Mathias Svahn is a CEO who still collects the mail and makes the coffee, even as he ranks among the highflyers leading the development of drugs of the future. Curiosity has taken him from the lab to the helm of a listed company. And it all started with a pregnancy.
Mathias is something of an unusual combination of researcher and entrepreneur.
“It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I’d be a researcher from the outset. The role of entrepreneur has always been close by. And I’ve always wanted to work in the start-up sector, to find new opportunities and to be able to work at speed.”
But Mathias is not a typical start-up person. They tend to be more impatient and more visionary, he says.
“I’ve renovated a house with my father, and we can sand door frames all day long. Then you have to be patient. But of course it’s more fun when things go a bit faster.
And for NextCell Pharma AB, things have gone fast, especially in the past year.
“We listed on the 13th of July, made a drug trial submission on 24th of July, got it approved in October, launched the trial in November, and treated our first patient in January.”
At the same time, he describes this journey with the following words:
“When you look back, it all sounds so well thought through, but the best way to get somewhere is rarely in a straight line.”
Family: Married to Emma, children Hilda (12), Edith (10), and Gösta (6).
Spare time: Devotes Saturday mornings to Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Gösta, inspired by an acquaintance with a world title in the sport. Likes slalom and cycling – did Lidingöloppet last summer, possibly to be followed by Vasaloppet by bike.
But let’s rewind a bit. Mathias comes neither from a traditional academic background, nor a start-up family. His father worked in the car industry, and his mother recently retired from a position as a sales director in the media sector.
“I decided to be a scientist because I had a teacher who was one, and my uncle was one. At first I studied chemistry, but I lost interest and switched to molecular biotechnology because it sounded so cool.”
“When I was studying for my exams, the media has going crazy about what the emerging field of gene technology could mean for the future. In Scotland, Dolly the sheep had just been cloned. In the US, the race was on to map the entire human DNA sequence.
“So I applied for a part-time job in gene therapy at Karolinska Institutet. And then I just stayed.”
In 2006, the idea for today’s NextCell Pharma was born. At the time, Mathias was still a PhD student, and was expecting his first child with with wife Emma.
“When Emma became pregnant, I started to read up on stem cells found in umbilical cord blood. It was an area that was attracting a lot of attention internationally, and several trials were underway at the time,” explains Mathias.
Today, there are a number of conditions that can be treated with stem cells from umbilical cord blood (see fact box). And internationally, families have long been offered the opportunity to store stem cells from newborns. But in 2006 that was not possible in Sweden. When Mathias heard that one of his lab colleagues worked at one of the foreign clinics, he asked him to share his knowledge about how the collection and freezing of stem cells should be conducted. Overcoming his fear of needles, he took his equipment to the maternity unit.
“The staff were really curious, so I had to show and explain what I was up to. I got so into it that Emma became a bit annoyed and told me to focus on her instead.”
After Hilda was born, Mathias rushed to the lab to prepare the blood while Emma and his newborn daughter checked into the patient hotel.
Anyone else would have perhaps been content, ten years later, to start Sweden’s first private stem cell bank for families: Cellaviva was opened in 2015 in Flemingsberg. But Mathias has always had a longer perspective.
“The purpose of storing stem cells is not their storage in and of itself. Rather, the idea is to save them to be able to use them in future. And my hope has always been to participate in the work of developing new treatments.”
As Cellaviva grew, competence levels within the company also improved.
“We became good at harvesting stem cells from the umbilical cord, and expanded our harvesting to include umbilical cord tissue.
“Taking the next step felt natural: to use our knowledge to develop the building blocks for new drugs.”
Everything was to be done in the new company, NextCell Pharma.
“What actually interested me most is what we do on a daily basis. Developing new treatments for conditions nobody else has been able to achieve. We’re now using the body’s own building blocks to develop systems for the body to heal itself. It’s the natural progression of Cellaviva,” says Mathias.
However, the businesses are built as two entirely separate entities divided between stem cell bank Cellaviva and drug developer NextCell Pharma. Nothing other than knowledge is shared.
“Families who come to Cellaviva can be safe in the knowledge that we will not use their cells for research, nor use them to make drugs. All we share between the operations is logistics, expertise, and knowledge relating to same cells,” says Mathias.
Mathias has since collected stem cells from all three of his children.
“Unfortunately, the samples I’ve taken lack the traceability and quality necessary for use in healthcare. Cellaviva gives parents in the same situation as myself the opportunity to professionally collect and freeze cells.”
The company recently attracted media attention when Isabella Löwengrip decided to invest SEK 2 million through its investment vehicle Nordic Tech House.
“Working with a well-known influencer is unorthodox for a stem cell company, but at the same time, we’re not a conventional company. Nordic Tech House is also a long-term investor, and depending on how things go, we’ll be in the same boat,” he says.
One of the main advantages of the move is access to Löwengrip’s personal contact network of some two million women between the ages of 25 and 35 across the Nordic region.
“But for me personally, it’s less important if they decide to store cells with us. I want to reach out with the knowledge and awareness of our offering. Parents-to-be should have sufficient knowledge to make their own active choices.”
NextCell Pharma also recently signed a letter of intent with Chinese company CGCI. And the company is keen to work with other companies – drug development requires vast amounts of resources and an international presence.
“Until now, I’ve been so furiously focused on our own development that I’ve only just started to take a look around. But I hope that Flemingsberg attracts more companies with which we can work and network,” he says.
“You usually want to have a clear idea of a project before you partner with another company, but you may as well approach a company that you like and together identify new things to develop.”
Curiosity still drives Mathias, and grows from a desire to make a difference.
“I want to feel that I’m contributing, that it feels meaningful to come to work. But the goal in as much as there is one, is to always keep moving: things rarely turn out how you expected anyway.”
Stem cells have the unique capacity to form other types of cells. Umbilical cord blood contains blood stem cells that are able to repair the body’s immune system, and produce blood. Stem cells from umbilical cord tissue can form tissue, such as bone, muscle and fat. Even this has been shown to be able to regulate the immune system, both increasing and decreasing its sensitivity.
Today, stem cells from umbilical cord blood have been used to treat some 80 severe conditions, such as leukemia and rare, inherited blood diseases. Around 40,000 transplants involving umbilical cord blood have been carried out worldwide to date.
There are still no established treatments that involve stem cells from umbilical cord tissue. There is hope that research will lead to new ways to, amongst other things, correct heart defects, repair spinal cord and recreate various organs that have been damaged through accidents or illness.