Science, business, or both?

Genos, a private research institute in Croatia, is the global leader in high-throughput glycomics. It has successfully translated top-level research into commercial products and ranked well across several criteria. On this post, its founder and CEO explains the approach they take to make it thrive.
Science, business, or both?

Genos is a private research institute established in 2007. Most of its funding comes from research grants. At the same time, it is an accredited research institution, which according to Croatian law allows Genos to compete for public research funding. However, there is a key difference between Genos and most other research institutions in Croatia; Genos is privately owned and does not have complex management structures, as other research institutions have. Most Croatian public research institutions are managed by deans elected for the short term (2-3 years) by employees and students. This type of self-government promotes a 'we are all equal' approach, instead of promoting excellence.

In Genos things are going differently. I have managed Genos for over 15 years and through all this time I did my best to employ the smartest and the most motivated young people and then provide them with all possible support so that they can realise their ambitions. This seems to work well, since in 15 years only a handful of researchers left Genos and many of the current 50+ employees have been part of the team for over 10 years. Thus, while academic institutions are continuously losing knowledge and experience as students and postdocs leave, I am managing to preserve these most valuable assets in Genos. Also, researchers seem to feel happy in Genos. Genos was ranked as “The best place to work for researchers in industry” by The Scientist[1] and this result was based on interviews with the employees. We also perform very well as a research institution and the independent analysis that The World Bank did for the Croatian Ministry of Science ranked Genos as the best research institution in Croatia according to several criteria.[2]

The importance of glycans

In Genos, the research efforts are focused on high-throughput glycomics. (Glycomics is the systematic analysis of all carbohydrate structures, whether free or conjugated, at cellular, tissue and organism level.) A recent comprehensive review published in Chemical Reviews identified slightly over 190,000 glycomic analyses performed in high-throughput studies.[3] Genos analysed somewhat below 160,000 of these glycomes, which represents over 80% of the global output. More importantly, samples for Genos glycomic studies came from the best phenotyped and genotyped clinical and epidemiological cohorts in the world. This enabled us to merge glycomics with other types of omics and/or clinical data, and thus publish the results in the leading scientific journals (see Table 1).

Despite the complexity and importance of the glycome, protein glycosylation has still not reached the mainstream scientific community and many scientists just study proteins and ignore glycans. This is a mistaken approach since the majority of proteins are glycosylated, and glycans represent an integral part of protein structure and function. All cells are virtually completely covered by glycans and there is no cellular life without glycans. Alternative glycosylation, the addition of different glycans to the same glycosylation site, is functionally analogous to coding mutations, but instead of being inherited by a single gene, many genes interact in glycan inheritance. Despite its complex genetic regulation and the absence of a direct genetic template, glycome heritability is between 30% and 70%. Differences in glycans are a very important component of inter-individual phenotypic variability (even ABO blood groups are chemically glycans). Glycosylation changes are associated with nearly all complex diseases and in many diseases glycans change years before the disease is diagnosed. For some inflammatory and cardiometabolic diseases there is also evidence that glycan changes are functionally relevant for disease risk and progression.

Translating a successful story

I have worked for 30 years in a public academic institution and 15 years in my company Genos. This enables me to directly compare advantages and disadvantages of working in public and private institutions. Academia has two major advantages: employment in academia provides financial security and ensure permanent contact with bright young students. The opportunity to work with young, motivated students is the most important thing that still keeps me associated with academia.

One disadvantage of working in academia is the lack of freedom. Many people cite freedom as an important aspect of academia, but my experience is just the opposite – I think academia considerably limits many freedoms and restricts researchers in many aspects. Another important disadvantage of academia is the absence of the sense of purpose. Scientific research is fun, and we all enjoy doing it, however after years and decades of doing this job one would actually like to apply the results of one’s research, such that they would help some people. This is not easily achievable in academia. Frequently it happens that once the grant is over, the paper is published, and students leave, the 'story' is over. On the contrary, in Genos once something is discovered the 'story' just begins. For example, once we discovered that glycans change a lot with ageing and that the pace of these changes is mostly affected by lifestyle, we developed the GlycanAge test of biological age. We also established a dedicated company for its commercialisation and today GlycanAge test of biological age is available in over 400 clinics all around the world. People use this test to identify if their efforts of lifestyle interventions work for them, thus they use this test to navigate healthy ageing.

I believe that Genos makes a good case that top-level research can also be done outside of leading research institutions. Also, it is a good example of successful translation of research in commercial products, which is rather rare in European research institutions. Genos’ IP portfolio includes predictive biomarkers for diabetes, perimenopause and smoking, thus we expect interesting new tests to be commercialised in the near future.

Table 1. High impact glycomics papers published by Genos researchers

High-impact papers in  2017- 2022

Suchre et al, Nature Communications 8:14357, 2017

Shen, Nature Communications 8:447, 2017

Benedetti et al, Nature Communications 8:1483, 2017

Lauc et al, Nature Communications  9:2916, 2018

Benedetti et al, Nature Communications, 11:5153, 2020

Landini et al, Nature Communications, 13:1586, 2022

Krištić et al, Nature Chemical Biology 14:516, 2018

Bermingham, Diabetes Care  41:79-87, 2018

Juszczak et al, Diabetes Care 42:17-26, 2019

Wittenbecher et al, Diabetes Care 43:661-668, 2020

Birukov et al, Diabetes Care, 2022, in press

Šimurina et al, Gastroenterology 154:1320, 2018

Clerc et al, Gastroenterology 155:829-843, 2018

Monaghan et al, Gastroenterology 157:1676-1678, 2019

Josipović et al, Nucl Acid Res 47(18):9637-9657, 2019

Klarić et al, Science Advances 6 (8): eaax0301, 2020

Peng et al, Circulation, 140:2005–2018, 2019

Menni et al, Circulation Research, 117.312174, 2018

Petrović et al, EBioMedicine, 2022

Batinjan et al, Engineering, 2022

Trbojevic-Akmacic et al, Chem Reviews, 2022





Photo by CDC on Unsplash 

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