Helena Strigård: The rise of the community

Sweden Bio´s CEO is looking back at the last decade of development in the industry. Something has shifted in the interdependence between small and larger companies.

With one decade coming to an end, and another one dawning, trends somehow emerge clearer to us. For a brief moment in time, we take on the spectacles of an outsider to the present, and that is when the many tiny incremental changes occurring over a long period of time summarizes in front of our eyes.

I first stepped into the Swedish life science pond over two decades ago. Or, one might say, I dipped my toes into it. As a 16 year old, I was not very aware of overarching trends when I choose my career path as a biotech-student in Uppsala. The local gymnasium had recently introduced biotech as a program, which was unique at the time. There was something enticing and futuristic about the whole field, and I was a 100% determined this was what I wanted to do and a 100% ignorant of how.

I often go back to think about these early years of my acquaintance with life sciences since it was such a coincidence that I got to start my adult life in an era when this field was flourishing in my hometown, and now, twenty years later, I am on the front row to witness and sense how it is truly flourishing again. But in such a different way. And this is what emerges when you zoom out.

The number of people employed within the life science sector of Sweden is now back to the levels of the 90’s. Status quo, one might think. No. Far from it! The pace of the reshaping and restructuring which has taken place is swirling. From a number of giants dominating the scene to thousands of small actors. Where did they all come from? How is it that they are now together constituting a life science sector of the same magnitude as during the era of big pharma? And how do they manage to build successful businesses in such a complex field demanding competences ranging wider than any other sector. You need people skilled in science, regulatory issues and business development. If you are ten people, or even less, there is no way to do that. Or, is there..?

Apparently, yes. Against all odds, because so many things are not really moving in the right direction right now on a national level concerning the conditions for growing your life science company in Sweden.

I can´t help thinking of the reaction of General Pryde looking up into the sky full of the most random mix of rebell ships in the recent and final episode of Star Wars, expressing his surprise:

– Where did they all come from? The rebels don´t have a navy!

– It is not a navy, sir. It appears that it is people.

In this saga (spoiler alert), the rebels finally defeated the empire because they stayed connected somehow. When it mattered most, they came together and answered the call. It escaped the minds of the imperial star fleet generals how this mish mash of tiny actors could become such a force to count on. To their knowledge, the scattered remnants of rebel forces

did not have the means to organize themselves. No larger structure visible to the eye. Not enough resources by far to take on the competition.

This odd analogy is remarkably true also for Swedish life sciences of today. The many incremental changes which has happened during the last decade summarizes to what is now an utterly effective sharing of resources. Not every function needs to be kept in-house. No energy needs to be spent on hierchial layers. The experiences of one brilliant mind is generously transferred to another one, accumulating a bank of know-how similar to what can otherwise only be seen in huge corporations with a long history and thousands of employees. And don´t forget. The entrepreneurs of Swedish life sciences has a secret weapon. Their vision. Their hope. Their dedication and devotion to doing something they believe in. In the end, life sciences is about saving people´s lifes, isn´t it?

What we are witnessing now is nothing less but the rise of the community. A new era. One in which the small actors can build capacity jointly in a new and intelligent way.

Now, there is no intergalactic war going on between the international big pharmas and the rebel entrepreneurs of Swedish life sciences. Quite the opposite. In fact, they never needed each other more! The new community-based business model that enables small companies to grow by staying connected to each our and sharing resources still requires the big players. They have critical knowledge of what it is actually like out there, on the global market. How too scale up and jump into light speed when you grow out of your local galaxy.

Yet, something has shifted in the interdependence between young, small companies and the international biggies, and that is what I want to capture. With the community growing stronger, you may dare to take on larger challenges. Even though you might not have the experience yourself on how to successfully handle negotiations with big pharma scouts, how to attract intelligent international capital, how to make your market-entry over-seas - the community is there to support you. To help you speak up for yourself and get those good terms. To avoid pitfalls. All the Skywalkers, sorry I meant entrepreneurs, who walked the same path before you are there to help and share their wisdom.

The giant star cruisers of biotech and pharma are difficult to navigate. They move slowly, while the world is rapidly changing around them. And they know this. They need the innovative power of the young ones. This is not something to fear. It is something to be explored. Just make sure you are fitted properly and don´t hesitate to turn to the community for help. Whether you are facing the opportunity to dock into a large company structure, to have them invest in you or to enter into collaborations.

The new decade has just begun and I am thrilled to continue the mission of SwedenBIO to support this era of community-based life sciences. In ten years from now, I am sure nothing will look the same.

May the entrepreneurial force be with you!

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