal with pharmaceutical giant Genentech, the world's leading developer of immunotherapy-based vaccines and treatments.
"The past year has been different for us," says the company's co-founder and Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Agnete Brunsvik Fredriksen.
"We are currently experiencing a period of almost exponential growth. We have gone from 35 to 90 employees, and we are not done with recruiting yet. We have many plans and projects, so we need to hire even more people. And with so much money in the bank, we have an obligation to put it to work and create value," she says.
Rewind fourteen years, and the situation was quite different. At that time, Fredriksen, a Ph.D. candidate, had just completed her thesis on targeted vaccine molecules. She decided to go all-in on further developing and commercializing the technology, hoping to one day offer immunotherapy-based vaccines for cancer. The initial capital was a hundred thousand Norwegian kroner.
In comparison, the deal with Genentech, which grants the company exclusive rights to further develop vaccines based on Nykode's technology, is worth 6.7 billion Norwegian kroner.
Agnete Brunsvik Fredriksen went against the tide when she built a company based on her own Ph.D. Now, Nykode has secured a billion-dollar deal with the world's leading company in immunotherapy-based treatment and, for the occasion, is moving into its own specially built lab at Oslo Science Park.
Lack of commercialization culture
However, Fredriksen is open about the fact that the path from promising research to a successful company has been rocky and steep.
"In retrospect, I see that progress was incredibly slow in the beginning. There were many obstacles, and it probably affected me as a person," she explains.
Naturally, much of it has to do with taking some missteps as a fledgling entrepreneur. But Fredriksen also believes that the conditions were not particularly favorable for a biotech company like Nykode Therapeutics to succeed.
"There wasn't much of a culture for commercializing research," she says.
Furthermore, a biotech company with Nykode Therapeutics' technology and ambitions relies on global investments and global expertise to grow and make an impact in the market. And over a decade ago, Oslo was not a great springboard, according to Fredriksen.
"In my experience, it would have been much easier for us to break through in the international investor community if we had been based in Boston, for example. The support system around us wasn't particularly strong. It seemed like there was more focus on creating competition between Norwegian biotech companies instead of lifting each other up."
Fortunately, changes have occurred in the past fifteen years, making the journey a bit smoother for today's entrepreneurs.
"I see that there has been a slow but steady cultural change in academia. More people have realized that if the medicines they develop are to reach the patients, they need to go through the commercial biotech sector. There is also more understanding that good research is happening in companies, not just at universities," she says, adding:
"The entire system to help biotech companies has become more professional and internationalized. There is much better support now for scaling and building networks."
The importance of flexibility, meeting points, and networks
There were some bright spots in the early years, particularly when the company secured premises at Oslo Science Park in 2011. At that time, the company had three employees.
"We have received excellent support here. They have been very flexible. When you're starting up, you don't know how things will turn out, but here we have been able to scale up and down as needed. That flexibility has been immensely helpful," she says.
"Plus, having access to laboratories here has been crucial for us. Setting up your own lab is not easy, especially for a small startup."
Fredriksen believes that the concentration of knowledge at Oslo Science Park and the surrounding environment provides a fertile ground for innovation and growth.
"It is essential to have meeting places where you can meet others working on similar projects. That way, you don't have to start from scratch every time. Large biotech communities abroad excel in this, and I wish we did more of it here," she says.
In Oslo Science Park, Nykode Therapeutics has received valuable growth support, with access to facilities, networks, and expertise. "The entire system to help biotech companies has become more professional and internationalized," says founder Agnete Brunsvik Fredriksen.
"I missed this a lot in the beginning. This information sharing, which allows you to skip unnecessary steps, like not having to search for information that someone else already has. But a lot has happened in that regard as well."
Much of what is written about Nykode Therapeutics naturally revolves around the company itself. Therefore, we must not forget to talk about the fact that many exciting - and potentially very useful - advancements are actually taking place in the lab.
"We are now conducting four exciting clinical trials simultaneously, including a fully individualized form of cancer vaccine and a next-generation COVID-19 vaccine," says Fredriksen.
But even though her research underlies the company, she doesn't have much time to engage in lab work herself.
"I enjoy focusing on building the company. It's a comprehensive project to go from a small, experimental biotech company with few employees and few programs to a massive operation with global partners. So, I work a lot on the organization and getting the right people on board."
"It's very busy, but at the same time, it gives a good feeling," she concludes.
Nykode Therapeutics continues to grow. See their available positions here: vaccibody.com/career.