Q&A  | 

Isabel Portero: Building a biotech startup with a 360° view of healthcare

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Isabel Portero, Founder and CEO of BioHope, is an entrepreneur and Biotech R&D Scientist with her sights set on innovating the healthcare solutions society needs most. Isabel has experience in a variety of roles in academia, healthcare and the technology sector, using her expertise to pen articles on the current state of biotech and financial trends within the sector in Spain. Isabel sat down with us to share some reflections on launching a start-up, and the importance of the network The Collider provides to entrepreneurs.

You’re the Founder & CEO of BIOHOPE and also a Biotech R&D Scientist. Could you explain what this entails/what your responsibilities are?

I am firstly a medical doctor, which has driven everything. Unlike other R&D scientists who develop a technology and then figure out which clinical indication might demand that technology’s features, I do it the other way around. I identify a clear, unmet medical need, then I hire a team to determine which kind of technology can meet that need.

How did you wind up forming your own company?

I was unsure about how to develop the technology or which framework to use, so I wasn’t initially confident about launching a start-up. I considered entering a university or a foundation or something similar, but these institutions are quite rigid—at least here in Spain—so it’s really difficult to launch a project this way. I had ideas, but not much previous R&D experience. Ultimately, I became convinced to take the risk and launch a company because it would give us the freedom to operate how we wanted to.

You have an interesting and multifaceted background, including previously working in corporations, hospitals and public institutions. How have your previous positions/experiences influenced your current role?

I would say that my background was critical because without it, I would have never launched BioHope. I have a 360​​° view of healthcare. My experience as a physician taught me the medical approach, while the pharmaceuticals industry gave me the marketing perspective. My experience in the biotech sector was important for developing the technology, and the university context clued me in on handling young people, which has also been very important.

Could you elaborate on the differences between working in a hospital versus a corporation and being an entrepreneur in the health sector?

Well, there are two major differences between big corporations and start-ups. One is the culture. In a big corporation, there is a strong culture and you know exactly who you are—what your role is, who your boss is, and so on. Everything is very clear. But the culture in a start-up is something to be created; it’s not monolithic. It changes with time, and you have to face several crises along the road. That can be difficult to handle because you may not know exactly what your position is, even if you have a title. 

 

The second difference is the structure. Big corporations are very structured. All procedures are well established, and because of that, big corporations are quite rigid. Start-ups are the opposite. The environment is extremely flexible, which is good on the one hand because you can create lots of things and react quickly. On the other hand, the procedures aren’t established and you have to figure out what to do every day. It’s more like jazz music—you don’t know what you’ll be playing the next minute.

Could you share your ideas about how a biotech/health start-up should approach corporations, hospitals and other big institutions in order to collaborate? Any insightful tips that you can offer?

There are two big differences if you’re a start-up compared with a big corporation in that scenario. The first really big difference is that you don’t have money. Secondly, you don’t have a reputation. So, my first tip is to be very transparent and serious because you have to build a reputation that compares with, for example, Pfizer, Glaxo, and so on. 

 

The second tip is don’t be afraid. If your project really solves something and has a unique offering, they’ll speak with you. You can still open doors; it’ll be much more difficult the first time, but people are willing to listen to you.

Why do you think initiatives like The Collider are important?

One important feature of entrepreneurship is that it can be quite a lonely pursuit. It might seem like they’re always getting recognised and connecting with other businesses—but the reality isn’t like that. Being an entrepreneur is bittersweet and you often feel alone. So, The Collider creates networks and spaces for people to ask questions, share experiences, and build solutions. It’s a relief to know that other people are on this path with you.

What is the importance of tech transfer and what opportunities does it present to new start-ups?

Tech transfer is essential if you want to make an impact on society. Without tech transfer, like in the academic realm, you just publish things. This is good for building knowledge, but it’s not enough. You have to cross a line at a certain point in order to offer hospitals and society at large something that is ready to be used, in order to achieve societal goals. 

 

Here in Spain, we have a lot of talent. The issue is that it isn’t a rich country, and it isn’t necessarily well-organised for helping entrepreneurs achieve tech transfer. There are a lot of gaps concerning the investment aspect, and gaps concerning public institutions. In Europe across the board I think it’s better organised, whereas in Spain, it’s not easy to get the help you need. However, it is possible—and initiatives like The Collider can be instrumental.

Could you share a source of inspiration and/or a mentor to you over the course of your career?

I wouldn’t say that I had a mentor in developing BioHope, but I’ve counted on friends during this journey, some of whom are now working at BioHope. In my case, It was a network of people I knew from the past—other jobs and companies and in academia—who ultimately helped me to create BioHope. It’s a story of friendship.

What’s a quote that you live and/or work by?

When I worked at Merck Sharp & Dohme, one of the founders said that whenever you focus on the patient and what benefits them, you obtain economic benefits in return. Whenever you look for personal gain and lose that focus, you sink. If you work in the healthcare sector, you have to think about what will benefit the patient at all times. That’s the key to success.

What has been the most difficult or rewarding lesson you’ve learned in your career?

The most difficult thing for me has been managing people. As a medical doctor, and as a scientist, you tend to think that technology issues are the most difficult problems to solve, but really, handling people is the most difficult thing you have to do.

What professional advice do you now wish you’d had when you started?

Listen and be humble.