Where are they now? Meet Mari Bonde: stepping from academia into biotech industry

The “Where Are They Now? Nordic EMBL Partnership Alumni Careers” profile series introduces readers to alumni of the Nordic EMBL Partnership and the careers that they have embarked on. This month, we highlight MIMS alumna Mari Bonde and learn how she expanded her postdoctoral research as it transformed into biotech industry projects.

Mari Bonde in a dark top with flowers with a green outdoor background
Mari Bonde, PhD, Senior scientist, molecular biology at QureTech Bio Photo: Fotonord

Dr. Mari Bonde completed her PhD degree at The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) at Umeå University, working on Borrelia infection. She then conducted postdoctoral research on antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Enterococcus faecalis. In 2018, she stepped into the biotech startup world as a Senior Scientist in molecular biology at QureTech Bio AB (QTB). I recently caught up with Dr. Bonde and learned about her career in academia and industry.  

How did you come to do your PhD at MIMS?

I studied molecular biology at Umeå University. Professor Sven Bergström (MIMS alumnus, previously MIMS affiliated professor) was one of the lecturers. He was inspiring, and like other lecturers, he also talked a little bit about his research, which was on the tick-borne Borrelia spirochete. Spirochetes are fascinating bacteria and the topic was something I could relate to as I had had a Borrelia infection from a tick bite when I was a child. I ended up doing my Master’s thesis and PhD in his group. It was a time I really enjoyed because of the interesting topic and the atmosphere in the group. Sven’s spirit was reflected in his group, creating a fun and relaxed environment, and at the same time, a very hard working team. 

What did you most enjoy about your time as a researcher in academia?

Both my PhD and postdoc projects were perfect topics for me, although very different from one another. My PhD was fundamental research on Borrelia, while my postdoc was with Professor Fredrik Almqvist at the Department of Chemistry at Umeå University where I continued to work with biological systems, but also learned a lot of chemistry. It was a new world with amazing content. 

When Sven first encouraged me to start as a PhD student, I said “no” because at that time, there was a requirement to teach 20% of your time as a PhD student. I thought that I wouldn’t be good at teaching. But, I decided to give it a try. Actually, teaching was really, really fun! It was nice to be able to combine research with teaching. I liked the social part of teaching, working with people, and seeing an immediate impact. 

We were encouraged to attend conferences and present our work, something I enjoyed very much. Interacting with people with the same interest, building my network, seeing different parts of the world.

All of the collaborations I could take part in were a developmental part of academic research for me. For example, I had a collaboration with Professor Roland Benz’ group in Germany during my PhD. It was like my second lab home, where I not only learned new methods, but also how to be in a new lab with new group members. Also, together with Johan Normark, a former MIMS Clinical Research Fellow and postdoc in Sven Bergström’s group, I went to Rwanda to take part in fieldwork for a Borrelia and malaria co-infection study - a really exciting opportunity.

I saw my PhD as a customizable personal and professional education. To be able to educate myself in areas that are interesting and developmental for me was enjoyable. I have my supervisors, Sven and Fredrik, to thank for giving me great opportunities and for creating a positive atmosphere in their groups.

How did your experience in academia help your transition to industry?

My postdoc project on gram-positive bacteria has been looped over to the company where I work now, QureTech Bio. QureTech Bio is a small startup company with close connection to academic research. What I’m working with today and how I’m working is therefore not completely different from before and is somewhere in between academia and industry. I love it and am happy that I could follow the project to this step. 

I think MIMS and the Umeå Centre for Microbial Research did a great job in supporting cross-disciplinary research. In that environment, I gained the confidence to reach out to potential new collaborators. Developing collaboration skills has been very helpful. I learned how to start up, how to work with different personalities and to understand what different people need to thrive in a project. I see these skills as supporting everything I do. There will always be plenty of problems to solve, so if I can help out or if somebody else has already figured something out, I’m glad to ask for their collaborative help. 

Also, in academic research you can do a lot of things. In fact, you can do almost everything. But you have to focus to get somewhere. Learning how to do this has also been helpful for my career now in biotech.

Tell me about QureTech Bio and your role there. 

QureTech Bio is a spin-off from academia working to overcome antibiotic resistance and develop improved treatments for infectious diseases. The company was founded in 2010 by Professors Fredrik Almqvist, Sven Bergström, and Jörgen Johansson, all at Umeå University and Scott Hultgren at Washington University in St. Louis. Soon after, Professor Christina Stallings, also from Washington University, St. Louis joined the company. About a year ago, we moved into the Umeå Biotech Incubator premises, a neighbor to Umeå University. Therefore, this past year I focused a lot on starting up our new lab. 

I mostly work with methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus. These bacteria can cause serious infections and sepsis. We are trying to find new types of antibiotics that could be useful for such infections, that overcome the challenge of antibiotic resistance. The compounds I work with are synthesised by my QTB colleague Souvik Sarkar, in collaboration with Fredrik Almqvist’s group. I test the activity of the compounds against the bacteria and we work to improve the properties and activities of the compounds as well as look into their target and mode of action. Our work is based on many collaborations and keeping them running efficiently is also part of my job. 

In general, our projects depend on what activities we find with the compounds synthesized in Fredrik’s lab, but also, of course, on what the medical need is. QureTech Bio also has projects on tuberculosis (TB) and Chlamydia where we look for compounds that might improve treatment. For example, for TB the treatment is currently long, half a year. If we find something that can shorten it, then that would be awesome. 

How do you find working in a small company and being in a biotech incubator? 

I love it, and I’m glad that I can continue and follow my postdoc project in QureTech Bio with the inspiring team that we are. My hope is that I’ll be able to someday see that people can be helped as a result of the work that we're doing. We are a company, and that means that there are different demands, e.g., on documentation, compared to in academia, and there are many new types of questions and tasks that need to be solved. I like being in this in-between world, helping out where needed, with new things or things I actually know. 

We are lucky to have Annica Rönnbäck, COO and Helén Fält, CEO, both with many years of company experience. Our team has a good knowledge base. It’s a positive and exciting environment where everybody's important and we work together to solve problems. The Umeå Biotech Incubator is one of the top biotech incubators in Europe, and we get a lot of support here, especially between several other small companies located here, too. The atmosphere is friendly and we share experiences and knowledge.

What advice do you have for other researchers who want to have a career path like yours?

Looking back, my career has not been guided by clear, strong goals or a predetermined plan to do this or that in the future. Rather, it has been formed by taking opportunities that I thought were interesting in that moment. And academia is full of opportunities. The research topics during my PhD and postdoc were in different fields but complemented each other well. The knowledge I gained from that time, the research, the collaborations, the network and many other things taken together are really important for what I’m doing today. 

It’s difficult to say how somebody else should do it. So, to those currently doing their PhD or postdoc, I would say that while the research project is absolutely important, try to take opportunities to build your own education, your professional and personal self. Do what you think is fun.

Brief career summary

Dr. Mari Bonde was initially trained in molecular biology at Umeå University, Sweden (M.Sc. 2008). In 2015, she completed her PhD with Professor Sven Bergström, one of the founding group leaders of The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) at Umeå University. Her postdoctoral research focused on gram-positive bacteria with Professor Fredrik Almqvist, at Umeå University. In 2018, she was invited to move her projects to the small biotech firm, QureTech Bio. Today, she is a Senior Scientist in molecular biology at QureTech Bio working on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecalis.

Note: Professor Fredrik Almqvist and Dr. Johan Normark were appointed MIMS Senior Principal Investigators in January 2022.