Arctic Pharma is a Norwegian biotech company developing novel anti-cancer drugs by targeting the enzymes which are up-regulated in cancer cells. Claudia Bøen, Arctic Pharma's CEO, sat down with LSN to tell us about the challenges of running an early-stage biotech company and the importance of doing market research.
What does Arctic Pharma AS do?
At Arctic Pharma, we are developing innovative anti-cancer drugs by exploiting the ‘sweet tooth’ of cancer cells and their peculiar metabolic features. This work will enable us to develop a new type of cancer drug that will be an improvement over current therapies available on the market. For example, where chemotherapy takes a non-direct approach which targets all of the cells in the body, Arctic’s Pharma’s therapies would only target specific cancer cells; resulting in a higher success rate and exhibiting fewer side effects. Our ultimate goal is to bring to market a therapy for breast cancer that targets the energy metabolism of the tumor.
How does your technology work?
We have designed and developed a set of small organic molecules that are inhibitors. We then directly target key enzymes that are up-regulated in cancer cell metabolism with these inhibitors. By targeting metabolic pathways that are crucial to the growth of many cancer cells, but not crucial in healthy cells and tissues, we hope to minimize the side effects of cancer treatments.
How far are you in the drug development pipeline? Have you tested your compounds in animals? Humans?
Currently, we are at the very early stages of the pipeline. So far, we’ve screened more than 300,000 drug-like compounds in biochemical and biological assays, which has resulted in approximately 100 promising inhibitors. One of those assays included a number of breast cancer cell lines, which is our initial focus. We are now in the process of filing patents for those inhibitors, and the next step will be to explore animal testing of our compounds.
Who invented your technology?
Artic Pharma was actually formed as a ‘spin-off’ from Spermatech where I previously worked. Spermatech is seeking to develop a male contraceptive, and had developed an assay to identify compounds that immobilized sperm. During this research, the compounds were tested on several different cell types to assess the potential impact that immobilizing sperm would have on other cells. Most surprisingly, the results showed that the compounds actually killed certain cancer cells. This result was so exciting, that Arctic Pharma was formed to separately pursue this research.
What did you learn during your Masters and PhD that has helped you found and run Arctic Pharma?
Though I am not actually a founder of Arctic Pharma, I was chosen unanimously by its board members for the position of CEO, following my work as a scientist at Spermatech. This was shortly after my return from maternity leave, and I took this as a sign of real encouragement for women in every industry that you don’t need to choose between children and a career!
Throughout my Masters and PhD, I gained the ability to communicate and negotiate with many different people from different backgrounds. I also learned to never make assumptions, and the importance of checking and rechecking your own work, and others, for accuracy. Another invaluable skill was learning how to write papers and apply for scholarships, as now applying for funding is a key part of my role as CEO. Finally, I was exposed to a number of great mentors during my studies, who helped me become an independent thinker and to be confident in defending my ideas.
You previously co-founded a software company called Proteome Solutions. What happened to that company? Are you still involved? What did you learn from that experience that has helped you at Arctic Pharma?
Proteome Solutions was a company founded by my husband and I, based on software we developed. We have now made the software free for use by scientists, and we provide minimal support. Though it didn’t become the success we had perhaps envisioned, the experience taught me some important lessons. Firstly, the value of knowing your target market in deep detail and ensuring you carry out thorough market research. And secondly, knowing what funding is available to you and that you can apply for, is crucial in the first couple of years of starting a business.
Do you have investors? If so, how did you get funding?
Arctic Pharma is funded through a mixture of shareholders, and external grant funding. We receive some funding from the EU, and we were awarded a grant in 2015 from the Norwegian Research Council. I am always applying for more funding!
Why did you decide to join The Hive incubator program?
Our mission is to make Arctic Pharma a leader in cancer therapies, and being part of The Hive project will expose Arctic Pharma and my team’s work to a broader audience. Access to Elsevier R&D Solutions’ suite of programs will also allow us to move our project forward. The Hive also gives hands-on training of technologies that will help us make better informed decisions on lead compound selections, and will increase our productivity by reducing the time we spend searching for relevant and trustworthy data for our research.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge has been going from an employee, to a CEO that is running a company. It’s a very steep and rapid learning curve – and at the time I was also changing a lot of diapers! Overcoming this meant a lot of hard work and long hours, but also a lot of self-learning – which I’m still undergoing. A second challenge has been the focus on funding. As an employee, you don’t have to worry that business is funded, as a CEO that is very different. Having to constantly secure funding can be a pressure, but this is overcome through practice at the application process and learning how to ‘sell’ Arctic Pharma to varied audiences.
How many people work at Arctic Pharma?
Currently, eight – six scientists and two business people. We hope to increase our number of employees, particularly from the field of chemistry, in the not-too-distant future.
What did you look for in founding partners, first employees and board members?
The most important thing I look for in an employee is the ability to be a team player. In a small company, it’s vital that employees can collaborate and work together towards the same goal. Employees and partners must also share the same vision as Artic Pharma, which motivates and drives us every day.
What makes someone a good CEO?
I’m still learning! But from my experience so far, I think a good CEO is one that really listens to and responds to the concerns of their team. Secondly, someone that is very driven to try and move the company’s projects forward. Thirdly, being able to motivate a team is a very important factor – particularly in a small start-up where there will be many challenges to overcome.
Do you have any other advice for startup entrepreneurs?
My advice would be to embrace the experience and use your skills to play many different roles within the business, which is possible in a small company. For example, I consider myself both a scientist and a business person. I would also advise that entrepreneurs work closely with their board of directors and take on board their views, as they can provide you with help, advice and expertise that you may not have. Finally, if possible, I would say try to find an incubator or project such as The Hive, where you can benefit from the knowledge of other experts and share your experience with fellow entrepreneurs.
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