NCMM Alumni: Marie Rogne

Marie Rogne was a postdoc in the Kjetil Taskén group 2009 – 2014, and then continued in the Judith Staerk group until 2018. In 2022, after 20 years in the academia, she started her own company Pioneer Research.

Marie Rogne at work. Photo: Jorunn Valle, Norwegian Cancer Society.
Marie Rogne at work. Photo: Jorunn Valle, Norwegian Cancer Society.

Tell us about your time at NCMM

I started freshly after my PhD at Kjetil Taskén lab working with A-kinase proteins. This is what I worked with during my PhD and really wanted to continue with as they have so many important roles in health and disease. I also wanted to experience working at Kjetil’s group, and being part of such a strong scientific environment and a well established lab. I worked on a project looking at PKA regulation of an AKAP, which half of his group did before moving to the cancer institute. One thing that I really appreciated working in Kjetils group was how he encouraged his students to become independent researchers. Moreover, I was in the same project group with people working on a very innovative AKAP project, and in hindsight, I’ve realized that I learned a lot from following the scientific discussions in that project over time.

As my 3 years ended, I couldn’t imagine leaving the academia. We had a common project with Kjetil and Judith, and I continued my work in Judith’s group. At the time NCMM had just been established with 6-7 new PI’s and it was a fantastically stimulating environment to come into. We had young PIs coming from the best labs in the world, and they really wanted to make an impact and develop their scientific careers. That was inspiring and created an “I’m all in”- feeling for the entire institute. I also appreciated being able to be involved in establishing the focus area of the lab. We worked on blood cancer, transcription, and epigenetics, and that’s what I’ve continued with since, so in that sense, there was also a transition in my career subject-wise.

What did you learn at NCMM

Working with an established group like Kjetil Taskén’s lab, I learned a lot from all the collaborations and seeing how he worked to generate funding, developed projects over time, and his non-wavering stamina to keep the scientific focus.

What has been helpful for starting my own company now, was seeing the young PI’s come in to NCMM and start their own independent labs. I got to see the many strategies people use when starting from ´scratch´ and could get insight into what worked or did not work as well. In Judith’s group, we also went through the SAB evaluation, which I learned a lot from - the kind of responses the Scientific Advisory Board gave, what they thought was a good focus, and what they found weaker. For a young group leader, I imagine this is very helpful, as the evaluation reflects the experience of many advisors.

As an academic researcher, you are often in a controlled environment, and there’s not huge risk taking involved. However, to do tenure track in such a pressurized environment like at NCMM where you have an evaluation after 4 and half years, I learned a lot from seeing how you must be ok with going all in. You put yourself on the line, often in a very exposed situation. There are parallels that can be drawn between that and starting your own company, I think.

What was your motivation for starting your own company

This comes down to the question of what I love most about my job: it’s to do research and to take the results and lift them up to something that is clinically useful. For me, that’s what innovation is all about; to take some of the results that we are discovering now and utilize the technology and angle as a platform service to help larger companies promote their leads. At the same time push our own leads toward clinical therapeutics in due time. That is of course a long-term perspective and will statistically take about 10 years.

What were some things that surprised you going from academia to industry

A difference that surprised me when establishing Pioneer Research, was that in the industry if I want my research results to be converted into something that can be used for therapeutics, it follows very strict lines of laboratory journals and documentation. The FDA and EU have the same guidelines around good laboratory practice, which have never been used in academic research environments where I have worked, so I was not used to the high degree of documentation. A saying in the industry is that if you haven’t documented the results, they don’t exist. That’s something I had to work hard to get into a good practice of because even though we document everything in the academia, it is not as strict.

Does your company have an international ambition

We are developing inhibitors for proteins with unstructured regions using peptides, which is an international field. There are not many, if any, Norwegian companies that work with precisely that. Internationally, it is a growing industry, and pharmacologically, the FDA approval for peptide drugs has been at twice the pace of small drugs in the past four years.

What are you working on

We are developing transcription factor inhibitors towards a transcriptional complex robustly overexpressed in treatment-resistant bone metastasis of several origins. It is well known that many syndromes and diseases have dysregulated pioneer transcription factors, making them very attractive drug candidates for decades, but they have been immensely difficult to target due to their unstructured nature. The field has tried with small pharmacological compounds, without much success, so we have to think differently. In our approach, we utilize peptides which are larger than the small pharmacological compound. This solves some of the previous problems as it creates a larger contact area between your target and the drug, an important feature particularly when targeting unstructured regions with no prominent binding pockets. Moreover, recent breakthroughs in the peptide field that enable better pharmacological properties and bioavailability suggest that the field is just now passing some of the most critical hurdles which have prevented their implementation in the clinic in the past.

Big vision next 10 years

Our goal is that within 10 years we will be an established company, employing 10-20 people. What we would like to do first is to develop a platform service that utilizes our unique angle that can be utilized by other companies and laboratories, we plan to launch this in 2025. Our major goal, to make inhibitors towards transcription factors, that’s a 10 year perspective, but we are of course working very hard toward it. It is difficult to see details past our 5 year plan, because then we will be at the point to test if any of the larger companies are interested in doing, for example, licensing agreements with us for further development. However, our job is to make sure our pre-clinical data is so solid and well-documented that we are in a position to contribute to the field.

Top tips for someone moving from academia to the industry

Gaining experience is always an advantage. Some academic projects have an innovative angle; if you have the possibility to be part of an innovative project, where you can develop your own idea, or develop an idea that gives you an innovative perspective, that’s could be a nice advantage. If you are in a strategic position where you have developed your idea and the data looks promising, there are quite nice official initiatives for someone coming from an academic postdoc. Through these initiatives, one could further explore the idea with research council funding. This allows you to develop and de-risk your idea before entering the world where venture capitalists govern.