Interview with Mats Nilsson, serial entrepreneur at SciLifeLab
Sciety had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Mats Nilsson, professor at SciLifeLab and co-founder of EMPE Diagnostics and several other biotechnology companies. In the interview he talks about EMPE Diagnostics’ planned establishment in India and and about the need for diagnostic tools in order to use the drugs that are available. He gives an insight into SciLifeLab as the platform for developing ideas and also his view on the role of research in society.
How did you come up with the idea of EMPE?
Early in my research career I realized that there is a need for simple standardized tests in both research and diagnostics. It is too complicated and time-consuming to set up your own tests. In diagnostics, the need is urgent in order to be able to use existing drugs more efficiently.
Tuberculosis is particularly difficult to diagnose. The initial development work with our tuberculosis test took place in a research project at SciLifeLab. After this scientific proof-of-concept, we chose to commercialize the project through a spin-out company where all product development has taken place since. At EMPE, we concentrate all the resources exclusively on the tuberculosis test. Our strong focus on one product gives us a very strong position as we can commit to it wholeheartedly and don’t have to split our focus across several other products.
What is unique about EMPE’s product?
What is unique about EMPE’s test is that the method is so quick and simple and that it does not need any instrument to interpret the results. Our test is based on simplicity and low price, which are key factors to successfully using the tests in the rural areas of India, our focus market. It is also important to remember that our test gives clinicians information about which antibiotics to use already in the first analysis. Early use of antibiotics is necessary not only to cure the patient but also to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Can the technology be developed so that it can be used to detect e.g. Corona?
It is possible to develop the test so that it can be used to detect coronavirus. The test format is generic and can therefore be used on anything containing DNA or RNA. Corona is also one of the viruses that is now further investigated.
What does your business model look like?
In short, we build our business model on developing a test kit that can determine antibiotic resistance in people infected with tuberculosis, in India to begin with. We have many contacts in India who all support our work and there is a developed system in the country to deal with tuberculosis. There are also a variety of other diseases that need improved diagnosis near the patient, but for now our goal is to first solve the current tuberculosis problem and then proceed with other diseases.
Tell us more about your establishment in India. Where do you stand today?
We intend to establish and validate a production unit in India that meets the regulatory requirements to produce a necessary volume of our test kit in order to conduct the final clinical trials so that the product can be approved.
What makes EMPE such an interesting company right now?
EMPE is committed to improve global health. Tuberculosis is present all over the world and the bacteria are becoming more and more resistant, which is a global threat. We must therefore change treatment plan for this illness. Currently, India continues to be the worst affected country, but the goal must be to stop the progression of tuberculosis throughout the world, not only in India.
If you look five years ahead, what does EMPE look like then?
In five years, we have started to change the way tuberculosis is treated in India. We will succeed in this because we have been so focused on our test. It is a completely realistic goal for us to be one of the big players who managed to spread the diagnostic test and solve the problems with antibiotic resistance. I am convinced that the main variables in our success formula––simplicity and a strong focus on one problem–– will help us achieve our goals in five years.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background
I started my career as a PhD student with Professor Ulf Landegren at Uppsala University where I received my PhD in molecular biology in 1998. After studying in Holland, I returned to Uppsala and set up my own research group and a laboratory where I could continue to work on my ideas. In 2012, I acquired a position as a professor in biochemistry/molecular diagnostics at Stockholm University located at SciLifeLab.
Tell us more about SciLifeLab
Science for Life Laboratory (abbreviated SciLifeLab) is a truly unique institution in Sweden with the vision to disseminate techniques and analytical expertise to researchers throughout the country. It is a collaborative project between Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Uppsala University, and offers an advanced high-quality environment for collaboration and utilization of research resources and research results. Being able to use these resources benefits Swedish researchers and gives them a strong position in international competition.
We are located in Solna in Stockholm and funded by the government and the participating universities.
In your opinion, what is the role of research in society?
I want academic research not only to result in scientific publications, but also to ensure that the results benefit everyone in society and contribute to improved quality of life for us people. SciLifeLab stimulates such thinking with an environment that is creative, supportive and offers a very good basis for the development of ideas. Here we have access to advanced equipment, results and knowledge exchange with our colleagues. I have personally benefited a lot from the resources available here when transforming my team’s research results into various practical applications.
During my time at SciLifeLab, I have had the opportunity to test and develop many ideas and successfully founded six start-up companies. EMPE Diagnostics is one of these where we have managed to produce a simple and inexpensive test for tuberculosis that meets the requirements of the market. What I learned during all these processes is that a researcher who wants to develop a product or service from a research result must take the first steps herself/himself and show that the idea is sustainable.
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