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Carl Borrebaeck – professor and serial entrepreneur with a taste for speed

Award-winning cancer researcher, the founder of many listed companies, and constantly in the academic and commercial spotlight for decades. However, Carl Borrebaeck, Professor of Immunotechnology at Lund, is not yet satisfied. “We have a new, potentially super exciting project in the pipeline,” he says.

Bioinvent, Alligator, Immunovia, Senzagen, Paindrainer – a walk through Medicon Village and Ideon Science Park in Lund reveals logos with well-known company names repeatedly. The companies operate in different fields: pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, testing and healthtech, but they all have one thing in common: their founder, Carl Borrebaeck.

The story began when a young Lund researcher did his postdoc at the University of California in Davis in the early 1980s and became involved in the then brand-new research on immunology and monoclonal antibodies that would lead to new ways of treating cancer.

“When I returned home, I started producing the monoclonal antibodies at the Chemistry Centre in Lund. It became incredibly popular, and everyone wanted more and more. Then I realised that we could start a company so they could pay for it because I couldn’t manage it on my research grants alone, and that’s how Bioinvent came about,” says Carl Borrebaeck.

Not everyone celebrated it. Some academics turned their noses up at it as true scientists should not be involved in commercial activities, in their opinion.

“That attitude has changed completely today, however. When I was later Vice-President at Lund University, we focused a lot on these issues, and today, it is perfectly acceptable to commercialise your academic research. As a result, Medicon Village consists of more than 100 companies today.”

With time, Mr Borrebaeck felt it was time to take the ideas from Bioinvent a step further, and in 2001, he formed Alligator Bioscience.

“We were good at producing antibodies, but they had a limitation: they had to interact with the rest of the immune system to effectively kill the tumour cells. If we could target the immune system directly instead, it would be much more powerful, and that’s what we call immuno-oncology today.”

The method of not targeting the tumour directly but instead activating the immune system to detect and destroy cancer cells represents a revolution in cancer care, according to Carl Borrebaeck.

“Things have moved much faster than we anticipated at the beginning of the 21st century, and if we can keep up this pace of development over the next ten years, the prospects look very good. We are increasingly moving towards cancer becoming a chronic disease, not a terminal disease.”

The immune system also played a key part in the next company in line. Immunovia was founded in 2007 to develop a diagnostic test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.

“Long before you have circulating tumour DNA in your blood, the immune system has reacted. Understanding that reaction will allow us to detect the tumours much earlier, giving the patient a much better prognosis.”

Immunovia is currently developing the second-generation test, as the first generation had certain limitations. The focus is on the larger US market and expectations are high.

“The development is progressing very well, and today it looks like we will be able to launch the first diagnostic product for early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer,” says Carl Borrebaeck.

At Immunovia, researchers processed huge amounts of data to find patterns, and the same techniques were applied in the next company, Senzagen.

The company is the world’s first to study genetic data to detect which new chemicals are allergenic and which are not – without testing on animals. The test is OECD-approved, and currently, the customers are mainly from the cosmetics and chemicals industries.

The youngest of the companies is Paindrainer, which was founded in 2018 and has a remarkable history.

One of Carl Borrebaeck’s research coordinators, Maria Rosén Klement, said on some occasions that she suffered from chronic pain after an injury and that it was difficult to keep track of the various activities that affected the pain.

“Since we had used AI in Senzagen and Immunovia, I said to her, “How hard can it be to develop an app that solves your problems?”

A programmer was involved, and a tool was developed in which you enter your activities and the pain they caused. The AI engine can then recognise which combinations or individual activities are pain triggers, enabling patients to take control of their pain.

Drawing on Carl Borrebaeck’s network of cancer clinics in the US, three clinical trials were quickly launched, and the positive results were published last year.

“We have now received FDA registration, which is a major recognition for the company. We are now signing up small and large clinics in the US to use the product. It’s not expensive, and we’re not curing anyone, but it dramatically improves people’s quality of life, their ability to work and return to work sooner.”

Carl Borrebaeck is Chairman of the Board of Paindrainer and Senzagen, but he has now left the other companies.

Isn’t it difficult to abandon your ‘baby’ like that?

“In my experience, a company goes through a number of phases. In some, the founder is very important in the early days, and later, you may still be important from a technical and clinical point of view. But at a certain point in the business and company development, other people will do a better job for the company than you. With that mindset, it’s not that hard to leave.”

Should more people recognise that?

“Haha, absolutely. I like to say that you should be thinking about your exit already when founding a start-up company. Where would you like the company to be in five years? How long will you be playing an important part? This can be a bit overwhelming when you’ve just started a company, but it can help you realise that you can be fantastic at many things, but not everything.”

From immunotherapies to cancer diagnostics, animal-free tests and now a pain app. You’ve accomplished a lot and also changed track several times. Could this be related to an element of impatience in you – feeling finished with one thing and wanting to move on to something else?

“Hm, it may not be a good trait, but there may be a grain of truth in that,” he says with a chuckle.

In parallel with starting and running a number of companies, Carl Borrebaeck has also held a full-time position as a professor. He has also launched the Department of Immunotechnology at Lund University, founded the Create Health cancer centre, and initiated the Nome mentoring programme in southern Sweden.

How on earth have you had time to do all of this?

“I’ve been asked that question a hundred times, but you know what it’s like, if it’s fun, you find the time. It’s hard to explain how it works. Then again, these activities have become very much intertwined, so it’s not a question of having several jobs but one great, coherent job.”

Articles about Carl Borrebaeck rarely omit the fact that his hobbies are of the adrenaline-inducing kind. This article is no exception.

“After my military service, I started importing and selling parachutes in order to be able to afford jumping myself, which I enjoyed. I did skydiving for many years and did some competing as well,” he says.

I hear you like fast cars as well?

“Yes, I do quite a lot of track driving, and I also do some time trialling with my Porsche. It’s a very technique-intensive sport, so it’s not just about acceleration, but of course, the speed is also a great attraction.”

Carl Borrebaeck is still a professor and continues to drive research projects. The latest, which he describes as ‘super exciting’, is a study involving more than 1,000 breast cancer patients, measuring the participants’ resilience to trauma.

It is based on the knowledge that high resilience allows patients to have a better quality of life, cope better with tough treatments and have a more favourable disease progression.

“We were looking for a somatic, bodily marker, and we have now managed to prove that a certain region of our epigenome is directly linked to resilience. In the future, it would be cool if you were able to take low-resilience patients and turn them into high-resilience patients by changing their epigenome. We’ve actually just filed a patent application. So, maybe that will be the next company...”

Carl Borrebaeck

Born: 1948

Family: Married to Camilla and has three children, Felix, Melina and Julia

Lives: In Lund, Sweden

Profession: Professor and company builder

Education: Fil Mag, Civ Eng, D.Sc.

Hobbies: Sailing, skiing and racing

Last book read: The instruction manual for his Porsche

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