Irina Borodina has a picture of herself standing with her first three employees as well as DTU President Anders Bjarklev and DTU’s Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Senior Vice President Marianne Thellersen. They have just signed the licence agreement that gave BioPhero exclusive rights to the patents that Irina Borodina’s team had developed at DTU. This was the start of an adventure in which the company had to be built up from scratch.
“It was a crazy upheaval,” says Irina Borodina.
She became CEO and had a good grasp of the strategic aspects of leading the company, but drowned in all the practical stuff. She had to learn about accounting, administration, liability insurance, employment contracts, and loads more.
“The biggest challenge was that I needed very broad knowledge and there was not one overall place where I could get it. I would have liked us to have had a checkbox where we could tick off all the things we had to deal with. It is such a complex system that if you make a mistake and something happens, you have to close down the business,” says Irina Borodina.
She worked seven days a week while also retaining her position as a professor at DTU Biosustain because she did not want to give up her research career. She also had a number of grants that she would otherwise lose, and she was very happy with her research team.
“I don’t know where I found the time, but I didn’t prioritize my social life, that’s for sure,” she says.
The rescue came when BioPhero hired a CEO who could take all the practicalities and business development off her shoulders.
“It was a great relief,” says Irina Borodina—who initially became Chief Technical Officer and later Chief Scientific Officer—so that she now focuses exclusively on the research aspects, while CEO Kristian Ebbensgaard and CTO Jesper Dohrup handle operations and production.
Ambivalent feelings about selling
According to the analysis firm IBISWorld, around DKK 120 billion is spent on insecticides globally every year, and BioPhero hopes to be able to take a solid chunk out of this market when their solution is scaled up. The American agricultural chemistry company FMC saw this potential, and they acquired BioPhero for DKK 1.4 billion in June.
When the purchase was concluded, however, Irina Borodina was not exactly ecstatic. Her brain told her that it was the right decision, because BioPhero will have completely different opportunities through having access to the entire FMC distribution network, and all those who have helped build up BioPhero would be rewarded for their hard work. But her heart said something else—in a way, it felt a bit like the end of the entrepreneurial adventure.
“I was a little sad when the acquisition went through, because there’s something special about being your own independent business,” she says.
Most people would probably see it as the pinnacle of success to sell their business for more than one billion kroner, but Irina Borodina does not see it that way.
“I already knew we were a success when we made our first production, because we experienced huge interest in our products,” she says.
However, Irina Borodina is pleased that one of the world’s largest manufacturers of pesticides decided to enter into pheromone production, as it shows that agriculture is on the path towards sustainability.
She advises entrepreneurs to choose the important goals for their business.
"A business isn’t primarily about making money. It’s about creating something new and exciting that can make the world a better place. This may be new products, new technology, or an inspiring workplace with a good balance between work and family life,” says Irina Borodina.
The best of two worlds
For most people, being an entrepreneur is a full-time job—and then some. But Irina Borodina has always held on to her position as professor at DTU and still divides her time between BioPhero and DTU.
"I would get bored if I only had one project,” says Irina Borodina and elaborates:
“Very few people have their own research group like I do at DTU, and that’s really a privilege. I have the opportunity to conduct research into many different things and start all kinds of side projects, so there is greater freedom as a university professor.”
Right now, she has the best of both worlds and also enjoys what the entrepreneurial world has to offer.
“A start-up has a very dynamic and result-oriented working environment. The team becomes like one big family because you feel part of a joint mission and those who have been involved from the beginning have had the opportunity to undergo a huge development because there are so many tasks and you have to learn quickly,” she says.
BioPhero is close to having their first product on the market while developing and testing pheromone agents for several crops and insects. So the work with BioPhero is far from finished for Irina Borodina. But she also dreams of starting up a new business again at some point. Maybe with another spinout from DTU. And this time she has already earned her spurs.