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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Kåre Engkilde

​​​​As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier last year, CEO Alessandro Mantell welcomed Kåre Engkilde.

On Episode 17 of the Mantell Associates Network Podcast we welcomed Kåre Engkilde, CEO at Amniotics, a biopharmaceutical company based in Sweden dedicated to providing unique stem cell therapeutics to patients in need. In this episode, Kåre talks us through the challenges faced by the Amniotics as a relatively new company during COVID-19, and the adaptations the organisation made to thrive during this period. He also discusses the attributes needed to be a good leader, the future of the biopharmaceutical space, and offers advice for other business leaders.

Alessandro Mantell: Hi all and thank you very much for joining me for what is now episode 18 of the Mantell Associates Network. I am joined today by Kåre who is the CEO of Amniotics which is a cell and gene therapy organisation based out in Sweden and often dealing in Denmark as well. The company is still a smaller business just like Mantell Associates which has been growing through COVID-19  and I know that Kåre has had some huge experiences for all of that. Thank you so much Kåre for joining us today and for coming on to Mantell Associates Network. Would you mind just talking us through Amniotics as a business, your journey, how it was founded? 

Kåre Engkilde: Certainly Alessandro and thank you for inviting me here. If I thought about Amniotics, it kind of comes back to the name which stems from Amniotic fluid. What we do as a company is we harvest Amniotic fluid from Plant C sections then we transport it to our facilities. We have a GMP manufacturing authorization for producing cells and products. We isolate the cells and select them for the different tissues because the neonate inside the uterus will be in contact with the Amniotic Fluid and the cells of that tissue will be sloped off into the fluid and hence we have the ability to select these cells expand them and put them into vials ready for clinical trials and later on for market so that is the basis of Amniotics. We've of course done all we can to protect our full process with patients across, enabling us to really have a broad patent portfolio. You could say that the basis of Amniotics comes out of a lunch at university. It was started in 2015 so it's still a quite young company and the last year or two we've really been expanding and growing quite rapidly. We are still a small company but we've been able to grow our production area because we have gotten the permits for producing our products and being a GMP certified facility meaning that we can produce this product so that is really what we do and how we escalate our processes and we do that.

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely incredible, thank you! You mentioned that it's been in the last one to two years that you guys have really been able to grow and expand. Ironically enough, last year we had a global pandemic for COVID-19. How have you guys been able to do that when a lot of companies are struggling? 

Kåre Engkilde: To begin with, our focus was on Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis that was the indication we were driving two walls and almost advanced product was for that indication we had a product we called Pulmo Stem with relevant MSCs. With Covid-19 coming, we kind of shifted and said okay we certainly have Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis but there's certainly also elements of MSCs that can be used in inflammation diseases, inflammatory disorders. You could say refocusing from IPF to COVID-19, severe to moderate COVID-19, it also kind of resembles what is called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. You could say shifting gears from one indication to another indication does not mean that we've left behind Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis but kind of put a pin in it because of the present climate. Not a lot of patients will come to hospitals and get the treatment so in the present time it makes sense to do that and it also means that we've been able to accelerate even further than where we are at that stage.

Alessandro Mantell: Congratulations and obviously it reminds me a lot of Mantell Associates as well. When the pandemic hit we started doing far more work in the vaccine space, in cell and gene therapy and viral vectors because that simply is the area which was booming and actually needed support the most. Obviously for you having to change almost the kind of strategy of the Amniotics business to move is one challenge. What other challenges have you faced being the CEO before COVID-19 and also during it as well and how have you overcome them?

Kåre Engkilde: So one very practical issue that we faced is travel. One Monday I was working in Sweden and then trying to cross countries and get across borders. This has sometimes been a bit of a hassle, especially in Europe as they have a strong focus on trying to reduce the flexibility that we normally see crossing borders. This is an issue when you need to cross borders to be able to do your job. You now have to do everything through teams and as you have also experienced, we need to do recruiting through team zoom or whatever instrument or software you use for that. I think it’s okay to use teams and zoom for the moment but it is becoming a bit difficult to re-energise your employees and make them feel seen when it is across a zoom or teams call. 

Alessandro Mantell: 100%, I couldn't agree more. Mantell Associates is a bit different to your company because it's a purely sales driven organisation. Which means that 95% of our staff are working directly in sales and working from home for us and speaking to a lot of other CEOs of recruitment organisations or headhunting firms. They have found as well that motivation, drive can decrease but actually people still enjoy it so I think in the modern world, it's going to be a healthy mixture of the two. Thank you so much. I guess you've already given some really interesting hints there but if you had to pinpoint it down to one thing, what makes Amniotics unique as an organisation, what would it be?

Kåre Engkilde: I think the ability that we've been able to put together several nationalities, we have people from many different countries that kind of give this strong mix of different nationalities and cultures. You could say that of course it sometimes means that they push back, that people need to come together and find solutions to that but I think that is a very strong cultural thing to have and that is Amniotics and how we work.

Alessandro Mantell: That’s amazing having all of those cultures and people from completely different backgrounds all inside your organisation as it's growing, especially in a space like the one that you're in at the moment. It can also leave some time for adapting and having to adapt and of course with you guys hiring, as I know that you have been doing rapidly as well. It means you're constantly having to integrate new stuff, adapt to new things. How have you personally as a leader adapted to the new way of working, how have you adapted to motivating staff, integrating new staff and adapting to the space as a whole?

Kåre Engkilde: What I'm really trying to do is show the Amniotic story and what we believe in, having a patient focus and really saying that these products we are producing are really targeting high on needs. We really have a focus on the patients, on the people that have needs for these products and bringing that to the people and the employees, helping everyone to understand what we are trying to achieve. We want to bring life changing therapies to the market and thereby trying to create this culture of that's what we're doing. Coming from different cultural backgrounds that can be a strength in such a setup.

Alessandro Mantell: Couldn't agree more. You kind of touched upon the long-term objectives of the organisation, what does Amniotics want to achieve in the short term and long term as an organisation?

Kåre Engkilde: We want to escalate the products we have, we are very close to clinical trials. We have submitted clinical trial applications so we are very close to taking that step into the clinical world. You could say from there it will really grow the organisation and this will become the whole company, having the preclinical, the production, the clinical path and marketing all coming together, growing out from the early biotech stage.

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely incredible and when you've got a kind of mission which is as clear and precise as yours - improving patients' lives and helping save lives in the process. It is obviously far far easier to have people who work for your organisation, who are passionate about that but from the executive standpoint what sort of culture are you trying to create amongst your working team and has it been harder the past year?

Kåre Engkilde: It certainly has been harder, no doubt about it. As we spoke about earlier, trying to bring people together where you can sit across from each other. You can get some of that personal interaction and trying to get that feel of people, I think that has been really challenging and quite difficult. On the other hand, I also think we are able to bring together the leadership team, coming together and understanding where we can use each other. I think that's also a very important message to understand and for everyone to understand that it's always a puzzle. It is trying to get those pieces of the puzzle fitting together and sometimes we need to adapt but that's actually a good thing. It’s the good thing about people, that we can adapt and we can actually adapt quite rapidly.

Alessandro Mantell: Yeah absolutely and you mentioned using different people for different skill sets. If you had a company that was full of people who were exactly the same you would never ever achieve anything. People have got to be completely different, from different cultures, from different organisations which is hugely hugely exciting. It has encouraged business leaders like yourself to hire people who might not be located where you are but who have the skill set, who have that way of thinking, you have that cultural difference so maybe that's a kind of positive which has come out of it. I love talking to people like you and what I'm interested to find out as well is, what sort of changes can you see in a positive way that are going to be coming out of the biopharmaceutical space in the upcoming years? 

Kåre Engkilde: I think the whole cell and gene therapy is one that is really going to change when we look at market values of the companies coming into that space. I think that's really going to change things especially because these products have a better ability to treat some of the diseases that we see coming from actually becoming older. If we look at the industrialised world, most of the industrialised world have communities where we all get older and we all need treatments for these indications which are difficult to treat with a small molecule, an antibody that doesn't really necessarily fit specifically in that.

Alessandro Mantell: 100%, I couldn't agree more with absolutely everything and appreciate it all. I wanted to also ask you about the sales and business development being a smaller organisation during this kind of time period, everything like that. How have you found the market? How has Amniotics found the market? Have you adapted to the market in terms of bringing on board new clients, maintaining, expanding existing clients?

Kåre Engkilde: I think you could say that despite Covid-19, I think there's been a strong interest in investing in life science as a whole, certainly  in cell and gene therapy. I think this has certainly not been stopped despite COVID-19. I think what has also been good is all of these different platforms of teams. It enables you to have the first interaction without having to travel. Before COVID-19 you could travel for only two meetings and spend an enormous amount of time on the plane, followed by jet lag. It now allows you to be more efficient. You can do late calls and then if there's an interest you can then meet over a couple days but those first interactions or introduction meetings I think have been much easier during COVID-19 because we were able to do it over Teams/Zoom. 

Alessandro Mantell: 100% and being a business leader as well here at Mantell Associates I'm almost dreading the day, obviously I can't wait for everything to finally be over. But I'm almost dreading the day in the back of my mind, where all the salespeople are going to be going abroad again, all of a sudden you're going to have huge expenses for going to international meetings. I think a lot of business owners are going to be looking at it and CEOs of companies are going to be looking at it and seeing if it is it necessary now. Whereas beforehand they would have gone okay do it, you've got to meet that client, you've got to do that. Whereas now you can do five to ten business meetings in one day via zoom, is it more effective for you to actually stay where you are which is crazy. Thank you so much and I'm speaking on the leadership side of things. What do you think are the kinds of secrets of top leadership across the industry, not only pharmaceutical but outside of it as well that all good leaders will have in common and the secrets of it.

Kåre Engkilde: I think one of the secrets is of course trying to see yourself as a servant. You need to see yourself as kind of a servant where you try to set the structure out for your employees and they then need to try and fill it out. So you're trying to set up the structure that they can then fill and they then have the opportunity to grow. I think that's also a very important thing that we can grow in a position rather than saying this is a fixed set up and saying okay but you can grow in a different direction depending on what's your interest, what's driving you. I think they are some really key things for industry leaders. Another important thing is finding ways to push certain employees to develop themselves further. Being a servant is trying to create the right environment, the structure that they can then grow and sometimes you need to to push people a bit. Like we talked about before there are different cultures, people have different personalities, some are a bit afraid. So I need to do a little push, some are maybe extra and then you need to pull them back a bit and say hey you don't necessarily need to do that especially because sometimes these people will need to act.

Alessandro Mantell: No absolutely love it and something you touched on earlier which really kind of struck me on the leadership point of view is keeping employees motivated whilst they're working from home. Being able to push them whilst they're working from home when you're not having that interaction, how have you done your best to kind of manage that situation and keep them engaged to the best of your ability during this time period?

Kåre Engkilde: I think that has been really difficult, normally I would go out making sure to get that personal interaction and suddenly you could say it's like management by mail. It is very very difficult to try and grab the phone to get that verbal thing and then finally you can do it across teams as we do here. But trying to encourage that together is difficult and it is very difficult but I think it's important to try and do it and hopefully I've been successful in it. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely and once everyone gets back together it is 100% going to create even more unity amongst everyone because you'll be thinking hey we actually got through all of this together and it's now done. You are going to have that strength that we once had to work that way which will almost seem crazy but hey thank you so much. One final question is what advice would you give to other business leaders right now.

Kåre Engkilde: You can reduce business travel quite a lot through these medias, Zoom, Teams and so forth but we also need to remember that if you pull through five zoom meetings across a day you're completely wasted. It's like you miss that personal interaction and the ability to read other people through their body languages and seeing their faces and so forth. I think even though we have the ability maybe to push through more meetings due to teams and soon we also need to realise that if we do that. We need to make sure that there are breaks in between so people can get away from the screen, go and get a coffee or do something, do a walk and see some get some fresh air or something like that.

Alessandro Mantell: Agreed, thank you so much for all of your insight that you've shared and for going over Amniotics. It's been absolutely amazing, thank you so much for coming on care and I look forward to talking to you soon.

Kåre Engkilde: Absolute pleasure, thank you very much. Take care!

If you missed Kåre Engkilde original podcast and would like to listenplease click here!

Mantell Associates is a specialist Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Recruitment organisation founded by CEO Alessandro Mantell in January 2019. If you would like to find out more about how we support finding you the right talent or the right opportunity, reach out to Alessandro on alessandro@mantellassociates.com or give us a call on +44 (0)20 3778 0990.