They took the plunge: “Academia prepares you for entrepreneurship”
Research and innovation go hand in hand. So say molecular biologists Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo, who have started their own immunotherapy company. The UCPH innovation centre, the Lighthouse, helped them take the plunge.
On one of the top floors of the Maersk Tower, Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo are working in the lab. They make up the majority of the team at a new company called Loma Therapeutics. Dressed in white lab coats, they are busy testing their immunotherapy – the very foundation of the company.
“Take those dots for example,” says CEO of Loma Ditte Boilesen enthusiastically.
She points at the flow of results appearing on the screen in front of her. It is a so-called flow cytometer, a machine that measures moving cells. The more dots you get, the more effective the treatment is, Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo explain as they watch the screen.
SUND Insight has joined them in the lab to learn more about the connection between academia and innovation.
Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo met at the bachelor programme in molecular biomedicine at the University of Copenhagen. They have been friends ever since, and in 2023 they also became partners in Loma Therapeutics, which aims to develop a cure for HPV infection. The name Loma comes from the name of the virus, human papilloma virus or HPV for short.
From academia to innovation
Neither Ditte Boilesen nor Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo had ever thought about starting their own company.
But after finishing her master’s thesis, Ditte Boilesen knew that she did not want to pursue a career in research.
“I will always be an ardent advocate of fundamental research. Without scientists propelled by curiosity, we would not get anywhere. I am just not motivated by curiosity, but by knowing that my research will be translated into practice,” says Ditte Boilesen.
The dots on the screen are replaced by a circle. But that is actually a good thing. Because while testing their own therapy, Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo are also testing the competition. And the dot-less result refers from a competing therapy.
“Isn’t that great? There are no dots,” says Ditte Boilesen.
Before Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo joined Loma Therapeutics, she did a postdoc at the Department of Neuroscience at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.
“As a student I developed an interest in innovation and entrepreneurship, and when Ditte shared her promising data with me, the HPV project caught my attention and joining the project was a no-brainer,” she says.
Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo believes her research training prepared her for a career in business.
“My PhD prepared me for this career path. You have to act as project manager and be able to do lots of different jobs. You need to prioritise your time and focus on the things that lead to progress. This gives you a lot of transferable skills, which you need to run a business,” says Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo and adds:
“Last spring, we spent a lot of time and energy writing funding applications. Here, our academic background has given us an edge. It paid off, and now we are able to work fulltime on the project.”
“The feedback I got from the team at the Lighthouse and the other entrepreneurs really made a difference”
The idea for the start-up came from Ditte Boilesen’s PhD project, which produced promising results.
“But neither my supervisor, Peter Holst, nor the other project partners were able to pursue the idea, so I decided to take matters into my own hands,” says Ditte Boilesen.
Today, Peter Holst and the other project partners have joined Loma Therapeutics as co-founders and scientific advisers.
To determine whether her idea for an HPV cure had commercial potential, Ditte Boilesen contacted the UCPH innovation centre, the Lighthouse.
“In the beginning, I spent a lot of time at the Lighthouse. The feedback I got from the team at the Lighthouse and the other entrepreneurs really made a difference. Also, it is a great place to hang out, and I got a desk and access to meeting rooms,” she says.
Today, Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo are part of the Novo Nordisk Foundation innovation incubator, the BioInnovation Institute. Here they work alongside other start-ups, who are happy to provide feedback and share experiences. At the same time, the funding that comes with the programme helps them accelerate the project, they explain.
“When we got our first funding, there was no turning back. We considered it a seal of approval and were extremely motivated by the fact that we were not the only ones who could see the potential. Now we are in the middle of a steep learning curve, and there are a lot of firsts, but it is fun and we are bagging a lot of experience,” says Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo.
Back in the lab the test is complete, and Ditte Boilesen and Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo both seem optimistic.
“At 2 p.m., we will get the result. Then I will have to do some analysing on a computer at the other end of the floor, and then I can enter the data into a spreadsheet that will do the calculations for us,” Ditte Boilesen explains.
Later that day, when they get the result, Stephanie Holstein-Rønsbo and Ditte Boilesen are happy.
“The test went really well. Everything worked as planned, and the results show that our treatment leads to more and stronger responses than the competing treatment.”
Journalist and press consultant Liva Polack
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