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MART USTAV: From Lab to Life, And Vice Versa

MART USTAV: From Lab to Life, And Vice Versa
Mart Ustav in his office on his 74th birthday

A passionate leader and most importantly a scientist, Mart Ustav is Icosagen’s founder and CEO. He built Icosagen from scratch and turned it into a successful company that offers potential solutions to the many health challenges that we face today. Read on to find out more about his motivation for building a company like Icosagen.

Mart Ustav is well-regarded and respected by all of us – not just as an executive, but also as a colleague and a trusted friend. If you ever have the chance to talk to him, you’ll quickly see his strong loyalty towards his company and its employees.

Embarking on a journey through time, peeling off the layers of yesteryear, we wish to tell you how Icosagen, formerly known as Quattromed, came to be – starting from the very beginning from our founder’s point of view.

How did you find biotechnology?

I’m a chemist by training and I got my PhD in molecular biology in chemical sciences. After graduating from university and serving in the military, I worked extensively on studying the RNA protein interaction of E. coli ribosomes.

For my post-doc studies, I went to the Biomedical Research Centre at the University of Uppsala.

In 1989, I relocated to the US, Cold Spring Harbor, and committed to clean, fundamental papillomavirus replication studies. From this experience, through many failures and successes, we managed to lay the groundwork for QMCF technology.

MART USTAV: From Lab to Life, And Vice Versa
Room #414 at a chemistry building, where the foundation of Estonian molecular biology was established. Richard Villems, Andres Metspalu, Mart Ustav and Artur Lind in the centre.

What laboratory has affected you the most? Why?

All of them, each in their own way. Every laboratory has its own distinct mentality. Looking back on the labs from my university time, Aavo Aaviksaare’s left a deep impression on me because I was given the opportunity to synthesise the substances I wanted in the field of enzyme genetics.

However, while studying at the University of Tartu, or the Tartu State University at the time, the laboratory of Artur Lind and Richard Villems had an entirely different mentality that’s worth noting – the origins of Estonian molecular biology were established there.

MART USTAV: From Lab to Life, And Vice Versa
Mart Ustav and Richard Villems at Andres Metspalu’s graduation in 1976

To be honest, what happened at Uppsala University in Sweden also had a significant influence, because of the interesting company I enjoyed. There were more than thirty doctoral students, who under the direction of one professor, operated in different directions. 

Plus of course, the Cold Spring Harbor lab. Chaired by James Watson, Cold Spring Harbor gave me an invaluable experience of a very different type of society, a private R&D institution. 

To give you just one example of the man and his capabilites. In 1969 Watson came to Harvard and went to Nixon and convinced him that the US should start an intense battle against cancer. He suggested that he implement a programme of onco DNA viruses.

When I arrived, this program had been operating for twenty-five years.

Cold Spring Harbor was a place that was deeply internationalised, and it didn’t matter where you came from. What mattered instead was your scientific acumen and your ability to work yourself up the hierarchy.

“Each laboratory has its own mentality”

How Did Your Successful Academic Career Lead You to the Industry?

Due to a personal tragic event in 1998, when my mother was diagnosed with melanoma. The course of the illness was quick and there I was with all the extensive understanding of how the molecular processes work, yet unable to help. Right then and there I decided that I would conduct research that provides spillover to improve people’s lives, not just study the natural world.

That’s primarily why the diagnostic company Quattromed, now known as Icosagen, was started in 1999. In parallel, research and development were carried out at the university.

From there, the creation of technologies began.

Who is your greatest role model in science or business? Why?

There are many examples. As a scientist and human being, certainly Artur Lind.

Richard Villems as a personality, and as a great chess player, in life and in chess.

Then there’s the environment I came from — the A-grade in the 5th secondary school in Tartu where I graduated in 1967. We weren’t always the most diligent learners, but we were certainly very active students. Whether it was doing a play, taking part in Olympiads and memory games or arguing with teachers – we all participated everywhere. Five academics and five professors graduated from that class alone!

As young naturalists, we learned the Latin names of plants and did plenty of experiments. I remember that we had to graft tomatoes with potatoes. As it turned out, mine grafted well and started to grow – tomatoes on top and potatoes on the bottom.

At different stages of life, we are affected by different people.

MART USTAV: From Lab to Life, And Vice Versa
Mart Ustav at the opening of Eerika facilities in 2014

With Icosagen in mind, what’s your greatest success?

Creating Icosagen.

The most important thing is to create a functioning organisation that is capable of generating a resource to act on its own. We have proved that this concept works in Estonian conditions. Based on our intellectual work results, it’s a sustainable solution and possible.

What was Icosagen like when it was first established?

When we first started, we were simply ambitious. I remember that many of my colleagues had doubts as to whether we would pull it off. But we found our way.

“Help yourself, then God will help you as well, and if you don’t believe in God, then others will help instead,” is the saying we worked with. We were, and remain, scientists who are motivated by chasing knowledge, to know “what’s what”. We were helped by many and without them, Icosagen wouldn’t exist.

Our goal was to create the capacity for the development and production of biological medicines in Estonia.

From antibody discovery and development, to protein production and cell-line development, and very soon GMP manufacturing, we have achieved the requisite technical know-how – all by pursuing our roots in research and development and academic science.

Would you change something in your past?

Well, to some extent, this question is irrelevant because unfortunately we can’t travel back in time.

You’re not going to get another chance. Second chances are actually just new chances, new opportunities and new people that very much define the outcome.

The most divine feeling is when you can generate a working model and people agree to combine efforts to actually carry out that idea.

As Hannibal Smith said in the A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together”.

MART USTAV: From Lab to Life, And Vice Versa
Mart Ustav at his summer home in 2014

“The most divine feeling is when you can generate a working model and people agree to combine efforts to actually carry out that idea.”

Are there any activities that support the emergence of good ideas? 

Yes, for me it’s usually sleeping – the best ideas come in my sleep. For example, I’ve been contemplating an issue and, when I wake up, some kind of clarity comes and I am able to see a clear solution to my problem.

What’s your life motto?

An Estonian saying that doesn’t translate well, but you’ll get the point – Less fuss, longer steps!

What do you wish for people in the biotech industry?

First, I would advise them to think about what they want to do. As in life, it goes up and down. My wish for young people is that the up part would be as long as possible.

I’ve already come a long way, but I wish all those people would have as long a journey as possible. And be as ambitious as possible. That they have the strength to run up those stairs of life to the two-hundredth floor.

As I often say, we’d like to make Icosagen a company with a billion-euro turnover, and it’s not going to be achieved in any other way than through people’s actions. And when the day comes, it gives people the opportunity to accomplish things for themselves.

“Less fuss, longer steps!”

History has a surefire way of leaving an imprint on the present. Had Mart Ustav chosen another route or had the impactful events in his life turned out differently, perhaps Icosagen wouldn’t exist today.

However, as he briefly mentioned, there’s no reason to dwell on the past. It’s inalterable and every second chance is a new opportunity to shift the already moving course in a more desirable direction.

If you want to read more articles about life at Icosagen or get to know our technologies and services better, including protein production, cell-line development and antibody discovery, make sure you follow Icosagen Group on LinkedIn.

Written by KARL MUMM and MARI ANN VILT | Life at Icosagen

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