While he was a student and a researcher, Iacob Mathiesen developed a method for delivering genes into muscles, which is useful for instance in the development of future DNA vaccines.
Mathiesen considered his procedure to be a thousand times better than another, highly valued method. So he patented his discovery and founded the company Inovio.
This compay was later bought by Gentronics, which in turn took on the name Inovio and merged with another company developing gene based vaccines. This company was later listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the US, and today it is worth more than 500 million dollars.
Mathiesen worked at the head office in San Diego, but for family reasons he later moved back home and sold his shares. In Oslo he bought a bankrupt start-up company and set up Otivio. Otivio has developed a “boot” to get the blood circulation in your feet moving.
1) - What was the reason for your choice of education, why biology/physiology?
- I liked hunting and outdoor life. So I wanted to become a field biologist who could stay out in the woods and the mountains a lot. But I could see that the job opportunities were limited. At the same time my interests had turned to physiology.
2) - What was the most important thing you learnt during your studies and your research at UiO?
- Understanding how hard it actually is to know something for sure – and that obtaining new knowledge isn’t easy. The methods for really understanding and knowing can be used in most fields. When they become a part of your way of thinking, it affects how you relate to the world.
3) - Why did you become an entrepreneur?
- I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. And it wasn’t really a positively loaded word at the time. My goal never was to become an entrepreneur, it was to make things happen.
I figured I had invented something that would be important and could be used for something good. There was only a lot of things I had to do first. I did them one at a time, and in the end it became a company, some employees, investors and a lot more. I suppose these are the things that are called entrepreneurship.
4) - How did you come up with the idea?
- My first idea was actually a mistake, but it worked anyway. Professor (now emeritus) Terje Lømo and I worked with transferring genes to muscles, to see the effect of a protein that normally is produced in neurons. We wanted to find out if this protein would make the muscle cells capable of receiving signals from the nerves.
We worked with living rats, but it was really time consuming. I wanted to do this simpler and faster and tried to stimulate the muscles with electricity. I thought that intense muscle contractions could ease the way in for the genes. And they did get in. This was not because of the contractions, though, but because the electricity changed the characteristics of the cell walls.
The method made this process perhaps a thousand times more effective than it used to be. The company that owned the rights to the old procedure was worth one hundred million dollars. I figured that when our method was so much better, they would be willing to pay a bit for it. And they were.
5) - What is your most important innovation?
- I would say this first invention , which is now used in several clinical studies in the US. I don’t know if it will be a success, but I think products will be developed based on that procedure. Inovio Pharmaceuticals is working on it, and it looks promising.
I am currently working with Otivio. The company has developed the technology FlowOx, which will be a great help for a lot of patients with reduced circulation in their legs, like the ones suffering from claudication. FlowOx increases the blood stream in small arteries and capillaries in the skin.
A lot of people can walk longer distances, they are in less pain, and their wounds heal better.We have started marketing the product. This technology also has its roots at UiO and is developed by Erling Rein and Marius Filtvedt in professor emeritus Lars Walløe’s laboratory.
6) - What/who has been most important for your success?
- They are many, but I will point out the chairs of the boards in the companies I have participated in creating. They mean a lot to me, concerning everything from motivation to good advice. There are a lot of different processes. Sometimes it can be lonely to start a company, and having a chair who understands what you want and is able to help, is useful.
Erling Lind helped me establish Inovio, structure it and straighten it up. He also gave me lots of advice on investors, employment, strategy and economy.
Later Inovio got a lot of help from Andreas Mollatt, then a partner in the venture fund Teknoinvest. Mollatt is now general manager of Otivio, where we also benefit from the experience of chair Egil Myklebust.
7) - Which experiences would you like to share?
- The most important thing is to find the right people to work with. See beyond your closest network and find the world’s most experienced people in your field. Some might find it scary to contact people they don’t know, and you might think that they don’t have time to help you. But they often do. And the worst that can happen, is that you are turned down.
You might also consider the fact that that it’s easier to get funding for applied science with commercial plans.
Many scientists believe that starting a company is the end of an academic career. That’s not necessarily true. Both in Inovio and in Otivio we have applied (and apply) for research funding both from EU and the Research Council of Norway, we have Ph.D students and we publish articles. The competition is often less than in solely academic projects.
8) - How should universities and research environments stimulate more innovation among students and scientists?
- Talking about it and cheering helps. The attitude has changed, 15 to 20 years ago innovation was partly frowned upon.
They can make conditions more favourable for the start-up of small companies, like being open minded, flexible and generous when it comes to rights concerning the inventions. It is very demanding to develop a company, and the road to income is a long one. It is very important that the inventors and investors see that they can gain something from their hard work.
Together with the Research Council of Norway the universities can provide grant opportunities which will make it easier to move between academic work and start-ups.
9) - What kind of innovation will be Norway’s next «oil adventure»?
I don’t think we will ever again draw so much money from the ground over so many years. We better concentrate on several areas. I think aquaculture/ocean farming and healthcare/medtech will be essential.
10) - How would you advise scientists and students thinking of entrepreneurship?
- If you can see a clear path to make money from your idea – go ahead. And remember that things will always take longer than you think. But don’t give in!
Becoming rich should not be your motivation, only a few will be rich in the short run. And if you are dependent on a predictable and secure future, you should probably let it go.
This article is part of a series called I Birkelands spor ("In Birkelands footsteps", unfortunately only in Norwegian). This year marks the 150th anniversary for Norwegian physics professor Kristian Birkeland's birth and it's also 100 years since his death. Birkeland invented synthetic fertilizers, which is considered to be the most important Norwegian invention. He started the company Norsk Hydro and was also a keen researcher of the universe.