Researcher profile: Ulf Landegren
“I want to build the Company with a capital C in Uppsala”
He ran his first laboratory as a teenager, established his career at Caltech and, since his return to Uppsala, his team has brought forth a string of companies worth billions. Ulf Landegren’s CV is one few can match, but there are still visions to achieve.
“My first contact with research came about almost by chance. A high school girlfriend got a job at Ultuna, so to be close to her I arranged a job as an adjunct lab assistant. I got a lab to myself and had a huge amount of fun. I re-invented other people’s wheels, tested my own ideas and wrote my first article at the age of 20. The relationship ended soon, but I had found my place anyway,” observes Ulf Landegren, Professor of Molecular Medicine.
It is 45 years later and his passion for science has anything but cooled – and his enthusiasm is reciprocated. With his team, he has built an exceptional patent portfolio in the molecular medicine field with inventions that have in turn laid the foundation for a string of successful companies.
“Several of my doctoral students have become euro millionaires, but for me, money has mattered less than the opportunity to influence the business. My vision is and continues to be to build the Company with a capital C and keep it in Uppsala. Unfortunately, the companies are often sold as soon as the price is right. I haven’t given up, but we need more people who fight for successful companies to stay in Sweden.”
After earning his PhD at Uppsala University, his sights were first set on France, but once again, chance took a hand. At a dinner, Landegren shared the table with Leroy Hood, an American pioneer in large-scale molecular biology, and by the time dessert arrived, they shook hands on Ulf joining Hood’s laboratory at Caltech. He travelled over with his newly wed wife and ended up staying in California for five years.
“I can’t describe my first period in the US as particularly successful, but I made important contacts, laid the foundation for my own research team, and above all came up with an invention that resulted in good publications and enough royalties for me to be able, back in Sweden, to begin to build up what, over the years, has become a considerable collection of patents,” explains Landegren.
The return to Uppsala also meant that Landegren came up on the radar of research philanthropist Anders Wall, and with his financial support, ground was broken on a research environment that at times has had more than 40 people on the payroll, schooled several successful scientists and entrepreneurs and not least generated several molecular technologies of use to research and diagnostics the world over.
“Almost ten years ago, I was interviewed in the newspaper Metro, which claimed that we ‘DNA carpenters’ are working in one of the big professions of the future. Besides an apt description of what we do and that the field is definitely making major advances that benefit a lot of people, I have a hard time seeing the profession growing on a par with the IT industry, for example.”
Landegren categorises his current role as the PowerPoint experimenter, a creator who thinks up and visualises what needs to be done and then waits for the person who can complete the sketch and turn it into a reality to appear. Those who join the team face well-defined expectations.
“I’m looking for colleagues who can take initiatives, build with their own hands and improve the ideas. I may not be the most discerning recruiter, but I’ve had the privilege of surrounding myself with many extremely skilled, often entrepreneurially driven researchers. It’s probably they who have found me, and they have often played a driving role in establishing the successful companies our team lies behind,” says Landegren.
In 2013, Landegren was awarded ‘Hjärnäpplet’, Uppsala University’s prestigious Innovation Prize. The citation emphasises his entrepreneurial contributions in molecular technologies and his leading role in developing the city’s already strong environment for biotechnology tools.
“Personally, I primarily see myself as a problem-solving engineer who wants to invent tools that contribute to better healthcare, research and knowledge about how nature works, but to be sure, commercial potential is necessary if the technology is to become widely available. However, Swedish research faces a unique challenge here as every application for government funding is public record, which prevents later patenting of the inventions described. A few colleagues and I have discussed the matter with the ministry, and now an inquiry has been appointed, which will hopefully enable applications that don’t make patenting impossible.”
At the same time, he is careful to underline Uppsala’s internationally strong position in the field. He especially emphasises the creative research environment and its successful collaboration with business, a fortunate combination that stands up well by European comparison.
“Look at the government’s strategic initiative SciLifeLab that was originally intended for Stockholm, but after Uppsala had lined up its forces in molecular technology, we were allocated joint responsibility together with Stockholm. Now we have this incredibly significant resource that I really hope the university continues to take care of for maximised benefit.”
Over the summer, Landegren turned 65, an age many long for. But as for countless other researchers, for Landegren it is just another birthday. He describes himself as a dedicated recreational cyclist and enthusiastic book reader, but otherwise doesn’t claim to have much talent for a life as a pensioner.
“I suspect that my wife doesn’t dream of having me at home all day long. Personally, I would rather surround myself with a small, dedicated research team where I might even have time to work at the lab bench myself. Preferably in an entirely new field. I’m a staunch supporter of the value of trying new paths, and proteins and I might soon be done with one another. Well, all I know is that I have far too much fun still ahead of me in research to sit down and feed the birds at the pond.”
Facts: Ulf Landegren
Family: Wife and three adult sons.
Reading: Howard’s End on my mobile phone – which has room for a rather extensive library.
As soon as I have time: I travel to our summer home in the Öregrund area.
The last compliment: Was one I recently gave to a capable colleague and recommended him a job he should apply for even if I would prefer to keep him on our team.
Ultimately, I want everyone: To live a rich, intellectual life and acquire enough knowledge to avoid populism.