CBS BioBusiness & Innovation Program - a success story
In-edible plant biomass (lignocellulose) can be found in a number of existing production systems. Here, straw from springbarley is being investigated in the lab. Photo: Anne Sophie Vinther Hansen
What is your academic background? Why did you choose the BBIP MSc program at CBS?
The reason I applied is that I have a background in biotechnology, a B.Sc. Natural Resources on the plant science line, and a M.Sc. is in Biology-Biotechnology from University of Copenhagen. The BBIP program at CBS is designed as an additional M.Sc. programme that bridges the gap between science and business.
Since I started my first company – a plant science consultancy – as a bachelor student in 2007, I already had quite a big interest in business and in transforming complex life science into something more product or service oriented. This was the reason I applied of the BBIP program in the first place. I knew I wanted to work in life science business and I thought this program would be very nice as an alternative to a PhD.
Science is fun but I have always been driven to complement my love for science with a translation into more concrete value creation. For me science as an end in itself is rather boring and just not enough. I need to work on the impact-side of science, and to move it out of the lab and into the living room of ordinary people. Plainly speaking, science becomes fairly pointless to me if not put to good use. That drives me. BBIP addresses exactly this. Another motivational factor for me was my current company, Cumulus Bio, a bio-fuel and bio-chemical company, which I have developed with my business partner since 2012.
Tell me about your company Cumulus Bio?
The main R&D activity of Cumulus Bio is to turn plants into jet-fuel. Raw oil, which is the current feedstock, originates from ancient biomass. At current consumption rates, global supplies of raw oil are forecasted to come to an end around 2050. Biomass can be tuned into oil-substitutes in a faster way than geological processes. Since not only jet-fuel but also many of our everyday products are sourced from raw oil we are facing a bigger problem. But just looking at jet-fuel, in 2013 the global daily market was 650 Mio USD and one litre cost about 1 Euro. So it is a really big market with lots of room for new technologies.
There are matured and usable technologies for first generation bio-fuels in the market, some of which have been used since the 1920ies. But sustainability is an issue here. Our technology is more sustainable than what is on the market now. We use fewer resources. This makes it a viable research topic and business idea.
The market development in bio-fuel and -chemical sector is completely parallel to that of the pharmaceutical industry. Idea generation often takes place on university level, maturation ensues in SME’s, and in the commercialisation stage the large companies come in. Cumulus Bio is currently facing competition on the SME level from companies like LanzaTech, Amyris and Solena.
My business partner Theis Brock-Nannestad has a PhD in chemistry, and in bio-renewables we complement each other quite nicely. He is more of a “hard core chemist” than I and has a better grasp on processes in combustion engines and of chemical engineering. My background is in biomass and biotech, and now business to boot.
Throughout the idea development phase of our technology from 2010 onwards, before founding the company, mentors and expert networks have been telling us that we needed to add business people to our team to expand our own core science-focused competencies. But due to the technology and process peculiarities of our field we were never able to find someone that understood this complex branch of life science, nor what it requires in terms of strategy and development. When the BBIP master program came, I realised that this encompassed exactly the skillsets we needed. And then I thought: why not me?
Different strains of yeast cells growing in a petri dish with agar medium. Some yeasts and bacteria are able to transform lignocellulosic biomass into interesting alternatives to crude oil.
Photo: Anne Sophie Vinther Hansen
What have you learned throughout the program? Which effect did your studies have on the development of Cumulus Bio?
What impressed me the most is the insight I gained into the field of strategy building. I realised that there are entire branches of research on the most acute questions that I was struggling with regarding Cumulus Bio, namely importance of alliances and exchange relationships, and early high-tech funding strategies. It also helped me to understand our past failures in acquiring research grants. It really opened my eyes to understand our own shortcomings and mistakes, as well as decision criteria and procedures of the granting committee. The literature and frameworks I was exposed to changed our application to match theory and requirements. As a result our updated consortium received a grant of 30 Mio DKK in total, most of which came from Innovation Fund Denmark (ultimo 2014).
In line with the peculiarities of our technology case, BBIP also provided me with tools to initiate and manage commercial partnerships throughout Cumulus Bio’s long value chain and illustrated the importance and complementary effect of knowledge spillovers between universities, SME’s and large multi-national companies. Through this partner network we can now research and develop according to the investment milestones of the granted funds, until their expiration in 2019.
In my Master thesis I investigated the survival rates of Danish biotech companies and different factors that affected those rates. The European funding system seems to be a dominant reason why we lack innovation in bio- and nanotech area in this part of the world. EU competition law hampers the early funding stages for high-tech platforms, as compared to the United States and Asia. Many projects never make it through “The Valley of Death” and as a result innovation never occurs. Here I hope for change, and for Cumulus Bio to be a positive example.
Crude oil is analysed in the lab to make sure that the biological alternatives are miscible and match crude oil’s physical-chemical properties.
Photo: Anne Sophie Vinther Hansen
What are the next steps with your company Cumulus Bio?
I finished the BBIP program in December 2014, and since January I have been full time employed in our company. Theis is part-time employed and we are now looking for a third employee in the field of synthesis chemistry. We are currently in the planning and constitution phase, breaking all the work packages into smaller projects, negotiating partner contracts etc. On the side we also perform scientific and business consultancy for select costumers.
Cumulus Bio has office space at CSE and we are part of their accelerator program. At the accelerator we are getting help with our business development, and in putting together the right advisory board. We are also receiving really great sparring on legal and practical requirements for full-time daily operation in Denmark from The Green Entrepreneur House – something that I haven’t practiced before and was not part of the curriculum at BBIP.
You seem to have had an early entrepreneurial drive. Where do you think this comes from? And which role does the education play?
Both my grandfathers sustained their extended families from their own businesses all of their lives. But my parents have worked as a doctor and a nurse, so they have been employed by the state for most of their lives. I started my first business when I was 11. I bred, trained and sold horses in Denmark, Norway, Sweden. In my late teenage years I started arranging concerts and making online communities. So I guess I have always had this drive.
But I think the Danish educational system really kills a lot of students like me. I personally felt almost “punished” and discouraged at some points throughout my university path, for wanting to transform science into something more tangible. It shouldn’t matter if you want to utilise research for teaching purposes, or use it to solve a problem for somebody. Even though changes towards fostering creativity and innovation are slowly being implemented in the Danish education system, the old mind-set of separation of university research and starting businesses still seems to prevail in many places.
For instance, the latest university reforms dictate that students finish their studies in a predefined, minimal timeframe. This does not support the possibility of running studies and developing a business in parallel. Such efforts might take a little longer than the very fast track, which in turn makes sense for “common wage earner’s”. But students should have the possibility of developing a business out of his or her knowledge. A university can potentially be a great “cradle” for this, if not impeded by inappropriate rationalised governance systems.
If you want to cure cancer you can’t do it alone inside your lab. This may be where you conceive the basic fundamental framework for your idea but high-tech innovation is really a group effort. You need multiple steps of testing and formulating which you can never do alone. This takes time. And further – you need to get the medicine into hospital and to the patient to solve the problem. Otherwise you are not going to cure anything.
When I started my first company as a bachelor student in 2007 university employees were actively discouraging me. One professor even told me “…if I wanted to make money from science I had no place at a university”. Luckily I see a slow change here, which is great. And initiatives like the BBIP program are important drivers of change to this out-dated culture.
So you think the BBIP program is a step towards your preferred development?
A giant leap! An announcement from the Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship http://www.ffe-ye.dk/ some years ago revealed that it is a tendency for the Danish education system of killing the entrepreneurial drive of students. There is always the question if entrepreneurs are born or made. I have my own bias, but think that creating programs like BBIP sends a very important message, and additionally provides budding entrepreneurs with necessary tools to develop and succeed with a business.
What would you wish for the future of the BBIP program?
The BBIP program is still fairly new. I feel that it successfully bridges life science and high-tech research with business. After the studies most of the graduates have been hired for project coordination, product management, marketing, business development and market access positions in large biotech and life science companies. Some return to universities and some do start-ups. A years worth of studies is not a lot and the program is intense. But maybe in the future it will be easier to integrate science students at an earlier stage than post “science graduation”. For me such integration would really have boosted the learning outcome of my science degrees.
For the graduates of BBIP that run their own business after graduation some kind of supporting external network for practical business administrational questions would be very helpful. But this is something that has to be developed. The alumni group will grow, and I am happy to participate myself.
Anne Sophie Vinther Hansen
BBIP M.Sc. Business Administration and Bioentrepreneurship
CEO and Founder at Cumulus Bio
Anne Sophie Vinther Hansen gives some details about the program:
Students of the BBIP MSc in Business Administration and Bioentrepreneurship are required to have completed a M.Sc. or PhD in natural science, or they can enrol directly in a dual master program at CBS and either KU or DTU. There are around 20-30 students per year, and you apply with your highest acquired academic qualification (B.Sc., M.Sc. or PhD), fulfilling certain ECTS minimum requirements, a motivational essay and CV, and additionally I added two reference letters to my application.
The final degree from CBS is called M.Sc. in Business Administration and Bio-Entrepreneurship. The CBS degree can be completed in one year, and it’s a very intensive year! You have to be extremely focussed.
The first semester is divided into two blocks: (1) Strategy, and Marketing, (2) Finance & Evaluation, together with Governance & Accounting. These are accompanied by a fifth course of Bio-Entrepreneurship where you – in assigned groups composed of students with a business- and with a scientific background – either work on a case from an existing business or based on your own technology idea. The task is to create a life science business plan. In the second semester you start your thesis writing. There are two theses to get through. The first one is a shorter thesis that is an academic analysis based on your business case from the Bio-Entrepreneurship course. The second one is based on a company internship and entails an analysis of a “real life” problem on site, with supervisors from both CBS and the company. I found a great internship in a company called Sanovo Biotech, but most of the students decide one of BBIP’s already existing partner companies.