Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Jan Lichtenberg

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Jan Lichtenberg, Ph.D., is Co-Founder and CEO of Swiss- and US-based InSphero Inc., the largest biotech specialized in 3D cell-culture technologies for discovery and safety. InSphero patented assay-ready 3D microtissues mimic the structure and functionality of organ tissue, e.g. liver, pancreas, or tumors including disease states like diabetes or NASH. The 3D microtissues allow for more predictive and reliable compound profiling for discovery and safety testing in a highly robust, rapid and cost-efficient way.

Jan co-founded InSphero in 2009 and grew the company to 65 employees in Switzerland and the US while expanding the business to encompass all top 15 global pharmaceutical companies. Prior to InSphero, Jan had VP R&D and Product Management positions at Hocoma AG (medical robotics) and Uwatec (microelectronics). He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Neuchâtel and managed a research group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Jan Lichtenberg

Tell us more about InSphero.

InSphero was founded 12 years ago to help pharma and biotech companies developing new drugs and treatments in a more efficient way. At the time, animal testing was the gold standard to understand drug safety and efficacy. The attrition rates were very high and we were certain there were other ways to get a better understanding of patient outcomes in the earlier stages.

My two co-founders had already worked on tissue models using 3D cell culture for the better part of 15 years. We decided to put all this academic knowledge into one company to create industry-grade solutions for different diseases. It would enable our partners to find the right compounds, to identify new targets, and to validate that these targets are relevant for the disease.

How has the company grown in the last 12 years?

We started with us three founders in 2009, in the middle of a financial crisis. Although many said it was not a good idea to start a company at this time, it was actually the right moment for many reasons – it was a time when the pharmaceutical industry started looking for more relevant in vitro models and putting the patient more into the center of their drug discovery efforts, and not the animal.

The industry was also looking more into biologicals, antibodies, antisense oligonucleotides, human-only targets – a lot of new paradigms and modalities where classical in vitro and animal models may not work well.

We closed our Series A financing round in 2010 and grew step by step. Even last year during the pandemic, we still managed to grow, although not as fast. We are now 60 people, with a subsidiary in the US, which happens to be our biggest single market.

We started with liver models for safety applications and have evolved to now spanning applications from oncology to metabolic diseases. We have progressed from a technology provider to a true partner to pharmaceutical companies and even beyond: last year, we have submitted our first patent for a therapy emerging from our own discovery pipeline.

Tell us more about Syndya Therapeutics.

We started Syndya to focus on combination testing specifically for NASH because it is a very important and yet unmet disease need in in the industry. We decided that it’s better to encapsulate these activities in a separate company with a different business goal.

With Syndya, we are selecting backbone drugs, find relevance synergistic drug-drug combinations, and patent these assets.

How did you make this shift into drug development?

At InSphero, we are working in discovery partnerships with pharma companies: we share the risk, but we also share the upside – we are in the same boat and have aligned interests.

We made the strategic decision a few years ago to develop further into a ‘hybrid biotech’.  We are a valuable partner to pharma and biotech and provide access to our unique technology platform, our 3D InSight™ Microtissue Models and our Akura™ Organ-on-a-Chip systems. At the same time, however, we use that very same technology to drive our own discovery programmes. Part of the revenue from the classical partnership business can be reinvested into our own discovery programmes, which makes us a little less dependent on investors and less vulnerable to failures.

We have a focus on combination testing because metabolic diseases are very often highly multi-factorial, a combination of lifestyle, food and exercise, together with maybe some genetic predisposition. Our platform is so scalable that we can evaluate combinations of multiple drugs across a large concentration range.

What are some challenges you have faced in the last 12 years?

The progression from start-up to an SME creates various growth pains. Communication was one of the first things that we realised was an issue. When we started, we were three friends in the same office. Everybody knew everything that was going on, not just in business but also privately.

When we started our presence in the US, we suddenly switched from a small, localized team to two teams with a distance, both physically and culturally. Constantly making sure that people are on the same page and putting unanswered questions on the table right away is the culture that we’ve adopted.

Can you share some highlights?

We were one of the first movers in our industry and have created a market for advanced and scalable human cell models as well as the business model that is associated to it. Despite competition from very good companies across the world, we maintained a real cutting-edge advantage as market leader.

Initially, it was easy for us to say that our solution is much better, but then suddenly you move from being the hunter to being the hunted, and everybody else targets you. That creates pressure, but good pressure that makes you move faster and become even better at your game.

The second highlight was our first drug asset as it was such a big game changer for us. Aside from all the other accomplishments that we’ve had, it was perfect proof that our technology works.

The third was when we acquired the first European publicly funded project 6 or 7 years ago to create something that we termed Body-on-a-Chip allowing us to combine different organs in one device. How does the liver interact with the pancreas, which then interacts with the fat tissue in a metabolic system?

How do you continue to maintain being a market leader?

By making sure that we constantly innovate and improve across the company. For example, operational excellence is an area that very quickly gets a little lost when your organisation transitions and grows; how or when do you change your operational procedures from manual manufacturing to a more automated system, or when do you need an ERP system.

It is important to be nimble in making these steps with the right timing, as opposed to executing blindly based on a business plan to make sure that resources are utilised optimally.

Best and worst part of being a CEO?

The best part is you can influence your team and have a lot of resources at your disposition to follow your vision. If you have the right people and the right plan everybody can contribute and be part of the journey. I think that it is a super powerful environment for me to be able to move a market in a direction that allows us to make a lasting impact.

The worst part is that, as a CEO, I think we are often quite lonely in making certain decisions, in facing problems or issues. I have a great C-level management team and employees, but there are certain things that I cannot share with them easily, it is a burden I carry on my own.

What is your view on failure?

It is a statistical reality of the business. The first job I had after leaving ETH was with a US headquartered company that had great failure culture. My manager told me that I will never have a complete data set to take the perfect decision, if it even exists at all. Instead, he wanted me to make decisions based on the information that I had, with a good understanding of the risks and chances, trusting my gut feeling and assured that it was alright to make mistakes.

I remember needing to kill a project that my boss had initiated as it was clear it had reached a dead end after having spent half a million on it. We made a good decision to start this, but it turned out that we picked the wrong development partner. We stopped the project at the risk of facing backlash from the management in the US. But 15 minutes later, a call from the Group VP came. They thought that it was a great decision and congratulated us for being brave enough to accept that the project didn’t work. That was a defining moment for me:  we need to embrace failure and learn from mistakes.

Have you always known you would be an entrepreneur?

I think so, yes. Turning ideas into technology, and technology into solutions that have a commercial relevance was something that always interested me.

As a student, I had my side hustles and jobs to earn some money, and it was not so much about the money itself. It was  more about the fact that I could do something that was so good that somebody else would be willing to pay for it.

What are your hopes for InSphero and Syndya?

I hope that we continue to grow and change the way how drugs are discovered because the technologies that we and our competitors have developed will help to find better drugs for us all. We have a lot of room to grow, as we are still scratching at the surface in allowing the industry to tackle medical problems and diseases that are currently not treatable.

I’d very much like to expand InSphero more internationally, not just on the business development side which we currently do, but also on the research side with fantastic universities in the US and Asia that are doing great work.

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