INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINA VALLGREN – CEO TERAPET SA
Better Dose Control in Proton Therapy For Cancer Treatment
Proton therapy is the most precise radiotherapy for cancer treatment. However, monitoring the doses during treatments remains a guessing game based on simulations.
Terapet SA, a CERN startup, develops a novel medical device which enables medical doctors for the first time to monitor the delivered proton dose inside the patients during cancer treatment: in-vivo, non-invasive, in 3D and real-time. This solution ensures that every patient receives the right dose, every time.
What inspired you to start your company?
I come from a town on the west coast of Sweden, Stenungsund. Apart from being one of the most beautiful villages in Sweden, Stenungsund has the highest density of entrepreneurs in Sweden. Like me, several of my close childhood friends from Stenungsund all went to Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, which has one of the most famous entrepreneurship programs in the Nordic region. After their studies, several of them became entrepreneurs in fields ranging from music and software solutions to acoustic spectroscopy and mining industry. Marcus and me have always been intrigued and inspired by their success stories.
Different from what my close friends did, I, on the other hand, right after my degree in nuclear physics, came to CERN in 2008 for a PhD in applied physics. I then spent the next 12 years as a physicist at CERN. Before founding Terapet, I was responsible for the LHC Beam Vacuum Operation and have also been the supervisor of five master students and two fellows. From time to time, I am also an active scientific journal referee for IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science. I have been involved in the entire vacuum system design and validation for the MedAustron accelerator complex. But I was also always very interested in business. Besides my usual work, I also got an MBA and attended project management courses.
In 2018, me and one of my co-founders, Marcus Palm, began talking about founding a startup company. We carefully went through our personal economics and outlined several options as well as a worst-case scenario. In the end, we decided it was worth giving it a try, since we believed that we could make it. Here we are today, thanks to the trust of our co-founder, Raymond, our board members, our mentors, our investors and all the people who have supported us.
Who would you consider to be a significant influence on you professionally and can you explain why?
I would like to name my CERN PhD supervisor, Dr. Mauro Taborelli, as one of the most influential persons in my professional career. He is one of the most brilliant researchers in material science at CERN. I thank him for all the help and support he offered me during my PhD years at CERN but also for the friendship we build during these 12 years at CERN. I’m grateful for his knowledge, guidance, patience and trust in me. He guided me in believing in the importance of fairness in judgement, the importance of willingness of always supporting and helping others and the belief that hard work can make the impossible possible. He is not only a mentor, but also a true friend who supported me during some of the hardest periods in my life.
What are the current challenges in the Medtech industry?
Medtech is a very capital intense business, with long paths from idea to product. Most of the time, founders and investors won’t see immediate rewards and there a lot of risks along the way. This requires the founders to be resilient and the investors to be patient and supportive. When the global business environment is not in its top shape, Medtech startups often suffer, since bootstrapping a Medtech business is challenging. Investment is important for moving the business forward. I hope that more and more investors will see the potential in Medtech and will be willing to invest.
What are you most proud of achieving with Terapet?
Not so long ago, we only had an idea. Today we have 12 FTE and a team of experienced scientists, renowned field experts and business people. We are also strongly supported by the Swiss startup ecosystem and on the European level, too. We are proud to have made it this far.
What are your plans for the future, and where do you see Terapet in another 3-4 years?
In 3-4 years, we will see several proton therapy facilities equipped with our device.
Was there any piece of advice you received during your involvement with the W.A. de Vigier Foundation that stuck with you?
For us, W.A. de Vigier was a great networking opportunity which gave us the chance to learn from other entrepreneurs and exchange ideas and support each other. Being an entrepreneur is hard, but “Don’t give up, never be intimidated, but always listen to advice” is something we all agreed on.
– Thank you, Christina!