“Uppsala offers excellent opportunities for innovations”
23 August 2019
Hi, Helena Danielson, professor of biochemistry and this year’s recipient of Hjärnäpplet, the innovation prize at Uppsala University. The explanatory statement indicates that you have been very successful in combining research and academic leadership with entrepreneurship and innovation. How do you think this has come about?
“Compared with my international colleagues, we have several advantages. As a researcher and teacher at a Swedish university, we have the opportunity for both intellectual property rights of academic staff and secondary employment, and that means I can actually devote myself to this kind of activity on the side. This does not work equally well in other places, so that gives us a head start.
And we have a very strong innovation environment in Uppsala, which has helped me a great deal. When we were going to start Beactica, we chose to do so in Uppsala instead of in Stockholm because we received a lot more support here. This is not primarily about money but about guidance, courses and experts who can be consulted. So there are good opportunities at Uppsala University for linking research with innovation.”
What do you have going on right now on the innovation front?
“We are collaborating with a Chinese company that wants to conduct innovative research on biopharmaceuticals and medical technology devices. They have told us that they need to do this in Sweden instead of in China because we have both the mindset and the expertise. This is very exciting for us both because it is a new area for us and because they work in a different way than we are accustomed to. It also affects how we educate our students, who need to understand what is involved in producing biopharmaceuticals.”
What kind of pharmaceuticals are you researching?
“Among other things, the company is working with a mussel-based protein used to treat burns and superficial wounds. We have some other ideas about how we could use the protein, and we need to produce synthetic versions of the protein to test these ideas. That is an example of what we can do in Uppsala. We are good at ‘protein engineering’ and the production of proteins. It’s very exciting!”
In 2006 you started Beactica, a company that developed a method platform for effective identification and development of pharmaceutical candidates. What is your role in the company now?
“I do not have operational responsibility as head of research anymore, but I serve on the board and as a scientific advisor. The company has now gone from being a service company with specialist expertise that helps large pharmaceutical companies to a company focusing on its own projects that include both identification and optimisation of potential pharmaceutical candidates, such as various types of pre-clinical studies. We have a very exciting cancer project in which we have identified a new way to treat a severe form of brain cancer called glioblastoma, and we have come quite far in this project.”
How did you become involved with developing innovations?
“As a professor at the university, I want to do something relevant, both in teaching and in research. I have collaborated with industry since defending my doctoral thesis. When researchers from Astra started Medivir in 1988, I was one of the university researchers who helped a lot initially. I saw then what it was like for a small company like Medivir to evolve and thought it was really exciting that my expertise could also be of use in the industry.
So when I got the idea of Beactica, I thought: “If we could start Medivir and make it fly, why couldn’t Beactica succeed?’ Since I had a model; I saw that it could be done. I believe having a close collaboration between industry and academia is successful and a very good Swedish model. I have made sure that all my doctoral students have experience working with pharmaceutical or biotech companies so they learn early on what it is like in the industry. Most have ended up in really good places.”
What is your advice to others who want to work with innovations?
“Get to know people who work in the industry and find out what problems they have. That is one way. How can you work together? Build collaborations with industry to understand what is going on and what is interesting. There is no harm in collaborating with industry, and it can be advantageous to do so. If you have ideas of your own that you want to develop, you should take advantage of the expertise and all the experience available here in Uppsala.”
Helena Danielson is a professor of biochemistry and enzymology. She has conducted research on developing pharmaceuticals to treat HIV, hepatitis C and cancer. Since the late 1980s, she has collaborated with industry on various projects, and she formed Beactica AB in 2006. While helping to develop companies and drug candidates, she has continued to develop her research and contacts with students and research groups at Uppsala University. She also actively participates in the innovation environment to improve opportunities for the Life Science sector in Uppsala and Stockholm.