Teamwork is important throughout the development of a company, but never more so than in the early stages of a startup. Charlotte Edenius, co-founder and VP Business and Clinical development at Gesynta Pharma in Sweden, knows this well. With more than 20 years experience working in the industry, she knows how important it is for biotech leaders to be good at networking and managing people.
After doing a medical degree and PhD at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Edenius decided that a career in clinical medicine and academic research was not for her and started working in drug development at what later became AstraZeneca.
When AstraZeneca started expanding rapidly in the late 90’s, Edenius felt the pull of the biotech world and joined a small startup called Biolipox as CSO. Since then she has worked in senior research and development positions at the Swedish biotechs Orexo and Medivir, as well as setting up her own consultancy firm Allmora Life Science.
In 2017, Edenius co-founded Gesynta Pharma with a group of five colleagues and friends, all working in the area of inflammation science in Sweden. The company was founded to develop a cardio-protective therapy from Orexo, which is currently being tested in early clinical trials.
What inspired you to work in industry?
I started by getting my medical degree and my PhD at the Karolinska Institutet, where I was doing academic research in inflammatory processes and inflammation. I was planning to continue with clinical science and with a clinical career, which is obviously not what happened.
Instead, I got an opportunity to join AstraZeneca or Astra, as it was at the time. I was very impressed by the way drug development in the pharmaceutical industry worked. Joining forces in various types of projects with lots of experts working towards the same goal, the same objective of finding new efficient and safe treatments for patients where there’s an unmet medical need – that was what made me continue to work with drug development.
What made you move away from big pharma into biotech?
Astra merged with Zeneca in the late 90’s and I felt that it became too large of a company for me. I’m more of a person who wants to handle faster decision-making and being able to have a flexible, dynamic way of working.
When I got an opportunity to be part of starting a biotech company, it was an easy decision for me. I moved to, at the time, a very small company called Biolipox. It was formed around new discoveries at the Karolinska Institutet.
As a very early company, Biolipox consisted of a CEO and the scientific founders. I came in as the first employee to head up the research activities and start building the company together with the CEO.
Did you find that having worked in pharma was helpful for the transition?
Absolutely! That was a key requisite. When you come from academia – at least at that time, I know it has changed a bit – you have no experience, no knowledge about drug discovery and drug development since you are working in an academic setting.
You’re not focusing on developing drugs or finding drugs to hit a target or your mechanism of action, even though that is what you ultimately want to achieve for the benefit of the patient. So having had that background in AstraZeneca was absolutely a prerequisite to be able to start building Biolipox in a more efficient and optimal way towards drug development than if I had not had that background.
What inspired you to co-found Gesynta Pharma?
I wanted to take a step back into the science, which has been my driver throughout my whole career. I’ve never taken on a CEO role, however, I’ve had a number of VP positions heading up various R&D organisations and thereby held positions in the management teams to actively take part in and drive the development of the companies I’ve been working for. I wanted to continue to do that.
We’re early in the lifespan of the company and we are working as a team – sharing and combining competences and activities. This, I think, is the beauty in early stages in small startups. It’s teamwork and everyone is extremely excited, with a lot of respect for each other’s competence while working very closely together.
How has biotech and its relationship with big pharma changed over the last 20 years?
I think it’s changed tremendously. As we all know, big pharma have reduced and are continuously reducing their early discovery activities.
Lots of small biotechs and small startups were starting to pop up 15 years ago. Today, the biotech ecosystem has matured. I’m talking about small and medium-sized biotech and startups – they are much, much more mature. There’s a lot of seniority in leading positions and many easily-accessible service providers so that you can really run multiple drug development programs in a very small, virtual company, with high excellence in both science and business.
I think it’s much more flexible – the way we work with drug development today, small biotechs and early-stage partnerships with big pharmas. The smaller companies obviously cannot take on large phase III programs if the indications are broad.
I also believe the smaller pharmas and biotechs have much easier access to and closer collaboration with academia, being able to pick up new ideas, new discoveries and mature them into development programs, which can then be partnered… I think it has changed for the better.
What are your biggest management lessons after your time in the industry?
This is not going to come as a surprise, I think. The biggest lesson, hopefully for everyone, is that leadership is all about managing people, and I think that is something that you learn throughout your career. You never fully learn and you’re always in new situations and you need to be very humble about that.
The other aspect in the biotech industry is that science is the driving force and it should also be, in my mind, what drives the company. That, together with the management of people, is what I have learnt as the winning formula.
The important thing is seeing and recognizing the difference between personalities in the scientific world. As in other industries as well, we need to have the different personalities – those who are outgoing and good at networking, those that like digging into all the scientific details, and those that are good at managing but still have a scientific and science-driven core driving force. That’s definitely part of what needs to be there to build a team in biotech and build the business.
What are your top tips for someone wanting to set up a new biotech?
It all depends on who that person is, from a personality point of view. First of all, I would ask them what they want to achieve with setting up a business. That may differ very much from person to person.
Secondly, I would advise them to find someone or a group of people who have done this before, to guide and support, and as we say in Swedish, ‘put their noses in the right direction’. Also to not read into all their mistakes, but focus on what is really important in setting up a business.
How do you approach getting funding for a company?
It is useful to have a combination of someone who is outgoing and good at networking, with the experience of business and deal making with small and big pharmas, together with a very careful and skilled science person to stand up for and respond to specific scientific questions.
You usually don’t get very many opportunities to speak with potential partners. You therefore need to, both the first time you meet and continuously throughout the relationship, keep the trust very high from a scientific point of view, because that is really what sells the program.
Do you think the biotech industry in Europe is getting stronger compared with the US?
It’s a difficult question. It’s a different world in a way because of all the money in the US; that’s a major difference. I do believe that Europe is getting stronger. Are we as strong as the US? No, not yet. Will we be as strong as the US? I doubt it, based on the availability of capital and venture capital.
I believe that we can still become even stronger, but we do need to look at how to finance the so-called ‘valley of death’ – when you go from smaller, less expensive activities in early discovery, to starting development activities that are much more expensive and risky. That is a difficult time in the development of small startups – to become a biotech company with clinical programs.
As a woman in a very male-dominated industry, do you think it’s a problem that we have so few women at senior levels in biotech? Is there anything we can do to boost that?
It actually took me some time to realize that, to be honest, because it simply was the norm for me in most of my working situations. For example, being out and talking at conferences, especially investors meetings or partnering meetings there is an extreme male dominance. However, when you go to more scientific conferences it’s more balanced.
When I started to get female colleagues on management teams or on boards it was very beneficial for the discussion on a group level. I’m always careful about drawing any conclusions, but on a group level, I believe that a more balanced team, both in management teams and boards, is beneficial and adds value to whatever that team is to produce and deliver.
I think the hurdles are still in the really top layers – the management teams and boards. We need to be aware of it and discuss it, we need to have role models – that’s definitely important.
The discussion has changed over the last 10 years with all the debate about female representation on the boards. I experience a true will today to balance boards. It’s just a bad excuse to say there are no competent women available… and I hope we will continue to see more women on boards because I do think that it’s valuable.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you started in biotech?
This is a very honest answer: I would probably advise myself to work a little bit less. The work is so exciting, it’s so fun and you’re willing to put your heart and soul into it at an early stage.
But, it’s important to also have a little bit of breathing time in between and do a few other things because that also adds value to whatever you do in biotech. It’s such a fantastic environment and opportunity to be in the biotech area that you tend to work too much. That’s the advice I would give myself.
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