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Swedish Incubator Colibri to Support Molecular Diagnostics, Genomics Tools, Drug Discovery Startups

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NEW YORK – Colibri Ventures of Sweden has launched as a new life sciences business incubator in Stockholm to support Swedish startups focused on molecular diagnostics, genomics, and therapeutics, the firm said this week.

The incubator, housed on the campus of the Karolinska Institute, draws upon the experience of its partners' backgrounds in genomics, diagnostics, business development, and corporate law. Colibri aims to quicken the transition of local startups to market through mentoring, networking, and increasing access to the investment community. However, it is not disclosing how much it is investing in the incubator.

"When I started my own companies I would have liked to have had an opportunity like this," said Fredrik Dahl, a cofounder of Colibri. "It was hard to find people who had done it before successfully, had been over all the hurdles."

Prior to forming Colibri, Dahl served as CTO at Vanadis Diagnostics, a noninvasive prenatal testing technology firm that PerkinElmer acquired in 2016. Before that, he held the same role at Halo Genomics, which Agilent Technologies snatched up in 2011 to complement its target enrichment portfolio. Dahl previously held positions at Ion Torrent Systems, which was acquired by Life Technologies, and at Complete Genomics, now part of BGI.

The other partners in Colibri include Simon Fredriksson, the CEO of newly formed immuno-oncoloy company Genagon Therapeutics and previous CEO and CSO of Olink; Anders Nordström, who previously served as CFO at Swedish pharmaceutical company Pharmacia and now is chairman of the board at Genagon; and Sara Mindus, an attorney with experience in business development, M&A, international transactions, and corporate law.

"The unique offering we have is that we are not finance guys or admin officers," said Dahl. "We have scientific backgrounds and we know how to build companies from scratch to exit and to make early ideas and take them through the commercial phase," he said. "We would like to work together with companies to support them in that."

Sweden, which spends the most on R&D per capita in Europe according to the EU, has certainly generated a number of success stories in the genomics arena. Vanadis, Halo, and Olink are just a few of the companies that have been acquired in whole or part by larger companies in recent years. According to Dahl, though, other parts of the country's technology industry have been faster to put the knowledge gained, as well as money earned, back into the market, while the biotech sector hasn't had that experience to date.

"In Silicon Valley, you can get help with everything," noted Dahl. "You have legal, IT, the network of investors, and people who have done it before," he said. "In Sweden, the tech industry, especially some of the app firms like [Stockholm-based] Spotify, have done well enough that the investors and founders have reinvested money in new companies and built a community," he said. "We would like to do something along those lines in biotech by reinvesting in new technologies, bringing in our investor network, and mimic what the tech industry has done."

Colibri is housed in a refitted old laboratory and can host between five and 10 startups, Dahl said. Half of the facility is common lab space. "It's quite hard for companies in the early days to do proof-of-concept experiments," he noted. "They can rent office space, but it's hard to rent lab space, yet early companies have an urgent need for lab space so they can get going with early experiments and show proof of concept."

Genagon Therapeutics will be one of the first companies to call Colibri's facility home. Dahl declined to name the other startups at the site but said they are working in the fields of single-cell genomics and proteomics. There is also activity around high content-based analysis, he added. "They are using artificial intelligence engines to handle and interpret large datasets," he said.

Dahl said the partners in Colibri will be involved in the early-stage planning of the companies, assisting them in building their business plans, identifying problems, formulating value propositions for their investors, and supporting them as they establish a product development plan and team.

"Those things are crucial," he underscored. "At the end of the day, if it goes faster and costs less money, it's not only good for founders and investors, but of course it's beneficial for healthcare in general," Dahl said. "We have seen so many good ideas that are just not well executed."

'Perfect location'

Colibri's decision to locate itself on the campus of the Karolinska Institute as opposed to the business district downtown is intentional, as Dahl said the incubator wanted to be close to scientific innovators. He called Karolinska the "perfect location" and noted that it has undergone significant renovation recently that has opened up a lot of free space in older buildings, room that is being repurposed for startups and life science companies.

"We feel our Colibri Ventures incubator will serve as an important bridge between the academic research and the commercial side, to get more early academic research developed and available for clinical use," Dahl said.

Dahl said that Colibri will work closely with research labs at Karolinska, but the incubator is open to working with projects from other institutes, both in Sweden and internationally. He noted that the infrastructure supporting startups has improved in Sweden recently, as it has become easier to access government and EU funding and to generate proof-of-concept data.

In the past, much of the life sciences community in Sweden had its roots in the local pharmaceutical company via Pharmacia (now Pfizer) and AstraZeneca. However, Dahl said there has been a shift in industry culture from big pharma to startups.

"I think both the universities and the government realized that there was a lot of opportunities and potential in the strong academic research that needed a commercial partner when the big pharma restructured and moved abroad," he said. Several nonprofit incubators, such as Umeå Biotech Incubator in northern Sweden, have also sprung up to support this transition.

Sweden also grants scientists rights to their inventions — something called lärarundantaget, or the professors' privilege — to support entrepreneurship among scientists.  "You as an independent scientist own your own inventions even if you are employed at a university," Dahl explained. "Some universities even have grants that you are allowed to apply for to cover the initial costs for patent applications."

According to Dahl, startups and investors have already shown interest in Colibri prior to launch. He said the incubator now has the "luxury to invest early in selected companies," and given its experience in both science and business, it will likely invest in companies earlier than its venture capital peers.

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