Denmark sharpens focus to develop a brighter tomorrow

Denmark sharpens focus to develop a brighter tomorrow

Anne-Marie Levy Rasmussen, CEO, Innovation Fund Denmark, details the organization’s efforts to support innovation and industry in Denmark with the goal of tackling large global challenges.


What key sectors make up Denmark’s innovation ecosystem?

Denmark is at the center of a wide range of major scientific and technological breakthroughs. We have an excellent research ecosystem and universities that the Danish government has been investing heavily in for many years. We also have highly skilled experts in industry who have translated our research into an effective commercial strategy. Our energy industry is quite significant, and we are world famous for our windmills. We have large global energy companies such as Vestas and Ørsted. Vestas, in collaboration with universities, has been able to achieve innovative technological breakthroughs and commercialize them at scale. IFD was an early investor in these efforts. Another key area is our strong agriculture and sustainable food sectors, including Chr. Hansen which produces food ingredients. The company was named as one of the world’s most sustainable companies in a competition with 7,500 other green companies.
Healthcare, life sciences, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are additional Danish strongholds. Denmark was involved in the development of insulin, the key component in the treatment of diabetes. Diabetes is a colossal disease affecting many people around the globe. We developed it, scaled it up and brought down the cost of the product to be available not just for the few but the many. Novo Nordisk and other key players in the diabetes area are now helping countries around the world. When one invests in education and research and fosters close collaboration between companies and universities, one nurtures a culture and environment that can act quickly when necessary. We saw this during the pandemic. We need the same mindset to solve global climate challenges. We need researchers and companies to move together at the same speed with the same purpose and shared goals. We believe that is possible for Denmark. There are a lot of interesting things going on here.


Can you give us an overview of Innovation Fund Denmark’s (IFD’s) operations?

The overarching ethos of IFD is to invest in entrepreneurs, researchers and businesses. We provide risk-willing soft funding to develop innovative and viable solutions. Our primary areas of investment are in the green transition, healthcare and adaptation of new technologies. We want to create more jobs and develop workable solutions to today’s pressing societal challenges. One of the key strengths of Innovation Fund Denmark is that it is a one-stop shop for all types of innovative ideas and projects. We have programs that target early asset, high-risk entrepreneurs and research and development oriented short-term solutions by small and medium-sized companies. There are programs targeted for startups, small and medium-sized enterprises and larger partnerships. Our newest program developed in 2021 is called Innomissions. It involves green innovation research missions to develop long-term solutions for these massive challenges.

We also have a significant international arm. A large part of our calls is in Europe, but we also have bilateral calls with other countries in the same areas of investment. We are not a single purpose organization; our programs are unique compared to other countries as we cover a lot of the value chain. As they say, if you only have a hammer, all problems look like nails. However, we have the full toolbox. If someone wishes to join an international EU program, partner up with international companies or universities or get investment for a spinout of our company, it can all be done at the same place––Innovation Fund Denmark. It is painstaking for companies, entrepreneurs and researchers to go to 20 different places to accomplish everything they need to do.


What kind of strategy are you employing to meet the organization’s goals?

Our Innovation Fund Denmark Strategy 2025 is focused on realizing and harvesting the full potential of the Danish innovation and research ecosystem, especially within key strength areas such as energy, pharmaceuticals and new technologies. One major shift compared to the previous strategy is that we are focusing much more on being a facilitator of this strong environment. We want to use our programs, employees and knowledge to ensure that the most competitive innovation partnerships are funded and that we fully realize the capabilities of our startup scene. In Denmark, more and more young people want to start a new business, and many of them want to play in the green transition arena. We need to get behind this trend. A lot of our strategy is around tapping into the international competitive scene in terms of knowledge, partnerships and identifying and supporting talent.


How has IFD contributed to the success of Danish entrepreneurs?

Since 2014, IFD has been a key component in building a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in Denmark. We financed almost 2,000 startups, which is quite a lot for such a small country. A critical part of our strategy is finding ways to have close collaboration and dialogue within the ecosystem to unlock its full potential. We have several grants, one of which involves us paying a small salary. It is not a large grant, but enough for entrepreneurs to survive. They must go through a 12-month accelerator program through an incubator. We help them build a suitable team and global plan. It is a short but efficient runway. However, entrepreneurs need more help than just financial support to pay their bills. A critical element to succeed as an entrepreneur is to have the right diversified team. Typically, people come from the same academic area in knowledge-based entrepreneurship. However, this is not enough. It is critical to combine competences, experiences and backgrounds.

Additionally, we need to work on unbiased decision making. For instance, we want more female entrepreneurs and a more diversified portfolio. This is necessary in terms of overall impact. We have a panel and pitch concept where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas. It is a priority of ours to train our panels and the whole organization in unbiased assessment to identify truly exceptional talents. Originally our new strategy had too many different types of programs for entrepreneurs. We realized the protocol was complicated and confusing. We upgraded our programs and designed them like small beads on a string. Entrepreneurs now follow a more natural flow from where they are to where they are going on their journey. We help them every step of the way.


What has the organization done to combat challenges laid down by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 period has been extremely challenging for all of us. However, Denmark has invested heavily in research areas related to infectious diseases for many years. We have large pharmaceutical and small and medium-sized companies in biotechnology. We have a vibrant life sciences sector. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, IFD felt responsibility as a public institution to support whatever risk mitigating strategies could be developed, whether in the form of a vaccine or prevention. We invested $70 million and put out a call for applications at the beginning of April 2020. Although we were at first unsure how many applications we would get, our phone lines ended up breaking down. It was the largest number of applicants we have ever received for a single call. The level of ideas and innovation was amazing. The entire community mobilized around the challenge. We had professors working in the clinics coming home from COVID-19 departments in hospitals and writing up applications on their off time. There was a call for action and researchers, professors and hospitals responded. The public sector was also very involved. We saw many partnership applications from the COVID-19 call where the public sector engaged themselves, whether it was through hospitals, regional authorities, municipalities or similar entities. Everyone sees it as their responsibility to play a part in developing a shared solution. The public sector now plays a meaningful role in meeting global challenges. None of us believe that we can solve global health or climate issues alone.


How has Denmark’s life sciences sector contributed to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have a Danish-developed COVID-19 vaccine underway from Bavarian Nordic. It emerged from a research group at the University of Copenhagen, which IFD funded. We provided the risk-willing capital for the leader of the research group. The Danish state later came in as a partner and financed its phase-three trials. Bavarian Nordic is expected to launch this product before the middle of 2022. Large vaccine companies mainly come from the U.K., Canada, Germany and Denmark. UNION Therapeutics and O2matic developed a COVID-19 inhalation treatment. It is essentially an oxygen robot to help with severe patients. Previously, nurses had to fully arm themselves in protective clothing to go near a patient. The machine was developed quickly and was installed in all Danish hospitals. It immediately increased productivity in intensive care units and had a huge impact on the running of hospitals. Additionally, the World Health Organization put together a team of 10 globally renowned scientists to go to Wuhan to investigate patient zero, and one of them was a Danish professor who parenthetically successfully applied for a grant from IFD. It is quite unique that such a small nation is developing this kind of excellence. We are hoping to mobilize the same enthusiasm around the green transition.


How important are international partnerships in reaching the IFD’s goals to develop Danish industry and tackle global challenges?

International collaboration is an indispensable activity for us. Every year we invest in around 20 international calls worth about $30 million annually. This may sound small for the U.S., but it is not for us. There are about 1,700 Danish participants in different international research and innovation projects. This is critical because we are a small nation and cannot develop and breed all the talent and knowledge ourselves. We require international partners. Part of the IFD’s 2025 strategy is to focus all our programs on international collaboration. We want startups to have a global mindset from the beginning. Internationalization is crucial for our future. We work with many different platforms, such as EU Horizon. We also collaborate a lot with other Nordic countries. We have agreements with the Department of Energy in the U.S. In the U.S. and Asia there are quite interesting medical technology industries. We are enthusiastic about our international partnerships and expect a lot from them. Global challenges affect everyone; there is not a single person on the planet that can hide from them. We need global solutions and collaboration.


How significant is the digital revolution and how is pushing positive change?
Using new technologies, data, analytics and digitalization is exceedingly crucial. We can manage things in much smarter ways if we look at how we operate and analyze data. In Denmark we have a high degree of trust and transparency and are quite far ahead on the new technology scene. We have many fascinating ongoing experiments. Europe could go even further in its use of new technologies as a driver in the green transition. However, to thrive we must trust our governments. Denmark is one of the most digital societies in the world because we trust our government. We do not question the use of data in Denmark. This has radically helped developing many of our innovative solutions.


What is IFD doing to support global sustainability goals and why are they so important?
We have launched the four following research and innovation missions critical to the global green transition: carbon capture; green fuels for transport and industry; climate- and environment-friendly agriculture and food production; and circular economies with a focus on plastics and textiles. We are seeing the same dynamics across all areas. It is critical we address the global climate challenge in the same way we addressed the COVID-19 crisis. The health of people and the planet are closely linked. We need to act now, and we need to accelerate our pace. Denmark is small but very committed. We have historical roots in energy and food; we can and will accept our responsibility. We need to have generational accountability at the top of our minds. Our decisions made today are not for us or even our children, but for future generations who will have to live the consequences of our actions. We all need to be courageous in making long-term decisions instead of having short-term goals.