The spark behind Immuneed. An interview with founder Sara Mangsbo.
26 november 2020
In a few short years, Immuneed has come far with its preclinical testing platform based on fresh, circulating whole blood. No one is more familiar with the journey than founder and board member Sara Mangsbo, PhD, who is also an associate professor in immunology and associate senior lecturer in antibody drugs at Uppsala University. We asked Sara to explain Immuneed’s roots and reasons for success.
Q: Where did the idea for the Immuneed platform come from?
A: It actually arose when I was working on my doctorate as part of the clinical immunology group at Uppsala University in Sweden, between 2006 and 2009. There I came into contact with variants of the Chandler Loop model that had been used for years to explore how blood interacts with different types of materials, such as those proposed for hip replacements or tooth implants. Professor Thomas Tötterman and I began to discuss how the assay might be applied in a different way, to look at how blood interacts with drugs. If we used it to characterize the effects of cascade systems when a drug meets the blood and its cells, could we get a more holistic picture? That was really the start – taking an existing idea and pushing it in a new direction.
Q: Why hadn’t anyone seen that direction before?
A: In retrospect, it seems odd that no one had thought of using an assay like this to evaluate blood–drug interactions in any substantial way. On the other hand, antibody-based drugs have really exploded in the 2000s. Prior to that, we weren’t creating so many antibody-based drugs, so perhaps there wasn’t the same perceived need. The more a particular category of drugs expands, the more the need for different types of assays becomes evident.
Q: So how did the perception of a need turn into a company?
A: I founded Immuneed in 2014 with Professor Thomas Tötterman and Erika Fletcher, who was another doctoral student in our group. Already in our academic work, we had seen that there were certain companies interested in running their substances in our system. But we realized that there needed to be a lot more structure around a service like that – it was nothing that could be offered via the university. Plus, I had an interest in entrepreneurship that I wanted to explore. That’s what led me to apply to Sweden’s IVA mentorship program, Mentor4Research, which together with a grant from Uppsala BIO, the BIO-X program, provided the guidance and funding needed to get the company going.
Q: As an academic, what drew you to entrepreneurship?
A: It was a lot about wanting what we do in academia to move forward somehow. Research shouldn’t just end up in a publication. It should influence lives and open up possibilities, helping things to flower in other areas. That includes creating jobs, which was an insight that really struck me when we first started Immuneed. Once you’ve lit the spark and you bring the right people in, an idea can grow on its own, creating jobs and possibilities for others.
Q: Was it all straightforward once the ball was rolling?
A: Not at all! It was an iterative process, where we learned with each new client – the routines, analyses and reporting, but also how to understand the needs and what to take with us into the next project. What does this client or that partner really want? You really have to dare to listen. To be honest, things were also complicated by the fact that Immuneed had two legs. There was the service business around our assay, which is today’s Immuneed, but we also had a drug development program, which had grown out of a project and patent from my post-doctoral work in Holland. The latter was also successful, and its acquisition by Ultimovacs in 2018 was a natural development that benefitted both sides of the business.
Q: Why is Immuneed better with a 100% service focus?
A: When you’re pursuing your own drug development at the same time, it’s difficult to provide preclinical services to others and have that business reach its full potential. Today’s Immuneed is fully niched in what it does. There’s more focus for everyone. All the talented people who work at Immuneed can contribute in a meaningful way toward the same goals, which means the company and the services we provide can blossom.
Q: How have those services developed over time?
A: The more you use a certain method, the more you refine it, add to it and connect other things with it. The Immuneed platform today is more than the platform we started out with, and Immuneed is much more than the method itself. It’s everything we provide to our clients, such as access to blood donors with specific illnesses, which allows them to look at their drug in fresh blood from target patients. Likewise, it’s our cumulative understanding of the immunological factors that influence blood–drug interactions. Immuneed began with a lot of know-how, and we’ve accumulated far more since then.
Q: As Immuneed continues moving forward, how do you measure success?
A: Ultimately, I can see that we’re becoming known for delivering. Clients talk to each other and the message spreads, so Immuneed’s business is expanding rapidly. In the beginning, you’re pitching an idea or a vision, and you have to get people to believe in it. Sometimes, you don’t even know if your vision is realistic. But my confirmation is the many clients, all the global clients who want to make use of Immuneed’s services. Their enthusiasm shows that what we do is working – that there’s a need and an interest that matches the vision, which is the most fantastic thing of all.
Sofia is responsible for the commercial operations at Immuneed, with a strong focus on strategic marketing & customer excellence. Previously, she worked as Customer Success Manager for a technical software startup and brought her strong knowledge in customer relations management and digitalization with her to Immuneed. She graduated from the University of Gothenburg with a Master's degree in Business Creation and Entrepreneurship in Biomedicine.