Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Christina Vallgren

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Dr. Christina Vallgren is the CEO and Co-Founder of Terapet SA. She holds a PhD in Applied Physics, MSc in Nuclear Physics and an MBA. Before coming to CERN, Christina earned a MSc degree in nuclear physics from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden and was summer student at CERN in 2007.

Right after her degree in nuclear physics, Christina came to CERN in 2008 for a PhD in applied physics. Since then, she has been spending the last 12 years at CERN. She was the main responsible for the LHC (Large Hadron Collider, 27 km, the world’s biggest accelerator) Beam Vacuum (the world’s biggest vacuum system) Operation and has also been supervisor for five master students and two fellows. From time to time, she is also active scientific journal referee for IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Christina Vallgren

What is Terapet? Why did you decide to found the firm? 

Terapet is a Geneva-based MedTech startup. The company was founded in 2019 by three founders: me, Marcus Palm (CTO) and Professor Raymond Miralbell (CSO). Prof Raymond was the former radiation oncology department head at the University Hospital of Geneva and today he’s the Medical Director at the First Proton Therapy Centre in Spain.

The idea for the company began in 2018. Marcus, who was the in-charge person of the design of the first proton therapy facility building in Austria, had acquired a lot of insights into the physical limitations of the accelerator, the beam delivery system, patient positioning system, etc. We had the idea to improve proton therapy by using some of the technological developments from CERN.

I came to Geneva in 2007 and have been working at CERN for the last 12 years. I started as a PhD student, then a Senior Research Fellow, and later a staff physicist for another five years before founding Terapet.

Where is the company at today versus when you started the firm?

There were just the 3 co-founders about a year ago, and today we are more than 10 FTEs working on the project. We are working on a full-scale prototype development, ready for CE certification by the end of 2024. 

We are also acting as the industrial partner for international consortia set up with renowned research institutes: CERN in Geneva, Politecnico di Milano, and Karolinska Instititet in Sweden as well as the Skandion Clinic – the first proton therapy facility in Sweden. We are working together towards a common goal – realization of a certified medical device for in-vivo proton therapy range verification.

Tell us more about proton therapy.

Proton therapy is a new technology using high energy protons to treat cancer. It’s the most precise radiotherapy in the world providing minimum damage to healthy tissues and organs. Although proton therapy itself is extremely precise, all the treatments available today are relying only on simulations and modelling. 

As there is currently no real-time monitoring to help doctors know what’s happening inside the patients, doctors must be conservative during treatment by adding a large margin around the tumour to make sure that all cancer cells are killed.

That’s exactly what we wanted to change at Terapet. Our device is an add-on medical device to the existing proton therapy facility. It’s a non-invasive medical device with high precision detectors that’s placed close to the patients during treatment to measure where the protons really arrive. 

For the first time, doctors will be able to see where the protons arrive inside the patients, in 3D, in real-time, in vivo, and in a non-invasive way. This is the missing piece of the puzzle needed to really make full use of the capabilities of proton therapy, since it allows you to reduce the added margins around the tumour, resulting in better patient safety and long-term benefits. 

Have you always known you would become an entrepreneur?

Not at all. We had a great idea, but really took the time to consider if it was the right move as I have two kids myself. Furthermore, Marcus our CTO and I are a married couple. Having a married couple among the founders is not very common., and you need to be aware that this is something that divides potential investors into three groups: some don’t like it, some don’t care, and some see it as an advantage. But in the end, regardless of whom you are founding the company with, it’s important that the investors can see that you are able to work together in a professional manner, with clearly defined responsibilities. 

We took a big financial risk after carefully considering our options. It was why we didn’t found the company immediately. I did not quit my job until after we closed our seed round of 1 million CHF last year. 

What drives you?

I wanted to try something special. Perhaps I should share some background about myself. My mother is Chinese, and my father is Swedish. I was born in China, grew up in Sweden and spent the last one-third of my life in Switzerland.

I come from a very business-oriented family. I was the only one who studied nuclear physics at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. Being an entrepreneur is something that always wanted to try, and I even did an MBA during my spare time while working at CERN. 

Also, we’ve seen many great ideas being created in the lab. But unfortunately, very often it doesn’t make it outside the lab. I found that it was a very interesting idea to bring science from the lab to the market. It’s difficult and challenging, but also very inspiring. 

Can you share some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? 

Since we are physicists and scientists, the biggest challenge would be to convince people that you can also run a successful business, worth investing in. Since we’re really high-tech hardware company, we need a substantial amount of funds to work on our MedTech startup. 

Recruitment has also been a big challenge. Just when you start growing, you have more roles to fill than people. Finding skilled people with both very specific and broad skills is really difficult, but we’ve been lucky to be able to tap into the CERN network to grow our team. 

How have you tackled fundraising?

We have been a bit lucky as the fundraising journey has been quite smooth so far. We managed to raise a seed round of 0.5 million CHF within less than 3 months of incorporating the company, and 6 months later we raised another 1 million CHF – in the middle of a pandemic In the same month, we were awarded with another 1.53 million CHF non-dilutive funds from Eurostars and Innosuisse, that support our company to move forward.   

Overall, within less than a year, we managed to raise more than 3 million CHF as a very early stage startup. Right now, we’re preparing for our series A, and hopefully we can close it by Q1 2022.

Best and worst part of being a CEO?

The best part of being a startup-CEO is that you get to be the driving force in building up and shaping something from the very beginning. The variation is also very stimulating: you really have to be able to do everything, from financial planning and IP-strategies to technical problem solving and furnishing an office.

The worst part is that it’s hard to balance family and professional life, but I’m happy that we’ve been doing well so far.

What is your view on failure?

I think failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because each time you fail, you learn from it. Failure is a good lesson to prepare you for the next success. 

You may have heard of Venture Kick, a programme that helps startups take their projects off the ground. Two years ago, we were pitching our idea at Venture Kick Stage 1, at a very early stage in our project. Since we are very scientific people, we failed. They didn’t understand what we were trying to say. One of the jury members commented that “it sounds important, but it was difficult to understand what the product was, or how you can make money out of it.” We also got several comments on what kind of competence and people were missing in the team. This kind of feedback was actually really helpful, because it gave us a clear idea of what we needed to achieve. In the end, Venture Kick were so kind to let us come back and try again, and then we managed to win all stages. I’m really glad we didn’t give up after the first rejection.

What is your hope for Terapet?

My hope for Terapet is that one day, it will become a standard safety tool in every proton therapy centre around the world. Our device is not a “nice-to-have” but an ought-to-have tool for proton therapy if you want to give every patient the best chance of success. 

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