European Market Strategy, Acquisitions and Disrupting the Drug Discovery Value Chain with Tanja Dowe from Debiopharm Innovation Fund


    We're excited to have, from all the way in Switzerland, Tanja Dowe the CEO of Debiopharm Innovation Fund on the show. Tanja has a background in microbiology and biochemistry and is an expert in business models and market requirements for life science companies. 

    We’re going to learn from her experience in acquisitions, investments, and commercialization of life science companies across Europe and some recent investments in the US. 

    About Debiopharm
    Debiopharm is an independent biopharmaceutical company based in Switzerland with an ongoing commitment to improve patient outcomes and quality of life in oncology and bacterial infections. Our main activities include drug development, drug manufacturing and digital health investment.

    About Tanja Dowe
    Mrs. Dowe graduated from the Helsinki University of Technology (now Aalto University) where she obtained an MSc in Microbiology & Biochemistry in 2000. Tanja has always been interested in diagnostic and smart data solutions for precisions medicines. She has held several managing positions and has 18 years of experience in building business strategies, analyzing markets, in-/out-licensing and business acquisitions with more than 80 life sciences companies. She has strong knowledge in business models and market requirements necessary to commercialize innovations in the life science markets. Prior working at Debiopharm, Tanja was the Managing Partner of Innomedica Ltd, a leading European strategy consulting company in life sciences. She joined Debiopharm Innovation Fund S.A. in 2016.

    Resource links:

    Tanja's LinkedIn

    Debiopharm's investment in VeriSIM

    VeriSIM Life website


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    Music by keldez


    Transcript is automatically generated. Please kindly excuse any grammatical and spelling errors.   

    [00:00:16] Kelly Stanton: Hi everyone. Thanks for turning into from lab to launch today. We're glad you're here. I'm Kelly from Kaleo and I'm your host. If you haven't already please subscribe, rate the podcast that helps us out a lot. If you want to be on the show, you can fill out the application form linked in the show notes as well we'd love to hear from you. 

    Today I'm really excited to welcome to. Tonja Dowe, CEO of Debiopharm innovation fund. She's joining us all the way from Switzerland. It's so awesome to see how we're connecting, folks from around the world in this whole industry.

    I love it. Tanja has a background in microbiology and biochemistry, and is an expert in business models and market requirements for life science companies. We're going to learn from her experience in acquisitions investments and commercialization of life sciences companies across Europe, as well as some recent investments here in the US check out the show notes for her full bio and links to what she and the team are up to at Debiopharm.

    All right, let's get started. 


    [00:01:14] Kelly Stanton: Tanja, give us an overview of your career from biochemistry in college to consulting to now CEO. 

    [00:01:21] Tanja Dowe: Right? So, yeah. I was always interested in life sciences in anything related to human health, uh, with, uh, through microbiology biochemistry medicine. My father was a doctor and when I was five years old, he told me all about how, you know, the surgeries that he performed in hospitals. And I ended up drawing pictures in kindergarten about peoples into stills and their, uh, Oregon. So, uh, that that's kind of started me on this, on the spin towards, uh, life sciences. Right, right after straight at a university. I I started my first company market research. Prior to that, I had done some internships in market research, embodied technology.

    And the end of nineties, right? Beginning of two thousands. And that was a crazy period where a lot of biotech companies were being formed and the pharma business model was changing. They were not anymore doing so much research where they were realizing that they're going to have to partner with Biotics.

    It was very exciting time. I got really excited about this new innovation and opportunities and how startups could actually come with academic research, background and innovations, and really built some new therapies, uh, diagnostics and medical, uh, Solutions for patients. So yeah, I started my own company in market research to help these startups really get to the next level.

    Ended up selling my business to a little bit larger, a boutique company, and then moved there from market research to actually uh, money, uh, managing partner eventually. So I became a part of the company that acquired my company. So that was. Kind of a nice story. Over the years I worked with more than 80, I think it was 86 companies and at the end in, in various projects over 15 years, we work with large multinational companies to do really early startups and everything about this innovation. How do you move innovation? From startup perspective, how do you bring that to the market? How do you commercialize, how do you find partners and from big industry perspective, how the heck are we going to have access to that innovation?

    That was really, really exciting. That kind of started the, that, that, that the work in, in, in, towards, you know, becoming an investor because about five years ago, I said to myself, okay you know, midlife crisis I can still do something new or I'll just stick to my own company for the rest of my life, but I was really interested in kind of learning a new professional area and then a phone call came at the right time and I joined Debiopharm innovation fund, uh, leading, leading it's a corporate venture arm of the Swiss pharma company Debiopharm. And we w developed oncology and infectious disease drugs, and we invest in digital health in these areas. 

    [00:04:20] Kelly Stanton: Awesome. That's that's interesting too, that you mentioned that the whole transition from cause I started my career, uh, about the same time, late, late nineties, early two thousands.

    And I remember when, you know, the big companies, the Pfizers of the world, the Baxters had these huge R and D budgets and these huge teams that were trying to develop products. And it's been a really interesting journey. How those organizations have transitioned to no longer doing R and D instead, it's all the small biotechs, how do they become attractive for acquisition?

    And so, uh, you and I have a lot of parallels there. I've been helping those orgs from a quality system perspective for the last jeez 8 years now. It's always fascinating to me to hear what those of us with our, our, our bio degrees go off and do in the world and, and, uh, and how we can all. Get these products to market.

    So that's really exciting. What is your mission at Debiopharm I know you mentioned, uh, the oncology space. talk to us about that mission a little bit. 

    [00:05:19] Tanja Dowe: All right. So, the mission is to invest in digital health and, and therapeutic platforms that really, uh, radically transformed the way we treat patients and the way we develop drugs.

    We are. Building, we're trying to build the future together with the startups and why we're doing that is of course, because Daniel form, as a drug developer would like to kind of stay up on top of, you know, uh, as an early adopter of new technologies, it increases our competitiveness when we are using the newest tools in AI or.

    Or, you know, running our clinical trials, uh, virtually or as, as much as possible using real-world data and so on. And so we invest in startups to help them build that future. And then Debiopharm as a company learns from these startups and is able to use the novel technologies in, in more efficiently.

    And they're really the frontline. And that's really the, the, the kind of the, the reason behind One of the things, which is also extremely important for, you know, for, for pharmas and, and companies that have existed for tens of years is how do you maintain this sort of startup spirit? How do you keep the agility of the company?

    How do you. Not to become more focused on processes and bureaucracy. Uh, and how do you make sure that you're, I don't think all the time to new trends, how you're using you as tools. So this startup spirit is something important that a lot of, uh, CVCs are also looking for. 

    [00:06:57] Kelly Stanton: Definitely. Yeah. It's tough to maintain that there has to be a balance for sure.

    So, uh, you guys invested in VeriSIM tell us about that. Okay. Why did you choose it?

    [00:07:09] Tanja Dowe: There are some other AI tech companies as well that within this had before about let me walk you through a little bit. Our thinking behind investing in very SIM life.

    So we were looking at the drug development pipeline, could a drug discovery to development all the way to the market, that value chain. And we were saying. We have to disrupt this. We have to turn these individual. We can't be doing it the same way as we've been doing it for tens of years. And, you know, th the costs are just getting bigger and bigger and we're bringing to market more drugs with higher and higher up expends.

    And, and, and, you know, of course, following that the drugs are more and more expensive. So we're really. We looked at this uh, drug development value chain and wanted to piece by piece look for alternative ways of doing things, obviously virtually using computational biology, using simulation, uh, modeling AI data or whatever we can to every piece of that development value.

    Change it, we don't think that there's one company that's going to immediately change everything. We believe that there are several companies working in that field. We started, we invested in nobody's cover that does a modeling and simulation of clinical trials. We invest in nuclear, I that, and that was an AI investment where they were, uh, uh, they're building a digital biomarkers through pathology.

    And we were really, when we sold very SIM life, we knew there was a fate. They are really a unique player in this, uh, drug development pipeline. They're focused on translational medicine, they're using AI and modeling to really, uh, do virtual or in silico, translational medicine and beyond. And we haven't seen anybody in the industry.

    The do exactly the same. No one else is really focusing on that translational medicine. And when you think about it translational medicine, medicine is really a pay the tell part of drug to them. And that's where your science, your. Lating it through animals to humans to really see that what you've been doing in the labs and, and the science, what you've been doing, how does that really work?

    And we were really excited, of course, when we met Joel, the CEO as well, we always, we want to work with good teams, good people. We loved her passion, her ambition. And, uh, yeah, that was, that was, that was, that was this. Nice. 

    [00:09:44] Kelly Stanton: Nice. When you're looking at an investment in it or an acquisition. Is there something in particular that you wish founders would ask you during the process?

    [00:09:53] Tanja Dowe: Yeah. I would say that. You know, w we're always trying to differentiate, uh, w you know, if all the investors have one thing in common, we all have money, but what is the added value that we can bring? And I want to tell, you know, all the oldest startup entrepreneurs out there, make sure that. Make sure that you don't just take the money, make sure that there's a good connection.

    Uh, there's added value. So please ask us, how can we help you? How can, what else can we bring them money? And then, then really about this, uh, you know, you're going to be working with us for quite a while. You know, the, the mutual sort of, uh, trust, integrity, these are important things. I, I I'd love to hear because I always ask from startups as well, what are their or entrepreneurs?

    What are their values? And, and feel free to ask that as well. I think that it's important that we share the same values when we go into an investment together. 

    [00:10:48] Kelly Stanton: Absolutely. Yeah. Those, those seem absolutely critical to a successful partnership, right. So you've been involved with strategy or transaction projects in over 80 companies at this point over the years, are there any that stand out? What, well, some that are most memorable. 

    [00:11:06] Tanja Dowe: Yeah. I would say that always, what excites me is that early startup stages where.

    There's a clique that goes in the, in the, in the intrepreneurs mind, the founder's mind, you know, they find something that's not working today and they realize that it's just a small thing to fix that. And it's usually the best ideas are just these type of click. Oh, wow. I know how to solve that. And then building from that turning that idea to business having that excitement and passion and, uh, you know, Working for a purpose with good people.

    That's, that's super exciting, but if I take some, some more precise examples and maybe from larger companies that I've worked with I was really impressed by that time scale and the systematic approach by large Japanese companies. In health tech. The way that they worked was, was you know, there was a, there was a kind of a vision of where they wanted to go and the depth of work they did to, to kind of find the right path to a new market or new technology.

    It could take a couple of years to really build that, build that not field knowledge and. Once they had that the acquisitions happen really fast. So they would be following a field quite closely going to events, having, you know, research done. And then once they had identified the ones that they wanted to acquire, it was, it was fast and very efficient.

    So this was, this was something that I, that, that I always remember. Another thing that that is important. This is also for all, all, uh, Startup companies and scale-up companies that are venture backed and, you know, eventually you're going to need to look for an exit whether it is an IPO or a, a M and a acquisition.

    It sounds great when. When, uh, you're kind of building the case and he gets very complex during the negotiations, but what you have to remember at all points of the negotiation and, and going to watch that transaction process is what happens after the post acquisition to post-merger. Integration of teams ensuring that there's a fate and this may be, I may be talking even more to the acquirers, uh, to ensure that you do enough work to ensure that the post merger accuracy, uh, integration works and also for the startup companies, make sure that your, uh, the company that's maybe acquiring you or you're negotiating as cheaper, just agreement with that talk to your people. They build that path, how you're going to work together to make sure there's chemistry. Because if you do not have that, your wonderful intrepreneurs are passionate about what their product is. And if the post integration doesn't work, I've seen too many times when. You know, the business success is hindered and sometimes the business just never really materialize it's because of that, that integration issue.

    We're just people, you know, we're acquiring businesses, but we need to work with people. So make sure that that works. That's, that's something maybe I learning from my cat. 

    [00:14:29] Kelly Stanton: Yeah, no, that's, again, speaks to that whole team and partnership and how that all needs to go really well. For sure. Definitely. Well, and it's interesting that you mentioned Japan because the next thing I wanted to ask you about was what are you seeing are main differences between commercialization in Europe versus America?

    Japan is always an interesting one too, from, from my time in the industry and stuff, they, they are, uh, their pathways and their concerns are different. Us or Europe or Canada or Australia or any of that, uh, in, in your experience, I guess if we, if we stick to Europe and America, what, what are you saying?

    Main differences that need to be considered in that commercialization process. 

    [00:15:08] Tanja Dowe: Yeah, exactly. So, so Europe is fragmented. So from maybe from the us perspective, it looks like, uh, wow. You know, they have a market is fragmented. They have 50 million people in that market. 40 in here, 35 million here. 10 million here.

    How do you tackle that? There's language barriers that we in each country there's maybe even different regulations, reimbursement for sure is different. Uh, so how do you, how do you tackle that? On the other hand, when I look at the U S and especially from European perspective, Huge opportunity. It's monstrously big opportunity for any company, but it's a really tough market and there's a lot of good competition.

    So, you know, uh, th th these are, these are that they're neither one of these markets are, are easy. I would always say to European companies because European companies always want to enter USA at some point. Remember to also build your base in Europe, because on the other hand, you, as companies don't necessarily expand to Europe, at least in the earlier.

    Uh, European companies tend to try to enter Europe, a us market when you know, around series B, but us companies only later once it's really growth stage, uh, a large revenue generating, maybe 10 million, then they start looking at the European market. So insurance. That as a European company, that you have the European market, because that has value later on whether you're collaborating with us companies or you want to be acquired, or you want to acquire, this is your, your, one of your strongholds.

    On the other hand for Europe, for us companies, I also want to remind that Europe is not a heterogeneous market. So you have the Nordics that are really advanced in digitally, digitally advanced, uh, markets. So a lot of those digital digital health. Products, you can maybe have more ready markets in the Northern Europe.

    On the other hand in Germany, you have deep, uh, which you say digital therapeutics, uh, reimbursement system and, and so on and so on. And so every country. So, so make sure that you have some European advise when, and try to, you know, when you enter Europe, there might be some low hanging fruits for US companies.

    [00:17:28] Kelly Stanton: Yes, it's interesting. I worked on a project where we were going to try to do some clinical trials in Poland and Romania. But then, you know, the conversations around, could we use that data back here in the U S how are the populations alike? How are they different? All those kinds of things in You know, very narrow, very specific indication.

    It was, uh, yeah, it was a challenge. And I think it really, you know, you're right. I think outside of industry, which is often where like the entrepreneur based comes from hazard perception, they're like, oh, Europe, they all fall under EU, right? It's like, no, you know, from a, from a, you know, the, I am PD content pretty consistent, but then every single country, even if they are recognized under EU has their own requirements to, to get through that regulatory pathway.

    And that can be a huge challenge and a huge, you know, so then at some point you have to go maybe go back to your investors and say, Hey, I know we were talking about Europe, but we've looked at that strategy and. You're either going to have to give us more money or maybe we're going to wait on that one until later.


    [00:18:32] Tanja Dowe: exactly. 

    [00:18:33] Kelly Stanton: Yeah. It had experienced that one. That one's always interesting. If you could go back and tell yourself something at the start of your career, knowing what you know now, what would you say? 

    [00:18:44] Tanja Dowe: Wow. There's so many things that I wish I could tell myself.

    Really. I was thinking about this. Build your knowledge. You know, build your knowledge base piece by piece and be patient because everyone. Journey and the Cary journey is unique. So, and don't try to, you know, don't try to imitate all, you know, all my, all my friends from university are doing this and this, but, but find your own path and have faith because once you get, you know, later in your life, once you get to, uh, uh, my young age, uh it's uh, You realize that you really need unique perspectives.

    Uh, when you sit on boards, uh, when you invest everyone, for example, in my team, I've tried to call it very, you know, different people with different backgrounds, different carrier journeys, because they've all seen they friend things. And that, that, uh, you know, kind of spectrum off different, uh, unique personalities, unique carrier paths.

    They, they. Power. And so really, you know, make your own choices. If you're, sometimes you don't get a job that you really wanted. Don't worry. You know, you're going out, you're going to have your chance. And just one step at a time, Billy, don't worry. You're you're, you're, you're doing good. And you know, they're there to, you know, they're to take steps that no one else is.

    [00:20:18] Kelly Stanton: Awesome. I love that. So where online can people find you to follow along? 

    [00:20:24] Tanja Dowe: Yes. So I'm I'm mostly in LinkedIn, so I will, everything that I will publish somewhere else is going to end up in my, on my LinkedIn account. There's some interesting resources that we have on our, on our webpage at . The fund such as a recent paper, we rolled on series a to scale up, what are some of the lessons learned and best practices from our portfolio companies and from several investors that we interviewed.

    So that might be interesting for companies looking for series a or having made the, build their series and trying to figure out how do you build the scale-up, uh, capability to scale up. And and, and so. Follow the link to, there's also another paper that we're working on. We'll probably publish it around.

    Mid-year on exits and, you know, as a, you know, series a and post series, a series B entrepreneur, you know, what do you have to think about exits and how can you make sure that you come out of it as a winner? 

    [00:21:28] Kelly Stanton: Oh, perfect. That's uh, I think that'll be exactly the kinds of information our, our listeners, uh, in that space they'll be looking for. Thank you so much for your time today. Tanja was absolutely amazing to meet you. I feel like we could talk a whole lot more. I'd love to connect with you maybe again sometime soon. 

    [00:21:46] Tanja Dowe: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Kelly. This was a great pleasure to speak with you and, uh, Wonderful to have this European US connection.

    Uh, and I think that, you know, we, we may be, have to thank Covid for making the world a little smaller place. 

    [00:22:00] Kelly Stanton: It has made it a little smaller in a lot of ways. Hasn't it? Oh my goodness. What fun. Awesome. All right. Well, thank you so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day. Thank you, you too.