Even though it’s based on venom from one of the deadliest snakes in the world, the lead product of biotech startup VarmX can be life-saving for patients on blood thinners. It’s an unexpected turn, but those are the norm for the Dutch company’s Chairman and CEO, Dr. Jan Öhrström. His CV runs the gamut from neurosurgery to big pharma to biotech. And Öhrström is on a mission to bring VarmX’s instant blood-clotting treatment to market.
“I would love to tell you that my life has always gone completely to plan,” Öhrström admits with a laugh. “The answer is that it hasn’t.” He credits serendipity for much of the twists along his winding career path, as well as a strong sense to follow what interests him. “You could call it a ‘gut feeling’ or ‘what your heart beats for.’”
Even during his training in neurosurgery, Öhrström was busy with side projects. Some were typical of a physician, like medical research, but others were more unconventional and entrepreneurial. There was an oyster farm and then a scuba diving school in his home turf of northern Denmark. It was the research that led to a job offer from Novo Nordisk in the early 90s. Öhrström enjoyed the fast-paced atmosphere of big pharma, which was similar to what drew him to the operating room. “I thrive in that sort of intense environment,” he explains. “I’ve always liked that, and I usually stay cool under pressure.”
By the 2000s, Öhrström had moved to the United States to help manage a biotech firm spinning off from Novo Nordisk. And following his gut feeling led to a new talent: building up biotech companies. He became CEO of one biotech company and joined the boards of others. But by 2018, Öhrström was living in the Netherlands and on the lookout for a new company to help develop and grow.
Even though Öhrström hadn’t been in an operating room for years, he immediately knew the importance of VarmX’s game-changing protein, VMX-C001. Researchers were able to develop it by studying the blood clotting factor in the venom of the Australian brown snake. They were able to identify what made it such a strong procoagulant and engineer a human version. It’s so effective that it can restore the clotting system of patients who have taken synthetic oral factor Xa inhibitors — blood thinners that are an essential treatment to prevent heart attack or stroke.
“If someone on blood thinners comes into the ER or they need to go to the OR for surgery, you need to really do something about the bleeding,” says Öhrström. “You have to reverse the blood thinner so that they don’t bleed to death on the table.”
An injection of VMX-C001 could quickly restore a patient’s blood-clotting abilities, allowing them to safely undergo emergency medical treatment or surgery.
It wasn’t long before Öhrström was chairing VarmX’s board of directors and then serving as CEO. He guided VarmX through the first stage of drug development to establish proof of concept and a series of funding rounds, including one through which the company connected with Sound Bioventures.
Although he’s worked with companies of all sizes across his career, Öhrström says there’s something especially appealing about an operation like VarmX.
“If you see the opportunity in the technology and the people, and it’s well protected by IP, then it’s quite fun to start building, to raise capital, and to eventually get the product developed,” he says.
There’s also the variety that comes with working in a fast-paced startup environment, where every role has a lot of diverse duties and responsibilities — even the CEO.
“In small companies, you’re more agile. You get a little more athletic,” he explains. “You have to cover many bases, and you’re asked to do many different things.”
And there’s no better partner to help small and agile companies than Sound Bioventures. For Öhrström, the similar experiences of those on the team at the venture capital firm are one of its greatest strengths. “Many other VCs I work with have never been in an operating role in a company,” he explains. “Sound Bioventures, they know it. They know it’s a bumpy road.”
According to Öhrström, there’s also less built-in bureaucracy than with a larger, more siloed firm. “When you talk to people, you talk to the decision-makers, and it’s easier that way,” he says.
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