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Tanja Dowe, CEO Debiopharm Innovation Fund, Swisspreneur Podcast

EP #143 - Tanja Dowe: Investing In Digital Health

Tanja Dowe (Debiopharm Innovation Fund)

March 25, 2021

2:29 – Having a surgeon and a business woman for parents
6:13 – Are entrepreneurs born or made?
25:04 – Tanja’s investment focus area
29:44 – Red flags for an investor
44:52 – The Finnish and Swiss ecosystems

About Tanja Dowe

Tanja Dowe is CEO for the Debiopharm International Innovation Fund and Board Member for Novadiscovery and Oncomfort. Using her expertise in strategic business and market demands, Tanja’s work encourages commercialization of innovative healthcare technologies and patient care solutions for a brighter, healthier future.

How upbringing can breed curiosity

“I wanted to turn innovation into practical things: how does that work? How are people actually going to access those technologies?”

Tanja is the daughter of a Finnish surgeon and a Swiss businesswoman. She describes herself as having been a wild child who wished to write her own story and leave her mark. Her interest in healthcare was sparked by the many fascinating dinner table conversations at home, where she heard her father talk about his day.

In 2000, she finished her MSc in Microbiology and Biochemistry at TKK (Helsinki University of Technology). Although the idea of pursuing a career of scientific research crossed her mind countless times,  her curious personality led her away from the slow-moving groove of biochemical testing to creating practical outcomes and solutions for everyday problems as her life’s commitment.

The influence of North-American culture and the self-made entrepreneur

“The North-American culture is very entrepreneurial: when you’re in California, everyone is a businessman, they all have their businesses! Biotech companies on both sides of the street? You would not see that anywhere else but in San Diego.”

While completing her internship on market research for the biotech industry, Tanja got the chance to work in the energetic environments of dynamic cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. Hearing so many inspiring stories can naturally make anyone think: “Hey, I want to join as well!”.

Detailed plans were not her priority at the time; all it mattered was that American spirit which aroused her will to move forward and take part in something larger. Tanja is keen on believing anyone can become an entrepreneur, but some traits will definitely help on the journey:

  • Innate curiosity and ability to detect problems;
  • A will to take risks and resilience for wiggling your way through hardship;
  • A wish to defend a bigger-than-life concept that will outlive your current struggles.

Debiopharm International’s mission

In October 2016, Tanja became the CEO for the Innovation Fund of Debiopharm International, a privately owned pharmaceutical company focused on in-licensing and developing biotech products approaching clinical trials to help them reach their maximum potential and gain access to international partnerships.

With aging demographics and increasing healthcare expenses, companies should try to stay ahead of the game and ask: what is going to be the next great leap in patient care? Since drug development rates are understandingly slow, Debiopharm knows how important it is to have that special skill of foreseeing future gaps in the market, instead of developing products for a market where they’ll no longer be an essential board piece.

Tanja’s tips for fellow investors

Her experience with Innomedica Ltd. and Debiopharm’s Innovation Fund really brought her attention to how building investment funds gives rise to a crowd of unseen challenges: how do you establish a bond of trust with the companies? How do you increase your deal flow? Once the deal is completed, what should be your ratio of participation?

Tanja’s approach is clear: your philosophy of investment should rely on active participation. Before becoming Chairwoman of the Board for Oncomfort, she visited the clinical trials at the Swiss Pain Institute and witnessed the game-changing works of Virtual Reality in inducing clinical hypnosis and reducing pain and anxiety in ailing patients. After undergoing a small test herself, she was sold!

Investors often stand in awe before ground-breaking innovation and rush in investing, but many wonder: “What now? What should I do next?” Tanja explains her method:

  • If possible, ask for a board seat. Continuing your support through board participation strengthens companies with strategic market guidance.
  • Understand that each company will have its own problem statement — each case is different and will demand a renewed effort of analysis.
  • Detect undiscovered gaps. Help teams notice unnoticed obstacles that may be hindering progress: is it lack of confidence in their goals? Is their internal structure adequate for growth? Are there any communicative knots to unravel?
  • Organize regular workshops and CEO events to foster product exposure and networking.
  • Ask the right questions: “Is there something I can help you with?” and “Do you have any questions regarding customer demand?” are awesome options.
  • When times are rough, remember your driving force: the best part of being an investor is the feeling that you can really make an impact on a company’s journey!

Red flags to look out for during company assessment

  • A dismissive attitude: taking more than a week to respond to e-mails can suggest lack of organizational and communicative skills.
  • Not being able to explain goals clearly can be a sign that the team doesn’t master the concepts too well.
  • Judging that investors only care about the money: startup teams should keep in mind that investors value catering better-quality products over massive selling.
  • Believing Corporate Venture Capital Funds are not smart money. CVCs are not sticking with pouring money down acquisition pipelines, but are now becoming more involved in bringing knowledge and wider networking landscapes. CVCs also have the benefit of longer funding timelines and, consequently, prolonged assistance with no forced exits.

Finland vs Switzerland: approaches on innovation

The events of Swedish integration until the nineteenth-century and the Russian Revolution of 1917 show how Finland is in fact a very young country. This historical status, Tanja defends, makes the Finnish heavily rely on IT-based innovation to get their point across in international markets. They are very appreciative of fresh-blooded, fast-paced energy that seeks quick exits to move on to the next big undertaking. Switzerland’s history, however, supports tradition and its time-tested industries, so companies are keener on a longer-term view of growing small projects to their maximum potential before exiting.

The future of digital health

“Some of the biggest things that we need to change lie in the way we understand health insurance, how we pay for treatment today and how we should be predicting and keeping ourselves healthy. I think it is unbelievable that we don’t already have access to our own health data today: changing that is very important.”

Our traditional approach on healthcare places physician practice in the centre of the equation. Tanja, in the meantime, suggests a different standpoint: highlighting patient experience with the help of digitalization. Here are some lingering topics to consider for the next decades:

  • Virtual banking and navigational systems as inspiration for personalized digital health systems. Thinking of health raises questions similar to those of managing finance and finding your way out in the open field: what is my current position? What are the possible routes? Where will this option take me?
  • The role of in silico drug development strategies to aid predictions on how drugs will affect humans bodies in the future generations;
  • Integration of patient experience data in Pharma development: wearables such as smartphones, smartwatches and fitness trackers can become invaluable partners in finding patterns and solutions;
  • The competitive rush in health tracking proposed by Big Tech can become a great opportunity for startups to join the race and advocate for innovation, since no big corporation is ever capable of encompassing all medicine.

If you would like to listen to more episodes about medtech, check out our conversations with Luiza Dobre, Lea Von Bidder, Michael Friedrich, Katja Berlinger, Sophia Borowka and Dorina Thiess.

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