Rebel Bios: More than a Refugee— Scientist, Founder, & Mother

It started with £5 and writing a few letters a week…

Published in
5 min readDec 5, 2019


“War had already begun, I was travelling from my home town in Sarajevo to Milan to study, but due to a combination of ‘unfortunate’ circumstances I couldn’t travel to Italy and ended up in Belgrade. All connections with my family in Sarajevo were broken due to the conflict. I had quite a bit of money on me and, not realising what the situation actually was or how long it was going to last, I ended up going to the coast of Montenegro until my money ran out. After 3 months I returned to Belgrade. Yet the situation quickly deteriorated as sanctions were imposed upon Serbia and the family where I was staying could no longer host me. My father gave me a list with few names to call in case of trouble and one of them offered to buy me a one-way ticket to London — I arrived without speaking the language, no personal belongings and only £5 to my name” Jelena Vulevic, now CEO and co-founder of VemiCo.

Jelena Vulevic is using the gut to fight disease with VemiCo

“It took me almost two years to get a place at University. I wrote letters every few weeks to several good universities but as I didn’t have any documents and was classed as an overseas student with no money to pay for the studies, nobody gave me any notice, only occasionally I received letters of apology. Then one day, I received a letter from an admission tutor at Kings who wanted to meet me emphasising that they couldn’t offer me a place. He probably thought I was bonkers for writing letters all the time. The meeting went very well and I got an offer as a home student and was able to fund the studies myself. I worked in restaurants and clubs from 6 pm to 2 am, 7 days per week and attended the uni 9 am to 5 pm for almost 10 years until I graduated with both a BSc in Biology and an MSc in Nutrition.

“While I was at King’s, at 23 years old, I read old documents on Greek philosophers who opined that diseases originated from the gut. I discussed the link between food, microbiota and human health with my tutor, and the impact of the microbiome more globally but this research avenue didn’t exist at the time and was rejected.”

Jelena wrote her final year thesis on the influence of microbiota in Ulcerative Colitis — despite her tutors not agreeing — it won the best and most innovative writing award and a professor from Oxford came to London to meet her as a result. She then won a scholarship from the World Cancer Research Foundation and did a PhD in negative influence of gut microbiota and diet through the formation of carcinogens relevant to colorectal carcinogenesis.

“I undertook a PhD at the University of Reading, where I spent almost 12 years researching within the field of microbiota in the gut and immune health. During my career, I was involved in 48 clinical studies within the field of microbiota — gut/immune/brain health, God knows how many other projects and supervision of 11 PhD students.

“I remained in an academic environment researching the gut biome and it’s an influence on immune and gut health for 12 years. Academia didn’t fit me right though, I liked research but was very ambitious and devoted to it, aiming at the very highest position, as an expert in my field. It was birth of my daughter with Down Syndrome in 2009 that made me realise that I wouldn’t have time to devote my life to research and I wasn’t going to settle for second or third best. Also, I realised that I will need more money than what’s possible in academia to ensure better care for her. I transitioned to spend the next 9 years in the industry, firstly as medical liaison/medical marketing then as the R&D manager, and head of R&D in nutraceuticals in the microbiome,”

“The younger of my two children inspired me to become a trustee in down-syndrome and autism societies. Even with work, caring for my son and daughter, and promoting the causes of the Down-syndrome and Autism society, I had a craving to contribute more to society and the future. It was my children who motivated me to become an entrepreneur.

“For 20 years I worked with George Tzortzis and during the later years, we would always be discussing our idea’s potential as a startup and how to progress with it. Eventually, George left his job to found the company, and 10 months after its inception, and at the ending of my contract, I joined him. I knew it would be hard with children, and one requiring special attention, I had to think carefully about it. But I knew I was already committed to the idea, and that the time was right to pursue it. Our company VemiCo was full steam ahead.”

VemiCo is extracting and redesigning specific bacterial fibre-like powders, to safely and effectively restore balance or improved health. These natural ingredients act as signals for our immune system, either stimulating or suppressing activity to modulate inflammation and combat disease. Our technology bypasses the need to change the microbiome.

“The possibilities of the microbiome of 10,000 species that can help or destroy us has immense potential, I would like to utilize this knowledge to benefit people’s lives. Through VemiCo we are working very hard to make this a reality.”

“There are no sci-fi fantasies I can think of. Everything is possible.”

“There have been many events that have motivated me towards becoming a scientist and entrepreneur. My first memories of this were from my grandparents, who spoke and taught me of Nicola Tesla, I was fascinated as a very little girl with all the things he was able to do. As a 10-year-old, I created an insect hospital, and my inspiration turned to help humans improve their health. This has not been an easy path, my daughter was very, very sick, especially during her first year of life, and I’ve seen more struggles than I would have hoped for. At the same time, through the struggles, I have been gifted with so much inspiration from my life and children, who bring a lot of innocence and laughter. They always have dinner cooked for them, I love to cook, entertain and eat with them and friends. We listen to and have a lot of different music in the house all the time, which has always bought me relaxation since my time at music school. Music is my first love, I worked in a jazz club in Soho, London for 7 years and have had many opportunities to listen to and spend time in conversation with some amazing musicians. I can’t wait to see what the future holds as we grow VemiCo, and the impact it will have.”

By Susannah Williams

VemiCo joined the RebelBio portfolio in our VIII program. Check out who the other nine were.

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RebelBio is a pre-seed VC brand of SOSV that accelerated 78 biotech startups. It has since merged with SOSV’s IndieBio brand & is now based in NYC.