An interview with Jens Nielsen, CEO of BioInnovation Institute and Professor at Chalmers University

Mette Munch Jørgensen
September 10, 2022

Biolnnovation Institute (BII) saw the light of day just a little more than two years ago. To this date, it has funded 85 projects and start-ups with EUR 48M in a unique not-for-profit incubator backed by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. However, this is merely the beginning, says CEO Jens Nielsen.

In November 2018, the Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF) cut the ribbons to the life science incubator BioInnovation Institute in the center of Copenhagen - an international entrepreneurial initiative envisioned to bridge the gap between excellent research and solutions in the market for the benefit of people and society. A translational path that not only takes time but requires know-how, funding, network, business development and much more.

By the end of 2020, BioInnovation Institute was ready to stand on its own feet with a proven track record of helping very eary, innovative projects and start-ups within health tech, bioindustrials and therapeutics closer to the market.

At that point, BII's portfolio start-ups had raised more than EUR 40M in financing either as soft-funding or as investments, and with that, BioInnovation Institute became an independent foundation.

Incubators come in many different sizes and shapes. What is unique for Bil is the funding of up to EUR 470 million that NNF can provide over a period of 10 years if Bil's positive development continues.
NNF's support allows us to help life science projects with commercial potential and start-ups in our unique not-for-profit objective of operation.
Says Jens Nielsen

Two programs in open competition

BioInnovation Institute offers three different programs and two of them - The BII Venture Lab program and the Creation House program - are in open competition with biannual calls for application.

Very early-stage start-ups with interesting technology but an unclear path to the market can get help to develop their science, team, and business case in our Venture Lab program. In our Creation House program, start-ups with validated technology, well-defined IP and a clear path to market can build an attractive case for series A investors.

The third program is BIi Faculty which is outside of open competition. It is a strategic instrument to fertilize investment grounds in scientific areas that meet grand societal challenges but have not attracted investors' interest. In the program, BII takes in research groups led by top-tier researchers for a period of up to three years.

With substantial funding and a long-time horizon, we can take the risks that most investors would not. We can help identify needs and create spin-out companies that arise from the scientific developments while the teams are incubated at BII.

Ecosystem of 500 peopleBII currently accepts five start-ups in both Venture Lab and Creation House per biannual call and international applicants are welcomed. As start-ups are incubated for a minimum of 12 months, Biolnnovation Institute is in a phase of growth. Within the coming years, Jens Nielsen expects to host an ecosystem of up to 500 entrepreneurial-minded people inspired by life science communities in, e.g., Israel, Singapore and the US.

My biggest dream is to look back ten years from now and see how Biolnnovation Institute has significantly impacted global health and the environment through the success of our start-ups. It is a long journey and it requires strong collaborations with organizations such as Synapse. I look forward to seeing the outcome of our joint efforts.

3 Q&A with Jens Nielsen

Which role do you see the universities play in fostering entrepreneurship?

Universities should be a place of free thinking and it takes an element of anarchy to think freely and allow ideas to arrive. It is the opposite of what happens when you build a company. Thus, initiatives like BIi must work closely with the universities to support the ideas generated from here.

What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in academia?
Instead of trying to develop a start-up yourself, my advice is to engage with experienced entrepreneurs. And eventually, you will have to decide where you want to be and engage fully in that because it is very difficult to commit to both the academic world and the start-up world. I have done it, but I will not recommend it.

You like to read books - which would you recommend to entrepreneurs?
I want to recommend two books that have fascinated me. One is "The Marshmellow Test" about the importance of stamina and about resisting instant gratification to win in the long run. The other is "Outliers" about how it is essential to spend a lot of hours to achieve skills and competence in any field. People who do well may seem lucky to others, but they have just worked really hard in most cases.

How a scientific researcher built an investment­ready start-upIn 2019, Stefano Stella, an Associate Professor from the University of Copenhagen, had his first encounter with the commercialization of research when he joined Biolnnovation Institute with his early-stage start-up, Twelve Bio.Since the beginning of the 201 Os, he had been working with proteins that bind to DNA. In 2016, that led him and co-founder Guillermo Montoya to work in the CRISPR space with the newly discovered Cas12a. Through the analysis of images of how the protein changes shape during the process of binding and cutting the DNA, Twelve Bio identified which regions of the protein to manipulate to enable precise gene-editing.After an acceleration program at BII, the start-up applied for the Creation House program and was accepted in July 2020. The science behind Twelve Bio was very solid so Stefano and the team at BIi worked on storyline and the pitch to investors. In March 2021, the company raised a seed investment from the international investor Arix Bioscience. Stefano Stella explains how BIi made this possible:

You learn by doing, and that is what BIi has helped us to do. We have learned to speak to investors, which is very different from what we are used to in academia, and we have learned how to run a company. The access to lab space has been a huge plus for us and it allowed us to see results very fast. We could not have done it without BII.

Twelve Bio is currently expanding the team that has grown to seven people since the founding team joined BIi in 2019. The start-up will stay located at BIi for now but will exit the Creation House program now that they have secured external investment. Giles Dudley, Senior Business Developer at BII says:

Twelve Bio has great technology and Stefano Stella's trust and receptiveness to our support has expeditated the development of the company and the subsequent seed investment.