Since its early days, Symbion has been characterised by a special entrepreneurial spirit. Not just when three idealistic researchers from the University of Copenhagen created a non-profit foundation whose aim was to establish close collaboration between business and academia, but also in their tireless struggle to create a nascent environment to help start-up entrepreneurs get off the ground.
A good 30 years after its birth - and with many exciting developments along the way - Symbion must be said to have become the success it was intended to be: Well-run IT and biotech companies have grown up within Symbion's walls, and Symbion itself has grown too. Symbion now occupies a total of five locations: on Fruebjergvej, on the CBS Campus, on the KU Nørre Campus and two on the KU Søndre Campus.
Located at the University of Copenhagen and CBS, and with the IT University as its neighbour, Symbion pursues the spirit from which the community was born, namely to create links between the university, the established business community and entrepreneurship. Here, start-ups can try out their ideas and share in the synergy that comes when several new companies in the same sector share a canteen and coffee machine - not to mention the many professional and social events that link individual companies. The entrepreneurial spirit still permeates Symbion.
Networking and socializing are a big part of the Symbion Community. It's one of the reasons why small start-ups choose to have an office here. Or as Morten Overgaard from Toolpack Solutions says: "The smaller the company, the greater the tendency to seek social interaction with others." At Toolpack365, they are a small handful of employees, which is why they have benefited from the networking and social life that Symbion Community provides. When there's a sports day, they sign up. "And because we can't field a full football team, we get paired up with some others from the community. That's how you get to know them," says Morten Overgaard, who has made acquaintances from the community, with whom he also meets privately. Together with the other employees of Toolpack Solutions, Morten Overgaard and his colleagues also often make the trip from Univate Njalsgade on Islands Brygge to Fruebjergvej on Østerbro to hear some of the many talks that are held there. "One of the overriding things about Symbion is the network. We meet each other and can help with who might know just what one of the other companies is looking for," says Morten Overgaard. That's why Toolpack Solutions employees are often to be found at the Friday bar, or when there is a 'network cake' once a month. And, of course, at the annual Christmas party.
The community is also one of the reasons why economist Erik Plinius returned to Symbion after 15 years away in another job. "That's important when you're a small company. Because here is everything a big company can offer," he says. Hans Christian Bothmann is also often to be found networking. A partner in Blue Business, he says there was a particular reason Blue Business chose to be in Symbion. "We needed to be somewhere where more was happening than where we were before. There's a real dynamic and buzz here. It's obvious that you're in a networked environment. You meet interesting people at the coffee machine," says Hans Christian Bothmann. His company has a regular clientele and is not as such looking for more customers, but the network in Symbion also makes it possible to find partners who can help solve a task - or for customers to drop by because they are going to a meeting in Symbion anyway. "Then, of course, you just ask them to drop by and say hello," says Hans Christian Bothmann. In this way, the cooperation and network also extend beyond Symbion.
Univate Emil Holms Kanal is the latest addition to Symbion. In the summer of 2019, the final lights were put up, so Symbion could now welcome you to another location in connection with the University of Copenhagen's Søndre Campus.
At Univate Emil Holms Kanal the theme is game development. That's why two gaming computers have been set up in the cosy common room with sofas and armchairs. This is also where coffee and croissants are served when the floor's staff meet on Fridays for breakfast.
"The other companies around us are in the same business and it can be really beneficial to talk to them. That was important to us when we were choosing where to have an office," says Thomas Weppler, a partner at Sidetracked.
Sidetracked releases swift animation, a tool to make animations faster. Three of the four employees are IT University graduates - and started the company when they were part of the IT University's start-up programme, ITU Business Development - so their new office is not far from where they used to work. It makes it easy to still be in touch with the environment - and the student assistant doesn't have far to go to catch up on his teaching either.
COBIS - Copenhagen Bio Science Park was born in the same spirit as Symbion. And it was one of the reasons why Symbion, together with DTU, won the tender for COBIS in 2009. It has laboratory facilities and offices and a strong mix of start-ups and established biotech companies. The location between Denmark's leading hospitals and major universities provides precisely the synergy effect that was intended from Symbion's early beginnings. When the building was inaugurated in 2009, 40 biotech companies joined in a short time, and today COBIS houses more than 100 life science companies. In April 2019, Symbion fully took over COBIS , and DTU was no longer part of the science park located at Nørre Campus. For the Bioinnovation Institute (BII), which aims to help start-ups in life science and biotech, the location is crucial.
"BioInnovation Institute is a hub for Danish life science entrepreneurship. Our location at COBIS is close to some of the largest institutions and this is important for our work. It allows us to invite the ecosystem in and increase the focus on commercializing research for the benefit of society," says CEO Jens Nielsen.
When the new premises on the Søndre Campus at the University of Copenhagen Amager were completed in 2017, The Orbit changed its name to Univate. One of the companies that moved with it was Sensorist, which makes internet-connected measuring equipment. "When we were looking for a space, we were pretty clear that we didn't want to bother with anything that didn't interest us. And Symbion's offer was good and reasonably priced. There's a canteen and a printer and nice people to take your mail. When you're a small company, it's really nice not to have to spend effort and resources on that sort of thing," says Kasper Mejlgaard, CEO of Sensorist.
Sensorist has not taken advantage of the opportunity to recruit students offered by its location in the same building as the University of Copenhagen. But there is a lot of exchange between the university and the entrepreneurial environment that the Symbion network can offer." You can see it already. There are students using the innovation hub next to Univate," says Julie Sommerlund, vice-dean for external relations at the Faculty of Humanities. It's not just University of Copenhagen students who may be attracted to the entrepreneurial environment. The exchange should go both ways. Julie Sommerlund can easily see how the many IT companies housed at Univate could use one of the humanists graduating from the University of Copenhagen's South Campus. "It could be that a literary scholar can help look at the plot and flow of the stories a company tells about itself. Or they need a user perspective. Or maybe a company entering the South Korean market needs someone who speaks Korean," says Julie Sommerlund. Julie Sommerlund is currently working on a research project that looks at how humanists and business can work more closely together. So the location fits like a glove.
CBS has been a partner in Symbion from the beginning, so it made sense when Symbion moved to the CBS campus in 2016. Bertel Torp Bertelsen moved in with his start-up company, Ulobby, which makes software for advocacy organisations and businesses. Bertel Torp Bertelsen had previously studied at CBS, so the premises were familiar to him.
Symbion had what they were looking for: office and meeting space, a coffee machine, furniture - and access to a canteen. "It was nice not to have to worry about filling the coffee machine, but to be able to concentrate on our work. And there was a lot of flexibility. We didn't know how many we would be how quickly, and we could scale up and down," says Bertel Torp Bertelsen, who says that in the beginning they had four people in 14 square metres. Over time, space became available in neighbouring offices as Ulobby wanted to expand. Bertel Torp Bertelsen sees it as a big advantage that the Creators Floor is not so big - it's just one floor. "It gives you a pretty good chance to get to know your neighbour," he says.
One of the neighbours was Frederik Bjerager, co-founder of Heaps, which among other things made a party app. "It was so easy to start up a business on Creators Floor. It was almost plug and play, and we were up and running," says Frederik Bjergager, who later tried out the app in Los Angeles with his co-founders and therefore didn't stay long at the address.
Many of those who moved in in 2016 are still back, and they enjoy each other's company - when they have time. "As an entrepreneur, you know networking is important and everyone has an ambition to do it, but most of us are also just smoking busy. But we do have the occasional Friday beer," says Bertel Torp Bertelsen.
"The experience of Symbion's board in working non-profit was generally good and a very right choice. On the other hand, it was not easy to create a good business in Symbion by building new and paying all the initial expenses and later renting out to innovative entrepreneurs who do not want too high a rent. The strain on Symbion's cash flow from major construction projects could easily become too great, putting Symbion's own business at risk. A new model therefore had to be found.
As the universities - especially KU and CBS - changed their strategies towards increased cooperation with the business community and entrepreneurs, it was decided to increase the existing cooperation between the universities and Symbion, so that Symbion's expansions would take place on the universities' campuses. This allowed for a more intensive and direct interaction between entrepreneurs and researchers. At the same time, it became simpler for Symbion to become tenants on university campuses, so that Symbion did not have to build itself. This strategic shift can be seen in the following years and it turns out that the development has been the right one.
As a consequence, both KU and CBS decided to contribute more share capital to Symbion, so that together with the Symbion Foundation they would have a significant shareholding, which is also more in line with Symbion's non-profit strategy. The potential for this model, where Symbion's expansions take place on university campuses, is significant and new entrepreneurial environments could be opened to the extent that entrepreneurs demand or where the owners judge that the potential is there," says Jørgen Honoré, former board member of Symbion and university director of KU.
In 1999, then Minister of Research Birthe Weiss cut the virtual cord when she inaugurated Symbion IT, Symbion's then 2nd location. Now the space that would house start-up IT companies was finally ready. Here, entrepreneurs could get savings, inspiration, advice and guidance. The aim was to offer entrepreneurs an innovative environment, located directly opposite the IT college in Nørrebro, to create synergy between the university and businesses. During the first two years, 13 IT companies were incubated, including Sifira, Unispeed and Sillicide, but in 2001 Symbion decided to make Symbion IT part of Symbion at Fruebjergvej, thus closing the Nørrebro location. The two years had provided a number of experiences in the field, and in 2005 Symbion won the tender for IT-Væksthuset 5te, located at the IT University. In a short period of time, 75 IT companies were gathered, which was the first example of IT companies moving close to universities to attract talent and see the new ideas. In 2017, the IT University needed the premises that the IT Growth House 5te was located in, so the location moved and changed its name to The Orbit at the same time. The new location was on Amagerfælledvej and thus still close to the IT University.
Today, almost all Symbion-affiliated companies work in IT, but in the early 1990s Symbion came to play an important role in the start-up of a large number of small biotech companies. Access to laboratories was still a big part of Symbion's DNA, and over time all three floors at Fruebjergvej were filled up. In addition to Novo Nordisk and the Department of Chemistry, a fertility clinic was added, and Danish doctor Kurt Osther had moved in to conduct a major research trial on HIV drugs.
Danish Environmental Analysis was one of the companies that used the laboratories set up by the University of Copenhagen and Novo Nordisk. "You talk so much about innovation today, but that was really what we were doing back then in Symbion. We were innovative," says Ole Olsen, owner and co-founder of Danish Environmental Analysis. "There was an innocence about it because there were a lot of us following our dreams," he continues. Office worker Inge Engberg also remembers the '90s as exciting. "There was a strong bond, which was also strengthened by the parties we had," she says.
It wasn't just the small start-ups that benefited from the collaboration with the university and the entrepreneurial help that was available. Novo Nordisk, which had been the tip of the scales in Symbion's infancy, also broke new ground, thanks to the innovative spirit of Symbion. "At Symbion, we were able to try out a lot of things. For example, Symbion played a big role in Novo Nordisk getting into genetic engineering in the first place," says Ulrik Lassen, who was Novo Nordisk's development director. Henrik Christensen, one of the founders of Kem-En-Tec, is now on the board of the Growth House, which is also located on Fruebjergvej. He sees Symbion as an important incubator for a new, budding entrepreneurial environment, he says: "Before Symbion, there were a few big biotech companies like Lundbech, LeoPharma and Novo Nordisk. Now there are myriads of small biotech companies. Symbion has a lot to do with that."
The early 1990s were also the time when the internet slowly took hold. The Danish IT association DKUUG, which grew out of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen, was privatised and moved to Symbion in 1992. DKnet, as it came to be known, brought the Internet to Denmark and attracted more IT companies to Symbion. Symbion thus became part of the dot.com wave, where many new technology companies sprang up and moved the entire industry.
It was never the intention that anyone should make money from Symbion. The company has been non-profit from its early beginnings in the 1980s. As the then director, Knud Allermann says: "Symbion has always had to rest in itself." Current CEO Peter Torstensen adds: "It's the entrepreneurs who have to skim the cream, not us!"
In the beginning, a large part of the investment was public, with funds coming from the State, Copenhagen County and the municipalities of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg. But when Symbion had outgrown Haraldsgade and was about to buy the building on Fruebjergvej in the early 1990s, they were short of money. "Back then, pension funds had a slightly different attitude to their investments. They thought they also had a social responsibility," says Peter Torstensen. So several pension funds and banks agreed to invest in Symbion without getting any return on their investment. There are now around 30 shareholders in Symbion, of which the University of Copenhagen, CBS and the Symbion Foundation make up about half of the ownership circle.
Any profits will be reinvested in Symbion. "There are three things we mainly reinvest the profit in," says Peter Torstensen: "The first is to expand the offer we have with more locations. Most recently, this has been COBIS and Univate Emil Holms Kanal. Secondly, we are renewing our existing facilities and the buildings we have. For example, we're creating co-working spaces with needs-based and activity-based layouts, so it's even more interesting to be there. Third, we use the profits to create content for the businesses that are here. That can be parties and events and talks, so you feel part of a community. That way it will be even easier to be a start-up because you are part of a bigger chain of start-ups," says Peter Torstensten, adding, "In addition, we help start-ups with knowledge, attracting talent, university collaboration and relationship building - that's probably why we have gone from 200 to 650 companies in a short time."
Not far from Haraldsgade was a large property on Fruebjergvej. It had previously been a remote warehouse for Magasin. The building was more suitable for forklift trucks than for innovative entrepreneurs. So an architect was hired to create light and air and vibrant spaces. "There were almost wedges cut through the building," recalls Kjeld Schaumburg, an associate professor of chemistry who sat on the board and managed the laboratories that 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 Sound, Knud Allermann told me about his thoughts on the old remote warehouse for Magasin on Fruebjergvej, and we agreed that I should look into the possibility of achieving a functioning research park environment in the large building. We quickly came up with the concept for the building and had many meetings with the City Architect of Copenhagen to get permission to change the status, content and expression of the building. We found great understanding for this new initiative in Copenhagen, and the plans were implemented with a very smooth process in the City of Copenhagen.
Three large atriums were cut through all three floors and a rational building with good possibilities for flexible layouts for small and large companies was created with a clear structure with main corridors and main technical routes for the very different types of needs of the many companies that came to Symbion. From the outset, the main entrance with secretariat and canteen was arranged in the large central atrium, as well as conference facilities. This was followed by a large number of leases for, among others, KU - Clinical Chemical Institute, 7 research units for Novo Nordisk, Pilot Plant for the American biotech startup Verigen and many other smaller companies. It soon became clear that the building was well suited for its purpose, and seen from today's perspective it is a very good 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 ceremony was attended by Ove Nathan, then rector of the University of Copenhagen, Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, mayor of Copenhagen, Per Kaalund, mayor of the county, and Bertel Haarder, then minister of education. "It was very festive with speeches and many attendees!" recalls Knud Allermann, Symbion's first director.
The building was quickly filled by Novo Nordisk's department, the University of Copenhagen and several small businesses. Economist Erik Plinius worked for the Danish Business Promotion Agency at the time, helping new entrepreneurs get off the ground. "With what I was doing, it was obvious for me to get an office at Symbion. At the time, it was mainly the University of Copenhagen and Novo Nordisk that were out here. There wasn't as much life as there is now.
The first years were characterised by hard work to attract entrepreneurs and companies, says Knud Allermann. Symbion took several steps to raise awareness. One of them was to set up IBM's new chess machine, the Deep Blue supercomputer. The chess master at the time, Bent Larsen, was asked if he would like to come and play against the machine. "It attracted the entire Danish chess elite. It was a lot of fun," recalls Erik Plinius. The match ended in a draw. And soon Symbion's accounts looked like that too. After the first four tough years, Symbion had managed to attract so many companies and entrepreneurs that it finally broke even.
At the corner of Lersø Park Allé and Haraldsgade, the laboratory assistants had just moved out of the large building that had previously housed the Laboratory School. That 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 unpretentious, remembers employee Inge Engberg, who was there from Symbion's early beginnings. "It was a great place. There weren't that many of us in the beginning, so everyone knew everyone else," she says. The idea of Symbion was the same as it is now: It should be easy to start up a business. That's why the office rent included a receptionist, photocopier, cleaning service, coffee machine, mailing service - and fax.
The number of small start-ups in the early days was in the region of 12-15. In addition, Novo Nordisk's department took up a large part of one floor. Novo Nordisk launched an ideas competition that raised awareness of Symbion as a place to try out your entrepreneurial dreams. The winners had their rent paid for the first three years. The small start-up Kem-En-Tec was one of them. "Winning it meant a lot to us. We were just starting out and the first few years were a big challenge for us. We had to prove ourselves financially viable," says Henrik Christensen, one of the co-founders of Ke-Men-Tec. Henrik Christensen remembers Haraldsgade as an exciting place with many initiatives, but also that the start-up of the company took so much time and energy that they hardly had time to take advantage of the networking opportunities that the place offered.
Ulrik Lassen, then Director of Research at Novo Nordisk, also remembers an environment where entrepreneurs were helped to take the first, and often difficult, steps. "Symbion was early in helping entrepreneurs so they didn't fall into the traps entrepreneurs typically fall into the first time. Among other things, they helped with the initial process of getting a product clinically tested before it can be licensed," says Ulrik Lassen.
Another part of Symbion's work was to create a knowledge-sharing centre so that university experts in environment, chemistry and biotechnology could be used by industry. "This meant that if a master painter from Hvidovre wanted to test the paint he had made, he could ask us and we could tell him who to talk to," explains Kjeld Schaumburg.
The small start-up Kem-En-Tec went from four to 20 employees in a short time. They weren't the only company to grow. Symbion's management also realised that if Symbion was to run, there had to be room for more, so they also had to share the rent. It was time to look for new and bigger premises.
The three pioneers, Kim Caneiro, Knud Allermann and Kjeld Schaumburg, can't quite agree on who came up with the idea for Symbion. But one thing is certain: when the idea of cooperation between industry and university was first born, there was strong support among university staff. And this despite the fact that we are writing in the mid-80s. Back then, industry and business were still buzzwords among university staff. Or as Kjeld Schaumburg, associate professor and head of department at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen, puts it: "At that time, university people wanted nothing to do with capitalist interests!"
Similar initiatives sprang up all around. Lund University had just built a research park, to which companies were also invited. Cambridge University in the UK was doing the same. The fact that the Copenhagen Research Park Association, as it was originally called, quickly grew to 35-40 members was also due to the fact that the University of Copenhagen had just undergone a major round of redundancies. This provided an incentive to try out the business world.
Kjeld Schaumburg and Knud Allermann, who was chairman of the Biology Department, had good contacts with a number of biotech companies, including Novo Nordisk. Novo Nordisk accepted the invitation, and the company played a crucial role in the association's ability to apply for the rest of the funding. However, getting 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, bourgeois Minister of Education, Bertel Haarder, gave a new impetus. The government was willing to support. So did the municipalities of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg and the county of Copenhagen. More doors were knocked on. And more still. And one day, the board was able to confirm that the funding was in place. Now they just needed the premises.
Once the board was constituted and the premises found, a name had to be found. The Board, headed by Kjeld Schaumburg, Kim Caneiro and Knud Allermann, launched a competition to see who could come up with a suitable name. The prize was six bottles of wine. In the end, however, the board itself came to share the six bottles. One day on the Swedish boat on the way to Ideion, Lund University's Research Park, Kim Caneiro and Knud Allermann were inspired and suggested Symbion, because the name should also refer to the symbiosis between the university and industry.
Join the Symbion Community today