Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Oliver Rinner

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Oliver was a co-founder of Biognosys in 2008 and is leading the company as CEO, starting as a spin-off from ETH Zurich to a market-leading inventor and provider of proteomics technology that Biognosys is today.

A psychologist and biochemist by training, Oliver joined the group of proteomics pioneer Ruedi Aebersold at the ETH in 2005, where he worked on the development of technologies for targeted and structural proteomics and contributed to the seminal papers and patents in the Aebersold group that laid the foundation of the next-generation proteomics.

Oliver is also a member of the Board of Directors of Biognosys.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Oliver Rinner

Tell us more about Biognosys and why did you found it.

We are a proteomics technology company. Our mission is to help researchers better understand the proteome, which is the key to precision medicine because almost everything is done by proteins in our body. In contrast to the genome, the proteome has not been very approachable so far, and only recently has it become possible to understand proteomes in their full complexity. That wasn’t the case twelve years ago when we founded the company.

Back then I was a postdoc at the ETH Zurich in the lab of Ruedi Aebersold, who is perceived as the leading scientist and a pioneer in proteomics. I had the opportunity to be part of an extremely innovative group with great people, several of whom are now academic stars. Ruedi was a truly inspirational leader and we were like a wolfpack with no respect for any legacy of how you should do proteomics, which was still a very manual process at the time.

I saw the opportunity to bring a greater impact with the technology by not being a publishing professor but choosing to make the technology available commercially.

The decision wasn’t easy as I did not see myself as an entrepreneur, but rather a scientist. At that time, I remember that I met Rick Klausner, a former director of the NCI and venture capitalist. He told me that the best science that he had seen was in small biotech companies. I found it very motivating to think that choosing an industrial career meant that I needed to be a better scientist than I ever was – not as an individual but with my company.

How has Biognosys grown in the last 12 years?

When we started, we had developed a way to do quantitative proteomics with a handful of proteins in parallel with very high accuracy. It was a huge improvement to classic antibody technologies. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that despite all our academic enthusiasm, the world had not waited for us.

So our initial mission was to validate our technology by publishing and working with collaborators. And, most importantly, we managed to sell to paying customers from the very beginning.

These early adopters in big and small companies were willing to try, often because they were driven by their scientific interest or because they needed to achieve something that was beyond state-of-the-art technologies. One of our first customers was Moderna, which is now public. We helped them to prove within weeks that many of their mRNA constructs actually did what they were supposed to do, i.e. expressing their target proteins in the right quantities, which was very important for them.

This project was a pivotal point for us and our investors because it proved that we could make real impact. It was not by accident that our first customers were the most innovative US venture capital financed start-ups that were more open and had a high sense of urgency to deliver results.

Then, still being close to the ETH Zurich, we managed to turn the technology into a full “omics” method where we could analyze thousands of proteins in parallel, bringing it to the scale of genomics.

This is our flagship offering until today, we sell it as a service for Biotech/Pharma and as software product for experts in academia and core facilities.

What stage is Biognosys at currently?

We are now in a commercial stage, growing rapidly with over 50 people, and still with a very high R&D intensity.

The past couple of months have been exciting for proteomics. Several new proteomics platforms, with different focus compared to ours, have been IPO-ed or acquired by SPAC’s. Suddenly investors seem to believe that proteomics has a greater potential than genomics, and this changes the dynamics completely for us. We can now focus on developing new applications to grow and grasp the opportunities in a fast-growing market.

What drives you?

The excitement, from the very beginning. Now with the enthusiasm for proteomics in the field and new developments in our pipeline, it still feels like a beginning. We know that what we do today will have to be done differently in one or two years, so it never stops.

And there are a lot of opportunities to grow as a person for myself and my team. It is rewarding to see how many of our early employees have been developing from PhDs, coming fresh out of University, into team leaders and professionals, and also how new team members become part of our journey.

What are the best and worst parts of being a CEO?

The best part is that you can build something and meet creative and smart people, employees, customers, investors, and other entrepreneurs. And it is very rewarding to be able to create something with your company that nobody could do before. As a CEO, you have the opportunity to give direction, make decisions, and try new things.

The worst is perhaps that success is never untainted because you know almost everything that happens in the company, which can be a curse. So sometimes when you get applause for things that turned out well, you know that it could have been better or was sheer luck. On the other hand, for some of the things that are failures in other people’s eyes, I know better that they were great victories on a higher level.

What is your view on failure?

I can think of two aspects related to failure. First, I believe it is more important to focus on opportunities for success than only trying to avoid failure. If you don’t make mistakes, you may not die, but you achieve nothing.

And then, I have noticed that many people mix up a ‘wrong decision’ with a ‘wrong outcome’ when it comes to judging if you have failed. If I have decided something based on the best knowledge I could have today and by forces outside my control it still turns out badly, then that was not a failure but still the right decision just with the `wrong’ outcome. There is no remorse, you may still learn something, but otherwise, you just shake it off, see what you have left, and make the best out of it.

But if you’re lazy or don’t check the facts, or you just went down the path of least resistance and it turns out badly, then that is a failure.

How have you been impacted by Covid?

Thankfully very little. When it all started, we made the decision to not go the easy way, send everybody home, and ask the state for money. Instead, we believed that we could achieve all goals at the same time: Staying safe, keeping the company running, and maintaining our operations at 100% throughout the pandemic.

In the end, we managed to grow sales by 50%, hired several new people, and – most importantly – until today all of us stayed healthy. This shows to me that our people behaved extremely responsibly at work and especially at home where, as we know today, most of the infections happen. I am grateful for that, but at the same time, I am aware that we all still have a difficult journey ahead of us.

What are some lessons learned over the years?

It sounds like a cliché when people say don’t hire for skills but hire for attitude. But it is true. We have been lucky to find great people, but of course there were also mismatches in between, and it was never due to a lack of intelligence or skills.

Now, I look primarily at people’s attitude to fit our culture, because you can never compensate for this with a longer CV or more skills. Ultimately, the team’s attitude, mindset, and ethics, and our ability to maintain this as we are growing will determine our success.

Then, I learned that you need to prepare to be lucky. Many of the milestones in our history came by opportunities that were not planned but which we could grasp because we were prepared. I always carve out some time for creating the basis of such opportunities by talking to people, helping others without asking for immediate return, reading history books, or learning new things that could be remotely related to my work.

What is your hope for Biognosys?

I believe the world is soon entering a new age of bioengineering. With genomics, CRISPR, and mRNA technology we have now the tools, and with proteomics and AI-driven data-science, we have the knowledge to finally bend biology to our will. Our goal at Biognosys is to play a key role in this by providing access to the proteome on all levels.

We will now get the chance to go beyond just curing diseases and creating a healthier, stronger, and hopefully more equal society, and to heal some of the wounds that we inflicted onto our planet.I am very optimistic for the post-pandemic world and I look forward to being an active part of this new chapter with Biognosys.

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