I meet Anders on the 4th floor at Copenhagen Bioscience Park where Orphazyme have had offices and labs since their early days. Grown substantially they now occupy a large part of the entire floor and have decorated it somewhat different than the rest of the building. Especially the lounge area with coffee machines really generates a nice atmosphere.
Anders is in a very good mood, dressed casually and smiling when I meet him to talk about the company’s story and his own views on the biotech environment in Denmark.
“We founded the company back in 2009 based on two fundamental pillars: we wanted to keep a very tight focus on rare diseases and use the technology that was developed by our current CSO, Thomas Kirkegaard Jensen and professor Marja Jäättelä from the Danish Cancer Society to develop new medicines. This technology has a potential to treat specific protein misfolding diseases which is a very large universe of diseases with a high unmet need.”
The focus on rare diseases have been in the DNA of Orphazyme since the foundation and there is no chance on avoiding the topic during the next 20 minutes – especially not when you consider the name of the company.
“We founded the company in 2009 just after the financial crisis and I was working in a venture capital fund. The whole biotech community suffered from limited resources. We wanted to focus on diseases where you could bring a project forward in the most cost-efficient way and that is in rare diseases. In rare diseases, you also have a very high unmet need because they have not seen any attention from the pharma companies over the years. These are patient populations that are very motivated and passionate about developing medicines for the disease and where you can really see a lot of assistance and help on different aspects. It is a gratifying aspect and a privilege to work closely with the patient organizations.”
As a small company with a new technology and a focus on rare diseases Orphazyme found it somewhat easy to find their sweet spot as Anders explains:
“Protein misfolding diseases comprise a large universe of diseases. Among them you have Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which we quite quickly decided would be outside the scope of a young and small company. We decided to focus on the very (population-wise) small diseases based on how well they fitted with the technology that Thomas and Marja had developed. It was less complicated to select the diseases based on the data we had but obviously the hard work was then to build a translational package and development plan meaning how do we get from in-vitro laboratory data to something that is meaningful to the patients. We have an innovative approach to the development of new treatment modalities for these diseases, which is based on the mobilization of a group of stress-response proteins, called heat-shock proteins. Heat-shock proteins help restore balance to cells affected by disease arising from protein misfolding, protein aggregation and dys- function of the lysosome. And we believe that our approach has the potential to be developed into therapies for a large number of misfolding diseases.”
As Anders continues to explain their technology and their focus on rare diseases his passion for bringing new therapies to the patients really strikes out.
“The majority of rare diseases are genetic diseases which means that from an etiological point of view they are well-defined. You know what you want to correct and what causes the disease and that is a huge benefit to a development programme. The specific diseases that Orphazyme focuses on came along the way by a slightly unusual approach: We used a little bit of reverse engineering. We looked at protein misfolding diseases and the causes of those diseases. We went from protein misfolding back to genetics and then we looked for a fit with our technology and that led us to find that our technology fits very well with lysosomal storage diseases, which is a class of inborn errors of metabolism.”
Thomas Kirkegaard and Marja Jäättelä laid the foundation for the focus on lysosomal storage diseases with a Nature paper in 2010. When asking Anders about the Orphazyme story his face lights up with joy and you can really tell that this have been an incredible journey.
“Thomas is also a Human Biologist and we were at the christening of a mutual friend’s second child and we started talking after the ceremony. Thomas had this fantastic project that he thought could be applied to protein misfolding diseases but it was very academic and he also talked about these lysosomal diseases. In my investment banking period, I was also working with successful companies in the field of lysosomal diseases, so we had a fantastic spiritual conversation that day. A few weeks after we met with some other friends who covered different aspects of business planning and then we compiled a 9-slide business plan. We filed the patent application within a couple of months after we met and started the company a year after.”
Anders’ own journey before Orphazyme was a bit more diverse than Thomas’ and when he reflects on it a very fundamental thing pops up: The willingness to create.
“I completed my PhD in Human Biology with a focus on using proteomics to cure diseases. Afterwards, I worked as assistant professor in systems biology at the Technical University of Denmark with Søren Brunak. Our efforts concentrated on the integration of biological data in the shape of phenotype, proteomics and genetic data from different sources and organisms. It was in the early days of big data back in 2004. We wanted to integrate data sets to gain a fundamental understanding of biology and diseases as a whole. This was a really exciting period as it was the dawn of big data and utilization of neural networks. However, although it may sound presumptuous I really wanted to see my research being applied in a way that could have an impact on society and at the same time was somewhat worried of isolating myself – not everyone does that but I feared it a bit.”
Orphazyme is not Anders’ first idea of a company but as he gently explains it himself:
“The first idea for a company that I got at the Technical University of Denmark turned out not to be a very good idea. The patent landscape surrounding the idea was impossible, so there was no way that I could protect the idea and I was not sharp enough on the business plan.”
Anders reflects on his former idea and explains further:
“This was also why I left academia: to learn tools like patenting, finance, building a company and more business-related topics. At some point, I thought I might go back to academia but the business side is exciting. So, before I met Thomas I had a very educational position in a patent lawyer company for a brief time before I went into venture capital with a focus on biotech.”
The Orphazyme history made another milestone in November 2017 when the company went public on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange as the first biotech company in Denmark in seven years (Zealand Pharma was the latest). When addressing the issue of exits and acquisitions in biotech Anders is very clear.
“The listing is not an exit, that is important to understand. The IPO (initial public offering) is an important step towards creating a sustainable company and it allows us the opportunity to follow our product candidate all the way through development and out to the patients. A vision that Thomas and I shared when we started the company was to create a company where we would be able to oversee the project from academic spinout to an approved new medicine able to make a real difference to patients. The proceeds from the IPO (80M euros), allow us to dictate our own future, to a certain level, as we now have the resources to complete development of our lead project.”
Do you see a lower risk of an acquisition now?
“Well, at least you reset shareholder expectations when you go public. During investor discussions in preparation for the IPO, we presented a three-year scenario reaching certain very significant milestones. This is the story they bought into; the value created over the next three years. The majority of the new investors that came in with the IPO are looking for the company to achieve these major milestones and thereby achieve a high return. Therefore, I think we are a much more difficult target for acquisition now than before the IPO.”
The listing of Orphazyme in Denmark was very unusual in biotech where most small companies turn to Sweden to fill their IPO. The reason is often said to be due to less bureaucracy and lower costs. Anders is yet again very clear about this topic:
“It was important for us from the beginning that if we went public it should be a way to secure a significant financing to allow us to complete clinical trials. The only way to secure that we could raise a significant amount of money was to go on a main list rather than First North or Aktietorget in Sweden. Eventually, we decided on Copenhagen, which is essentially an excellent choice because we are a Danish company.”
Besides raising 80M euros, Anders Hinsby now have the possibility to follow the value of Orphazyme at every single minute. However, he is not a man that let this stress him.
“Well, I must admit that the first 5 minutes after the IPO was pretty exciting and I was very curious but now it does not stress me. There is really nothing I can do in the day to day basis. The real value triggers are how successfully we develop our product candidate, so that is where I am focused.”
The Orphazyme story continues as a success story for Danish biotech. Anders is besides his responsibility in the company also an active mentor in the NOME mentor network for small biotechs and a board member of the union DANISH BIOTECH. When asked about how he uses his experiences in these roles he answers with the same calmness as expressed throughout the interview.
“I have been a mentor for a few companies both through NOME and other networks and I think the most important thing is to spread the word to all talented could-be entrepreneurs that it is quite easy to set up a company. This does not mean that it is easy to become successful or even get funding. But nobody should let themselves be stopped by wor- ries about the practicalities the fact that they do not know everything. Get going and surround yourself with good people, that is the advice that I gladly share.”
When asking Anders about which advices he provides for the companies that he mentors he starts off by mentioning persistency.
“It is really about persistency, once you are up and running you really need to be focused and give it everything you have. I think that is probably the most difficult balance you find as an entrepreneur because some are trying to run an academic career in parallel. If you want to do that you need to outsource and surround yourself with people that are willing to getting the company up and running. In my experience, it is really difficult to do both.”
We slowly finish off the interview, but I still want to ask Anders on his perspective on the Danish biotech industry.
“The cycles of biotech funding will change. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad and sometimes we see new initiatives as the upcoming BioInnovation Institute (BII) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. That is a fantastic framework with an incredible backing. However, we have seen frameworks before – maybe not like the BII, but others. What we need now is really to change the mindset of academics that it is a little bit frowned upon as an academic to become a bioentrepreneur. Young promising talents of science and research need to see that becoming an entrepreneur is an equally exciting and attractive alternative to an academic career. That mindset needs to be changed and I think we see the first glimpse of change with Synapse and other initiatives that acknowledge the achievement of starting a company. However, we have a long way before we reach the same level as the US, where a biotech career gives the same type of glory as a successful academic career. The framework will change in terms of funding, but the mindset needs to sustain.”
The interview continues in the hallway as we went over time in the meeting room that was booked for us. Anders keeps emphasizing that the environment in Denmark is really good for new biotechs and that he wished scientists with a great idea saw the entrepreneurial career path as much an option as working in a big company.
This articles was written by Jacob Steglich-Andersen (Former Chairman of Synapse) and featured in the 5th edition of Synapse Release. You can access the full issue here.