Symbion — Denmark’s first startup environment

Since its early beginnings, Symbion has been characterised by a unique entrepreneurial spirit. Not just when three idealistic scientists from the University of Copenhagen created a non-profit foundation whose purpose was to establish a close collaboration between the business community and universities, but also in their tireless struggle to create a budding environment that would help new entrepreneurs get started.

More than 30 years after its inception — and with many exciting initiatives along the way — it must be said that Symbion has become the success it planned to be: Well-run IT and biotech companies have experienced huge grown within Symbion walls, and Symbion itself has also grown rapidly. Symbion has now expanded across a total of five locations: at Fruebjergvej, at CBS Campus, at the University of Copenhagen’s North Campus and two locations at the University of Copenhagen’s South Campus.

With its locations at the University of Copenhagen and CBS, and with the IT University as its neighbour, Symbion stays true to the spirit the community sprang from, which is to create links between the university, the established business community and entrepreneurs. Here, startups can test their ideas and benefit from the synergies that arise when several new companies in the same industry share the canteen and coffee maker — and participate in many academic and social events that forge links between individual businesses. The entrepreneurial spirit must still be said to permeate Symbion.

Crosswise cooperation

Networking and socialising are a big part of the Symbion Community. It’s one of the reasons why small startups choose to have an office here. Or as Morten Overgaard from Toolpack Solutions puts it: “The smaller the business, the greater the tendency to seek social interaction with others.” Toolpack365 employs a handful of employees, which is why they have benefited from the network and social life that the Symbion Community encourages. When there is a sports day, they sign up. “And because we can’t field a whole football team, we are put together with people from the community. So, you get to know them that way,” says Morten Overgaard, who has made acquaintances from the community who he also sees privately. Along with the other employees of Toolpack Solutions, Morten Overgaard and his colleagues often make the trip from Univate Njalsgade at Islands Brygge to Fruebjergvej in Østerbro to hear some of the many talks held there. “One of the cornerstones of Symbion is the network. We meet each other and can help find whoever might have that particular skill, one of the other companies needs,” Morten Overgaard says. Therefore, employees from Toolpack Solutions are frequently seen in the Friday bar, or for the monthly ‘network cake’. And of course, at the annual Christmas party.

The community is another reason why economist Erik Plinius returned to Symbion after being away for 15 years with another job. “It’s important when you’re a small business. Because it gives you everything a big company can offer,” he says.  Hans Christian Bothmann is also a frequent participant in the networking events. He is a partner of Blue Business and tells us the particular reason why Blue Business chose to reside in Symbion. “We needed to be in a place where there was more going on than where we were before. Here, you get real dynamism and things are happening. You can clearly tell that you are in a networking environment. You meet interesting people at the coffee machine,” Hans Christian Bothmann says. His company has an established clientele and as such are not looking for more customers, but the network at Symbion also encourages finding partners who can help solve a problem, or customers dropping by to visit because they’re going to a meeting in Symbion anyway. “Of course, you invite them to drop by to say hello,” Hans Christian Bothmann says. That way, the collaboration and network also go beyond Symbion.

2019 Univate Emil Holms Kanal by Symbion

Univate Emil Holms Kanal is Symbion’s latest addition. In the summer of 2019, the last light fixtures were installed, allowing Symbion to bid welcome to another location in connection with the University of Copenhagen’s South Campus.

The theme at Univate Emil Holms Kanal is game development. Therefore, the cosy common room with sofas and armchairs also houses two gaming computers. This is also where coffee is drunk and croissants are eaten, when employees on the floor gather to have breakfast together on Fridays.

“The other companies around us are in the same industry, and it can be really beneficial to talk to them. This was important to us when we were picking out the location for our office,” says Thomas Weppler, a partner at Sidetracked.

Sidetracked publishes swift animation, which is a tool for creating animations faster. Three of the four employees are graduates of the IT University and started the company because they were part of the IT University’s startup programme, ITU Business Development. So, their new office is not far from where they used to be on a daily basis. This makes it easy to stay in touch with the environment, and so the student worker does not have far to go for his teaching either.

2019 COBIS — fully acquired by Symbion

COBIS — Copenhagen Bio Science Park was born from the same spirit as Symbion, and that was one of the reasons why, in 2009, Symbion and DTU won the tender for COBIS. Here, you will find laboratory facilities and offices and a strong composition of new startups and established companies in the field of biotech. The location between Denmark’s leading hospitals and major universities provides just the synergy that was intended from the start of Symbion. When the building was inaugurated in 2009, 40 biotech companies soon moved in, and today COBIS houses more than 100 companies in life sciences. In April 2019, Symbion took over COBIS completely, and DTU was no longer part of the science park located on the North Campus. For the Bioinnovation Institute (BII), which aims to help startups in life sciences and biotech, the location is of vital importance.

“Bioinnovation Institute is a hub for Danish life science entrepreneurship. Our location at COBIS is close to some of the largest institutions, and that is crucial for our work. It allows us to invite the ecosystem in and increase focus on the commercialisation of research for the benefit of society,” CEO Jens Nielsen says.

2017 Univate Njalsgade by Symbion at the University of Copenhagen’s Campus

Once the new premises on South Campus at the University of Copenhagen were ready in 2017, The Orbit changed its name and became Univate. One of the companies that moved along was Sensorist, a producer of internet-connected measurement devices. “When we were looking for a location, we were very aware that we didn’t want to bother with all kinds of places that we weren’t interested in. And Symbion’s offer was good and at a reasonable price. Here, you get a canteen and a printer and nice people who can receive your mail. When you are a small business, it’s great that you don’t need to spend energy and resources on that kind of thing,” says Kasper Mejlgaard, director at Sensorist.

The opportunity to recruit students, a result of being located in the same building as the University of Copenhagen, is not one Sensorist has taken. However, it encourages a lot of exchanges between the university and the entrepreneurial environment that the Symbion network can offer.” You can see that already. There are students who make use of the innovation hub located next to Univate,” says Julie Sommerlund, an Associate Dean for Outside World Relations at the Faculty of Humanities. It is not only students at the University of Copenhagen who should be attracted by the entrepreneurial environment. This is an exchange that should preferably go both ways.  Julie Sommerlund can easily envision how the many IT companies hosted by Univate might benefit from one of the human sciences graduates hatched at the University of Copenhagen’s South Campus. “You might imagine a literature graduate could help take a look at the plot and flow in the stories, a company tells about itself. Or they might need a user perspective. Or perhaps a company about to enter the South Korean market needs someone who speaks Korean,” Julie Sommerlund says. Julie Sommerlund has just started a research project to look into, among other things, how human sciences graduates and the business community can work together more closely. So, the location fits like a glove.

2016 Creators Floor by Symbion at CBS

CBS has been a partner at Symbion from the beginning, and it therefore made sense for Symbion to get offices at the CBS campus in 2016. Bertel Torp Bertelsen moved in with his recently-founded company Ulobby, which makes software for organisations and businesses. Bertel Torp Bertelsen previously studied at CBS, so it was a familiar setting for him.

Symbion had everything they were looking for: Offices and meeting rooms, a coffee maker, furniture, and access to a canteen. “It was nice that we didn’t have to think about keeping the coffee machine stocked but could just focus on our work. Furthermore, there was a great deal of flexibility. We didn’t know how many people we would be how soon, and we were able to scale up and down,” Bertel Torp Bertelsen says, noting that initially, they were four people in 14 square metres. In time, the neighbouring offices became available in line with Ulobby wanting to expand. Bertel Torp Bertelsen sees the fact that Creators Floor is not that large as a great advantage — it really is just one floor. “It means that there is a high chance that you’ll get to know your neighbour,” he says.

One of the neighbours was Frederik Bjerager, who co-founded Heaps, the company behind, among other things, a party app. “It was so easy to start the business on Creators Floor. Almost plug and play, and we were up and running,” Frederik Bjergager says. He did not stay at the address for long, as he joined his co-founders to test the app adventure in Los Angeles.

Many of the people who moved in 2016 still remain, and they enjoy each other’s company — when they have the time. “As entrepreneurs, we know that networking is important, and we all have the ambition to do it, but most of us are just incredibly busy as well. However, we do manage to squeeze in a Friday beer on occasion,” Bertel Torp Bertelsen says.

Cooperation with universities intensified further

“The Symbion board’s experiences from non-profit work were generally excellent and definitely the right choice. On the other hand, it wasn’t easy to make Symbion a good business by building new premises and bearing all the initial costs, to later let it out to innovative entrepreneurs who don’t want rents to be too high. The strain imposed on Symbion’s liquidity by major building projects could easily become too great a risk to Symbion’s own business. So, they had to find a different model.

As the universities — the University of Copenhagen and CBS in particular— were changing their strategies during those years towards increased collaboration with businesses and entrepreneurs, the existing collaboration between the universities and Symbion was strengthened, so that Symbion’s future expansions would take place on university campuses. This allowed the interaction between entrepreneurs and scientists to become more intensive and direct. It also made it easier for Symbion, who could become tenants on university campuses, so Symbion avoided having to do the building work themselves. This change of strategy is evident in the subsequent years, and it turns out that this direction has been the right one.

As a consequence of this, both the University of Copenhagen and CBS chose to inject more capital into Symbion so that together with the Symbion Foundation, they received a significant ownership share, which is also a better fit with Symbion’s non-profit strategy. The potential for this model, where Symbion’s expansions take place on university campuses, is significant and could open new entrepreneurial environments to the extent it is demanded by entrepreneurs, or where the owners believe that the potential is on the way,” says Jørgen Honoré, former board member of Symbion and university director at the University of Copenhagen.

The noughties – a home for IT

In 1999, then Minister of Research Birthe Weiss cut the virtual ribbon when she inaugurated Symbion IT, Symbion’s second location at the time. Finally, the premises that would house IT startups were ready. Here, entrepreneurs would be able to find sounding boards, inspiration and guidance. The aim was to offer entrepreneurs an innovative environment with a location right across from ITU in Nørrebro in order to create synergies between universities and companies. During the first 2 years, 13 IT companies, including Sifira, Unispeed and Sillicide, were hatched, but in 2001, Symbion chose to make Symbion IT part of Symbion on Fruebjergvej, closing the location in Nørrebro. The 2 years had provided a lot of experience in the field, and in 2005 Symbion won the tender for the IT Greenhouse 5te, which was located at the IT University. In a short period, 75 IT companies were gathered, the first example of IT companies moving close to universities to attract talent and see the new ideas. In 2017, ITU needed the premises that housed IT Greenhouse 5te, and the location therefore moved and changed its name to The Orbit. The new site was on Amagerfælledvej, and so still close to the IT University.

The 90s – from biotech to IT

Today, almost all the companies associated with Symbion work with IT, but in the early 90s, Symbion played a vital role in the startup of numerous small biotech companies. The access to laboratories remained a large part of Symbion’s DNA, and eventually, all three floors at Fruebjergvej were full. In addition to Novo Nordisk and the Department of Chemistry, there was a fertility clinic, and Danish doctor Kurt Osther had moved in to conduct a major research trial on HIV medicine.

Danish Environmental Analysis was one of the companies to benefit from the laboratories established by the University of Copenhagen and Novo Nordisk. “Today, there’s a lot of talk about innovation, but that was really what we were doing back then at Symbion. We were innovative,” says Ole Olsen, owner and co-founder of Danish Environmental Analysis. “There was an innocence about it because we were a many people following our dreams,” he continues. Office clerk Inge Engberg also remembers the 90s as exciting. “There was a strong community spirit, which was also strengthened by the parties we held,” she says.

The small startups were not alone in benefitting from the collaboration with the university and the entrepreneurial assistance that could be found there. Novo Nordisk, who tipped the balance in Symbion’s favour when Symbion was a fledgeling project, also went in new directions thanks to the innovative spirit at Symbion. “At Symbion, we could try out a lot of things. For example, Symbion played a big role in Novo Nordisk being able to go into a thing like genetic engineering,” says Ulrik Lassen, Director of Development at Novo Nordisk at the time. Henrik Christensen, one of the founders of Kem-En-Tec, is now on the board of the Copenhagen Business Hub, which is also located on Fruebjergvej. He sees Symbion as an important incubator for a new, budding entrepreneurial environment, and he says: “Before Symbion, there were a few large biotech companies such as Lundbeck, Leo Pharma and Novo Nordisk. Now, there are myriads of small biotech companies. Symbion can take part of the credit for that.”

The early 90s was also when the Internet slowly gained ground. Danish IT association DKUUG, which emerged from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen, was privatised and moved to Symbion in 1992. DKnet, which it had come to be called, drove the spread of the Internet in Denmark and made many IT companies move to Symbion. Symbion was thus part of the dot.com wave, where a lot of new technology companies sprung from and advanced the entire industry.

Symbion has always been non-profit

The intention was never for anyone to make money at Symbion. The company has been non-profit from its inception in the early 1980s. As the director at the time, Knud Allermann, says: “Symbion has always had to pay for itself.” Current CEO Peter Torstensen adds: “The entrepreneurs should be skimming the cream, not us!”

In the beginning, much of the investment was public. The funds came from the government, from the County of Copenhagen and Copenhagen and Frederiksberg Municipalities. However, when Symbion had grown too big for their premises on Haraldsgade and was about to buy the building at Fruebjergvej in the early 90s, they found themselves short on cash. “At the time, the pension funds had a slightly different approach to their investments. They believed that they had a social responsibility as well,” Peter Torstensen says. So, several pension funds and banks joined in investing in Symbion, without getting anything in return for their investment. There are now a total of around 30 shareholders in Symbion, of which the University of Copenhagen, CBS and the Symbion Foundation represent approximately half of the ownership.

All potential profits are reinvested in Symbion. “We mainly reinvest our profits in three things,” Peter Torstensen says: “The first is to expand the offering we already have with more locations. Recent examples of this are COBIS and Univate Emil Holms Kanal. Next, it is to renew the existing facilities and the buildings at our disposal. For example, we create co-working spaces with interior design that is customised to needs and activities, to make them even more attractive places to be in. Thirdly, we spend the profits on creating content for the companies that are here. This may be parties, events and talks, so they feel that they are part of a community. In this way, it becomes even easier to be a startup, because you become part of a larger group of startups,” Peter Torstensen says, and adds: “In addition, we help startups with knowledge, attracting talent, university collaboration and relationship building — that’s probably why in such a short time we have gone from 200 to 550 companies.”

1992 Fruebjergvej – Magasin’s former warehouse

Not so far from Haraldsgade, there was a large property on Fruebjergvej. It had previously been the remote warehouse for department store Magasin. The building was more suitable for forklift trucks than for innovative entrepreneurs. Therefore, an architect was hired to create light and space and vibrant rooms. “They practically cut wedges down through the building,” professor of chemistry Kjeld Schaumburg recalls. He was on the board and headed the laboratories which the Department of Chemistry had at Symbion.

Architect Wilhelm Berner-Nielsen clearly remembers the start of the construction project for the new Symbion: On a sailing trip on the Oresund, Knud Allermann told me about his thoughts for the old remote warehouse for Magasin on Fruebjergvej, and we agreed that I should have a look at the possibility of realising a functioning science park environment in the large building. We quickly found the concept for the building and had many meetings with the Copenhagen City architect to be allowed to change the building’s status, content and expression. We found a great understanding of this new initiative in Copenhagen, and plans were implemented with a very flexible approach in Copenhagen Municipality.

Three large light shafts were cut through all three floors, and a rational house with good possibilities for flexible arrangements for small and large businesses was created with a clear structure, with main corridors and major routings of technology for the very different types of needs from the many companies that came to Symbion. From the beginning, the main lobby with the secretariat and canteen was set up in the large central light shaft, as well as conference facilities. Then followed a long series of leases for, among others, University of Copenhagen — Clinical Chemistry, seven research units under Novo Nordisk, Pilot Plant for US biotech startup Verigen and many other smaller companies. It soon became clear that the building was suitable for its intended purpose, and with today’s eyes, it is an excellent example of a sustainable initiative based on the reuse of an existing building.

Months later, the new building was ready to be inaugurated. The opening was attended by, among others, former rector of the University of Copenhagen, Ove Nathan, Lord Mayor of Copenhagen Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, County Mayor Kaalund, and the Minister of Education at the time, Bertel Haarder. “It was very festive with speeches and many attendees!” Knud Allermann, Symbion’s first director, remembers.

The building was soon filled by a Novo Nordisk department, the University of Copenhagen and many small companies. At the time, economist Erik Plinius worked for The Danish Agency for Trade and Industry to help new entrepreneurs get started. “Considering what my job was, getting an office at Symbion was obvious for me. Back then, the University of Copenhagen and Novo Nordisk primarily resided here. It wasn’t as lively as it is now at all.

The first years were characterised by hard work to attract entrepreneurs and companies,” says Knud Allermann. Symbion employed several measures to raise awareness. One of them was to set up IBM’s new chess machine, the Deep Blue supercomputer. Former chess champion Bent Larsen was asked if he wanted to come and compete against the machine. “It attracted the entire Danish chess elite. It was pretty funny,” Erik Plinius recalls. The contest ended in a draw. And soon, that was what Symbion’s bottom line showed as well. After the first 4 hard years, they had managed to attract so many companies and entrepreneurs that Symbion finally had a positive bottom line.

1988 Symbion – Denmark’s first startup environment

At the corner of Lersø Park Allé and Haraldsgade, laboratory technicians had just vacated the large building that had previously housed the School of Laboratory Sciences. The building had just what Symbion was looking for: Laboratories, offices, and a location relatively close to the HC Ørsted Institute. The atmosphere was cosy and informal, office clerk Inge Engberg, who was on board from Symbion’s infancy, recalls. “It was a great place. There weren’t too many of us at first, so everyone knew everyone,” she says. The idea of Symbion was the same as now: It had to be easy to start a business. So, a receptionist, photocopier, cleaning, coffee maker, postal system, and telefax were all included in the office rent.

In the early days, the number of small startups was in the region of 12-15. There was also the Novo Nordisk department that took up a large proportion of a floor. Novo Nordisk arranged an ideas competition that intensified awareness of Symbion as a place where you could test your entrepreneurial dreams. The winners had their rent paid for the first 3 years. The small startup Kem-En-Tec was among them. “The fact that we won it meant a lot to us. Of course, we were a completely new startup, and the first year was a big challenge for us. We had to prove ourselves to be financially viable,” says Henrik Christensen, one of the founders of Ke-Men-Tec. Henrik Christensen remembers Haraldsgade as an exciting place with many initiatives, but also that the launch of the company demanded so much time and energy that they barely had time to take advantage of the opportunities for networking which the place encouraged.

Former Research Director at Novo Nordisk, Ulrik Lassen, also remembers an environment where entrepreneurs were helped to take the first tentative and often difficult steps. “Symbion helped entrepreneurs early, so they didn’t fall into the traps that entrepreneurs typically fall into the first time around. Among other things, they helped with the first process where you need to get a product clinically tested before you can be licensed,” Ulrik Lassen says.

Another part of Symbion’s operation consisted of creating a centre of knowledge, so the university’s experts in the environment, chemistry and biotechnology could be used by the business community. “It meant that if a master painter from Hvidovre needed to have the paint he created tested, he could inquire with us and we could tell him whom to talk to,” Kjeld Schaumburg says.

The small startup Kem-En-Tec went from four to 20 employees in a short time. They were not the only company to grow substantially. The management of Symbion also realised that if Symbion was to break even, they needed room for more, so they had more companies who could share the rent. It was time to look around for new and larger premises.

1984 – cooperation with the business community? No thanks!

The three pioneers Kim Caneiro, Knud Allermann and Kjeld Schaumburg, cannot quite agree on who had the idea for Symbion. But one thing is certain: Once the idea of a collaboration between the business community and the universities was born, support among university staff was great despite the fact that this was the mid-80s.

At the time, industry and the business community were still dirty words among the staff of the university. Or, as Kjeld Schaumburg, who was an associate professor and head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen, puts it: “At that time, academics didn’t want to have anything to do with capitalist interests!”

Around them, similar initiatives were budding. Lund University had just built a science park, where companies were also invited. The same process was underway at the University of Cambridge in the UK. When the Association for the Copenhagen Science Park, as it was originally called, soon numbered 35 to 40 members, it was also due to the University of Copenhagen recently undergoing a major round of layoffs. This created an incentive to try to work with the business community.

Kjeld Schaumburg and Knud Allermann, Chairman of Board of Studies at the Department of Biology, had useful contacts with a number of biotech companies, among others, Novo Nordisk. Novo Nordisk accepted the invitation, and the company came to play a crucial role in the association’s application for the rest of the funding. However, securing the remaining funds was easier said than done. But Kjeld Schaumburg, Knud Allermann and Kim Caneiro, from the Department of Physics, were tireless. A meeting with the newly elected, centre-right Minister of Education, Bertel Haarder, gave them new impetus. The government would like to support them. So did Copenhagen and Frederiksberg Municipalities and Copenhagen County. More doors were knocked on. And then some more. And one day, the board could state that funding had been secured. Now, they just needed the premises.

Once the board had been established and the premises found, a name was needed. The board, spearheaded by Kjeld Schaumburg, Kim Caneiro and Knud Allermann, launched a competition to see who could come up with an appropriate name. The prize was six bottles of wine. However, the board ended up sharing the six bottles instead. Because one day, on the ferry to Sweden on their way to Lund University’s Science Park, Ideion, Kim Caneiro and Knud Allermann were inspired. They suggested Symbion because the name would also refer to the symbiosis between the university and the business community.