Gražina Mykolaitytė from VUGENE: Riding the Biotechnology Industry Growth Wave
According to data from the Vilnius TechFusion ecosystem, which unites high-tech companies, the number of Life Sciences companies has grown by 7% since 2020, with a 19% increase in the number of employees. Presently, over 8,000 employees are engaged in this sector in Vilnius, with an average gross salary of nearly 2,800 euros in 2022. This marks a 6% increase compared to the previous year. In the Vilnius TechFusion ecosystem operates more than two hundred biotech companies such as “Thermo Fisher Scientific”, “Caszyme”, “Diagnolita”, “Biomatter”, VUGENE, and others.
According to Gražina Mykolaitytė, the CEO of VUGENE and one of the “Women in Biotech” speakers, the biotechnology sector in Lithuania continues to experience significant breakthroughs. In this interview, G. Mykolaitytė shares her journey from the finance and technology sector to the biotechnology industry, where she transitioned from a financial executive to the CEO. She also discusses the current state of this field in Lithuania, the challenges encountered, and motivation for optimism.
How did the idea of shifting from finance and technology to biotechnology come about?
The move into the biotechnology field was more unexpected than planned; however, I had consistently been preparing for a leadership role. Previously, I worked in finance, commerce, manufacturing, technology, marketing, and sales technology, with responsibilities in finance, legal matters, management systems, and operational teams. Over time, I aspired to expand my responsibilities into a leadership role. To prepare for this, I studied organisation management and leadership at Harvard, Oxford, and Insead universities. As a company leader, it’s crucial to have a deep understanding of organisational structure, strategy development, market analysis, determining the direction of a company, ensuring financial stability, selecting team members who align with the company’s culture and strategy, and more. An invitation to join a bioinformatics company and partake in its growth came from a sailing friend, Juozas Gordevičius, the founder of VUGENE. Growing a startup business requires extensive knowledge, and this was a challenge I was actively seeking for. My previous experience at a unicorn compares to nurturing startups.
One of the most challenging aspects of shifting to a new industry, especially in biotechnology, is predicting its growth and development, understanding how our services and products meet global needs, identifying the markets to focus on, and grasping who our potential customers are.
How challenging was this shift? Were there new skills or knowledge you had to acquire?
I would say two key factors made the transition relatively smooth: a strong team of scientists with extensive knowledge and experience gained in research institutions abroad and my experience in various organisations which allowed me to quickly adapt to a new business environment. From day one, my journey at VUGENE has been a continuous learning process, and it is ongoing. I dedicated most of my time to delving into our services, understanding our customers’ needs, getting to know our market partners, identifying the talents required for our team, and finding funding opportunities. Our field of activity, bioinformatics, is multidisciplinary, so I’m gradually diving into these sciences to have a comprehensive understanding of what can be achieved using them. I enjoy learning, and it motivates me.
How do you view the opportunity for professionals to transition into biotechnology? What additional skills might be required?
There are numerous opportunities with universities offering a wide range of specialties. The biotechnology industry is rapidly creating new job positions. Furthermore, there is a high demand for mathematics and computer science specialists. Therefore, if these professionals acquire qualifications in biology, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, or medicine, their interdisciplinary knowledge would be invaluable in the biotechnology industry. For example, our field requires knowledge in computer science, biology, and statistics. Currently, a Master’s program in bioinformatics in Lithuanian universities is not available, so my colleagues also studied various specialties at Lithuanian universities and universities abroad.
What do you feel is lacking in this high-tech industry at the moment?
Working in the high-tech industry requires a broad range of interdisciplinary knowledge, and there is a shortage of such specialists. The lack of funding for Lithuanian universities is a significant reason for this issue. At VUGENE, we nurture our employees: they join the team while still studying, and experienced members of our team support their growth. Preparing talents in this way requires substantial time and financial investment.
What advantages do you see in Lithuania for developing a biotechnology business?
I would like to highlight that state institutions are becoming business partners. The Innovation Agency significantly assists us with EU funding, international research, experimental development, and innovation diplomacy programs. They also provide consultations on business development for startups and mature companies. LithuaniaBio association has become like a second home for us, where we develop business partnerships with its members. We attend industry conferences together, seeking international partners. Having personal contacts within these organisations is important, as we can always seek advice on relevant matters. I believe it is essential for every company to broaden its horizons to international markets. Doing so independently without initial contacts can often be challenging. Therefore, state agencies, associations, and clusters are significant aids in expanding our industry into the global market. Our company’s business began from successful collaboration with research teams in the United States.
Last month, I attended the “Life Science Baltics” conference in Vilnius, organised by the Ministry of Economy and Innovation, and the Innovation Agency. LithuaniaBio association also made substantial contributions to the event. I was very proud to witness the proactive and courageous efforts of Lithuanian businesses and academic institutions in presenting themselves to delegations from Japan, Korea, and various European countries. Leveraging my experience in diverse industries, I can affirm that the biotechnology sector fosters the closest collaboration between scientific and business institutions.
I’d also like to highlight the work culture of the Lithuanian people: we aim high and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. This is a distinctive characteristic. In Lithuania, I have encountered numerous companies founded by scientists, driven by their discoveries. I am confident that our collective efforts are the main reason why Lithuania has one of the fastest growing biotechnology industries worldwide.