Olink – various roads to success

Professor Ulf Landegren at Uppsala University’s Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology is a prize-winning molecular medicine scientist. He is also a successful entrepreneur who has founded a handful of companies in order to commercialize the technologies that he and his colleagues have created. The flagship is Olink Bioscience AB, today an Uppsala based enterprise with an annual turnover of 35 MSEK and 35 employees.

Ulf Landegren and his research team have developed a number or technologies for molecular analyses, “molecular tools”, and this research has resulted in some forty patent families that in addition to forming the basis for his own companies have also been used for licensing to a number of the world’s leading biotech companies.

“The methods that we develop are of course intended to be used by other scientists,” Ulf says. “You can say the Olink serves a funnel that can gather up such ideas and find the best way for commercialization.”

Many innovative technologies

Olink was founded in 2004 by Ulf and some of his research colleagues, and two persons with long experience of the biotech industry, Mårten Winge and Björn Ekström, who became the company’s first CEO. Valuable capital was invested by Andes Wall’s foundation and UU Holding, among others.

“What makes Olink special is that the company has had a steady flow of new technologies from the university researchers,” Björn Ekström says. “This made it possible for us to use the strategy to develop the most promising technologies in-house, while licensing out the rights to others in order to gain capital to invest in the company.”

Such agreements were soon closed with Affymetrix and Applied Biosystems, among others. In 2007 Olink could launch its first product, Duolink, a method for detection of proteins that in a unique way combines the high specificity of antibodies with the possibility to amplify the sample at DNA level and thus achieve also extremely high sensitivity.

Own subsidiaries

After a few years also a third way of commercialization was used, the formation of separate subsidiaries for certain applications of the technologies. In 2008 Q-linea was started to develop a system for the detection of biological warfare agents. UU Holding was invited and invested in the new subsidiary.

“As this application differed substantially from Olink’s core business and also required development of dedicated instruments, we chose to form a subsidiary,” Björn says. “Another reason was that an agreement that was signed with the French armed forces contained a liability clause should the project fail. Forming a separate company was also a way to protect the parent company if the worst should happen.”

Luckily it did not, the project was successfully completed to the satisfaction of all parties. In addition to biosecurity applications Q-linea also works with systems for diagnostics. Today the company is developing a fully automated system for the identification of microorganisms in blood samples, and evaluation of their sensitivity to antibiotics. This can substantially facilitate the choice of treatment e.g. for patients suffering from severe sepsis.

A second subsidiary was also founded in 2008. Olink Genomics, which later changed its name to Halo Genomics, developed a system for amplification of DNA with considerably higher capacity than the traditional PCR technique. Also in this company UU Holding contributed an investment.

In this case the founders eventually chose to divest the company to a big industrial player, however.

“Halo required external funding in order to continue its development and when we got a favorable offer from the American biotechnology group Agilent Technologies we chose to sell the company. The product line fits well in a larger organization and the founders got a good return on their investment, so it was a good solution,” Björn says.

The future in Uppsala secured

In 2011 the owners also got an offer for the parent company Olink from a big international company. Ulf Landegren was anxious that Olink should remain an Uppsala-based enterprise, however, and after negotiations with the Uppsala entrepreneur Bengt Ågerup another solution was found where Ågerup’s venture capital company nxt2b acquired 49 % of the shares in Olink. In this way the founders could “have it both ways” – they got a healthy economic return on their initial investment, at the same time as the company could remain in close proximity to the University and its research.

“Bengt Ågerup shares my vision of building a company that is sustainable long-term in Uppsala,” says Ulf. “I’m very satisfied that we managed to find a solution that made this possible. Now we continue to maintain a close relation between Olink and my academic research group.”

To UU Holding the deal with nxt2b meant that the holding company divested its ownership share in Olink and could use the proceeds for investments in new start-up companies, fully in line with UU Holding’s objective.

Expanding business

The investment by nxt2b enabled Olink to expand its business in new markets and find new business opportunities. One such was Proseek Multiplex, a technique enabling simultaneous measurement of 92 different proteins in 96 samples, which is now Olink’s most important product.

Today Olink is a successful business with an annual turnover of 35 MSEK and 35 employees. The company already has a global presence, but the plans for the near future include further strengthening the market position, above all in the US.

“Olink is a special company and you can hardly see it as a role model for successful commercialization of research ideas,” says Björn Ekström. “It’s a unique situation to have so much proprietary technology and so many patents. This offers great business development opportunities, many legs to stand on, and Olink has utilized this in in optimal way.”

Writer: Thomas Nordanberg