Exheus Chief Executive Officer and Collider Co-Founder Teresa Tarragó completed her BSc in Biology, and later her PhD in Molecular Biology, at the Universitat de Barcelona. While her career began in research, it soon moved into connecting the worlds of research and business. At the forefront of a changing bio-tech landscape, particularly in Spain, she spoke to us about her career and experience at The Collider.
With an interest in both science and technology, over time you’ve branched out into the business sector. What drove this new interest?
My background and way of thinking is that of a researcher. That helps a lot in how I understand innovation and different approaches to a problem. I’ve always applied scientific methodology to understand what needs to be done, and to analyse options. This is helpful in starting a company, and for entrepreneurship generally. It’s an observational mindset.
I was a research associate, leading a team of researchers and students. One area of research was the discovery of new drugs, particularly cancer drugs. It was interesting but it was a bit frustrating; the research was being published in good publications but then nothing happened.
Over time, you became more interested in tech?
I had some compounds patented, but then the universities or research institutions didn’t have the technology to bring them to market. I wanted a more ‘go-to market approach’ – to see the science reach the patients at the other end. So I started my first company, IProteos Spain, as a spin-off from the Universitat de Barcelona, taking part of my research and negotiating technology transfer.
How do you view tech transfer and its importance in Spain?
The connection between tech and business has changed dramatically in Spain in recent years. Modern companies in the sector have tech transfer departments, and scientists and researchers want to promote their work getting to market. More investors are ready to invest in early-stage projects.
Top researchers, scientists and scientific opinion formers are based in Catalunya, and it’s particularly strong in cancer research, with some of the best hospitals in the world operating at a high level.
Local policies on innovation recognise the importance of getting the science to market, of making the most of science that ‘closes the circle’ by creating value, new companies and employment.
You’re now CEO of Exheus, formerly HealthxCode, a product of your participation in the 2019-2020 edition of The Collider. What is Exheus, and can you tell us about your experience of The Collider?
Exheus measures gene expression, which tells you how a gene is acting in your body at a given moment. It uses AI to give you a ‘score’ that tells you how effective your gene expression is in a given situation. So if you want to run the Barcelona Marathon in October and you’re training, samples will be taken before and during training, and then after the race itself. You can see changes in recovery, dietary efficiency, the likelihood of injury and so on. This can be tracked over time. All of these impact performance, and it can actually be dangerous if any of these are wrong, for ultra-endurance events.
So our audience is more professional athletes but it’s not only useful for sport. It can be used for health monitoring too – it’s very useful for preventative steps, for example.
I heard about The Collider last year. I was looking for a professional change. I’d been leading projects for more than six years, and found that The Collider was looking for a CEO profile. I liked the technology very much, and I also liked the team. Not only the capabilities of the team, but also their human qualities. When I met them I said, ‘I want to work with these people.’ After working together for a month at Collider, we decided to start a company.
I was very lucky to find the interesting and exciting project I was looking for. The mix of scientists and businesspeople was like an experiment to see if they could work together. It was really interesting – the mentors helped us work as a team while also checking if the team was a good fit. The Collider gives a lot of importance to the team from the very beginning. If you can’t work as a team, it’s impossible to start a company.
I also liked the experience of networking. Before lockdown, we shared an office with other teams, other CEOs. It was very enriching.
Which aspect of the programme was most beneficial for you and your team?
The coaching. I hadn’t met the other people before, and the coaching sessions were really helpful to explain our goals, our expectations, to know each other better and clarify our roles. We had a very good mentor, who was critical in a good way and had very good ideas. She helped us define the business model, to think about the future.
We’ve seen incredible sporting achievements recently. What part will solutions like yours play in the future of record-breaking athletic achievements?
This isn’t the aim of our technology. We want to improve the quality of life of everyone. At a given point, we’ll reach the maximum capacity of the human body, and we don’t want people to try to be superheroes. For me, what’s more interesting is what we can do with our technology at a global level. To help people be conscious of how important it is to have a healthy lifestyle.
Have you seen more involvement of women in STEM in the past, say, ten years?
Unfortunately, there aren’t many women in STEM and what needs to be done to change this is not easy. I’m not so optimistic as the situation hasn’t changed a lot in the last ten years. Girls need more role models in engineering, artificial intelligence and anything else that is related to STEM. But this won’t be enough. There needs to be women in management and technological roles, and I think it’s necessary to apply quotas for a short time.
It’s difficult. There are companies with no women on the board or management, even companies which hire 90% men. As a society we can’t allow that. When I speak at events and see no women, I don’t like that. We need to change that.
I’d advise any woman interested in STEM not to be scared. If they’re interested, go for it, believe in yourself. It may seem that society is putting up obstacles, but we can’t let that get to us. It’s up to us to drive change and open doors for future generations of women. Together, through more representation, we can accomplish this and more.