I would say that leading development work of an innovation requires a special mindset and leadership-style and that mindset has to be present in every decision
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evelina Vågesjö.
Evelina developed novel methods to steer the behavior of immune cells at local sites in vivo during her PhD and based on one of the scientific discoveries a technology platform was developed where innovative gene therapy drug candidates were generated. These are currently being tested in clinical trials run by Swedish biopharma Ilya Pharma which she co-founded in 2016. Evelina has a BSc in management accounting and an MBA which focused on M&A and financing. Her leadership has been recognized by appearances in GEN Top 10 under 40, Falling Walls, MIT Tech Review Innovators under 35 and others.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always been interested in how the body works and got a great opportunity to train as a scientist with a Professor in a novel way that combined traditional physiology and emerging hypotheses of immune cell functions — an approach now called immuno-physiology. The projects were translational already from the start and the atmosphere inspiring and liberating, but with high expectations. I spent almost three years with different microscopes in dark rooms, capturing the behavior of immune cells living in the bodies of anesthetized mice. Confocal and intravital microscopes at the time were not the fastest so I had quite a lot of time to do research and read. With the result that most of my projects drifted to applied science and my motivation became to ensure new scientific discoveries should be evaluated for benefit to patients. I also became convinced that developing products, including pharmaceuticals was the fastest way to reach clinical proof of concept. I strongly believe that one has a responsibility to see that potentially disruptive findings are validated.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Without doubt when we got regulatory and ethical approvals to start the first clinical trial with ILP100 in Ilya Pharma, our first drug candidate. Just one piece of paper, but highly symbolic, representing years of hard work where we had to be disruptive in many aspects of the drug development process such was the novelty of our approach.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are so many! One is when I confused Articles of Associations with “List of Scientific Articles on the Technology” in the negotiation of the first Shareholders agreement with investors and were very upset with them for removing them in each version. Another is that my husband thought for quite a long time that we were raising large amounts of funding when we were in fact setting up a master cell bank which is a stock of small tubes with bacterial cells to keep in the -80°C freezer.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
For me, as quite young and without formal industry experience in pharmaceutical development, when I met some consultants in regulatory affairs who did not have any experience in cell- and gene therapy, 5 years ago there were very few projects even globally, but despite this they were very certain on how things should be done. I learned to figure out who had actual experience from only one or two project in big pharma and understand from what part of the processes. We lost quite a lot of precious time, but it will not be repeated. Fortunately, when we brought in senior expertise in regulatory affairs for the topics we needed from people that had worked on disruptive advanced drug candidates or combination products before it made all the difference. Being open and daring to recognize the scientific mechanism of action and uniqueness of a product is key. More and more drug candidates in cell- and gene therapies are entering clinical development and this is great for the whole field as knowledge and experience builds up.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who have been patient with me over the years and I am really grateful to have earned their time, advice and wisdom. On the business side and for his ability to see the best route for the company during each stage of growth, I have learned a lot from Ingemar Kihlström, now Ilya’s chair. I am very grateful that he has had and continues to have time for me and the company. And naturally my former professor and co-founder Mia Phillipson, a fantastic and vibrant person that I have learned so much from and now we are business partners! We both share the habit of continuously finding challenging situations outside our comfort zone, I am so proud of her for mastering many new roles.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One gets used to the fact that it will never be a comfortable journey. Nevertheless one learns to handle the level of risk and uncertainty as well as appreciate and protect the large values that builds up over time in the patents and assets, in Ilya Pharma’s case the drug candidates and the associated data and intellectual property.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
The lead drug candidates in Ilya Pharma utilizes a class of proteins called chemokines, they have a very short half-life and thus there are no available therapeutics today being chemokines or targeting the associated signaling pathways. We have overcome this problem by using modified lactic acid bacteria that act as ”mini-bioreactors” at the treatment site to produce human chemokines, being the therapeutic protein.
This works very well and we can change the microenvironment to nudge the local immune cells to reduce inflammation and accelerate the healing and regenerative processes. The approach can be applied to both external skin wounds and ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract, summarized as healing of wounds in skin and mucosa. Ilya Pharma has two clinical programs in acceleration of healing of difficult wounds in at risk populations including people with diabetes and we currently run one preclinical program targeting treatment of active relapse phase in inflammatory bowel disease. We have generated the drug candidates from our own technology platform and can express other types of proteins affecting local immune cell behavior and also have possibilities to address veterinary unmet needs and markets forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are one of only four companies globally to have developed drug candidate based on a bacteria that expresses a human therapeutic protein that are in clinical development. I am delighted that we are the one progressing the fastest even though the other three companies were founded 2 -14 years before us. That to me is kind of cool.
Except from how we have handled the execution and strategy, what stands out is the opportunity to address unmet medical needs where traditional biologics have failed to serve the whole population and we can do it with drug candidates with very low COGs, good stability and feasible for high penetration in health care due to ease of use.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
For our first indication in skin wounds and from initial trials it seems that the drug safe and tolerable even in high doses. For this indication we will start clinical validation in patients in H1 2021 and these data will be very important in understanding the level of impact that the ILP100 can have. We have very interesting mechanistic data in our second indication, this is very exciting and we target treatment of active relapse in inflammatory bowel disease, a complex group of diseases where less than half of the patients respond to treatment with biologics today. The immunology and crosstalk with the bacteria and specific immune cells are more advanced in the gastrointestinal tract and there are more aspects to consider, with the validation in regulatory, manufacturing and clinical safety from the wound healing project we have a fantastic head start and confidence for this project and we are now making the translational plan for clinical validation in patients.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
There seems to be different segments, we are active in biopharma and cell- and gene therapy in particular which overlaps with or is the same as biotech therapeutics, in these fields there are many companies lead and founded by females and mixed teams. Perhaps this is because we are based in Scandinavia. Ilya Pharma have a semi-virtual organization and we engage experts globally for the specific topics or activities as needed, it works very well at the moment.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think that focus should always be in the technology, execution in milestones delivered, competences and dynamics of the team and the potential impact and value to be created.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
As I mentioned above, one has to recognize that the journey will be comfortable and as a leader of a fast-growing organization one has to almost reinvent the goals, organization and team and also oneself in the leadership role along with the developments, and also remind oneself to take time to share the long-term visions with all stakeholders. Where to find the energy? I always come back to the data and proof of concepts we actually have and that as long as one is convinced that all aspects important for success of the product development is there one has the responsibility to make the best of the opportunity.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
We do have sales but we have very competent development teams and work very efficient with the teams at our different partners. There are of course some different cultures in different teams and we also work in the most regulated industry, I think that understanding why you do something I key regardless what it is and in the why, the potential impact is reflected. In our teams there are many that have relatives with chronic wounds that would have benefited from evidence-based treatments or themselves have inflammatory bowel disease or diabetes. In periods we have very high pressure, high risk and short timelines for specific milestones, these are the times when the why is needed the most but unfortunately gets the least attention in practice, I try to build in the patients’ needs and the potential impact a successful project, and will give this more space as the organization grows further.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I would rephrase it as finding the right expertise and find ways to work with the people that are experiencing the need, we have several nurses and physician involved in different parts of the development and integrated with the more technical oriented team.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Again, I would need to rephrase this for our interactions with the different stakeholders in the project, may it be the investors, health care, patients or different partners or support functions, we have a strategy of being personal and generous with our successes and mistakes as well as both deliver and delight.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Ilya Pharma develops new-to-the-world drug candidates, we can relate to this topic in how we work with our partners, we engage >30 subcontractors in the development and thus a large extended team with key expertise of > 100 people have built up to date, these relations are very important to us and a determinant factor of total cost and time in the development activities.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
What has been important for me leading Ilya Pharma is 1) to align funding raising, financing and cash planning in the operations and aligning this with the milestones, not always so easy. 2) is the wide range of risks associated with developing disruptive technology in a fast-growing company and how to manage these to a reasonable level in the financing and execution plans, as number 3) I would say that leading development work of an innovation requires a special mindset and leadership-style and that mindset has to be present in every decision and 4) persistence (!) and 5) linking science with clinical impact — proof of principle is not enough, you need to further and identify the actual clinical benefit to patients and society.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The potential of immune therapies has just started to unveil in oncology. Immune cells have a wide range of important functions in both development, homeostasis and in different diseases, findings ways to utilize specific immune cell functions at the right time and place has enormous potential. I want the biotech therapeutics industry to lead the way to new and better therapies and to do this in a collaborative and open-minded way.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I anticipate a breakfast with Stacy Seltzer, Angele de Maki and Faz Bashi would result in real fireworks for new approaches in biotech therapeutics, diverse groups with exceptional people are the best!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!