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MART USTAV JR.: The Pandemic That Brought Science Home

Mart Ustav Jr. in his office at Icosagen.

The Greater Vision Behind Choosing a Speciality

I think my interest in the natural sciences and also learning in general started when I went to a natural science-focused class at Hugo Treffner Gymnasium.

After graduating from high school, I applied to the faculty of medicine and biology at the University of Tartu. However, since my sisters had already gone into the medical field, I thought that maybe I should do something different.

Already by that time, I foresaw that I wanted to improve people’s well-being in relation to medicines. I knew that by studying biology and contributing to developing a drug, the chances of achieving that dream were significantly higher.

I did my master’s degree in molecular biology and then my PhD in biomedical technology.

Following my PhD, I worked on protein engineering and synthetic antibody developments using phage display technology at the University of Toronto.

After my postdoctoral study in Toronto in 2020 – at the peak of the pandemic – I returned to Estonia after four years. And that’s when the rollercoaster started.

Back Home from Toronto

Constant communication and discussions with Mart led to the decision to come and work for Icosagen.

Back then, we were developing various therapeutic antibodies in Toronto, and several of them had already been developed into companies in which I was able to play my part.

There was a wealth of possibilities career-wise, but during the peak of the coronavirus, I made the decision to come back home and participate in the development of SARS-CoV-2 therapeutics.

Although we were slightly ahead with the developments in Toronto, I saw the perfect chance to apply my knowledge in Estonia. In addition to the coronavirus and the pandemic-related developments, it was a good opportunity for me to return home.

I felt that Icosagen had a lot of capabilities and prerequisites created in order to carry out cutting-edge drug development in a small city like Tartu. It showed me that anything can be carried out here and you don’t have to move to Boston or San Francisco to accomplish your goals.

Working in a Family Business

I don’t know how working in a family business affects me. In fact, I’ve never really felt that I worked for anyone else but myself. I’ve worked in the academic sphere, but in postdoctoral research, you’re doing everything for yourself, not your boss.

The bottom line is that the vision of how you would like to build your career should be aligned with the company’s vision.

My vision coincides with what we have tried to communicate in the past at Icosagen – to create a pharmaceutical development, manufacturing, and commercialisation company in Estonia.

So we could achieve this phase, where hospitals are administering medicines that have been developed and manufactured in Icosagen.

Therefore, working from eight to five could have a greater purpose, which could better translate into people’s well-being.

A touch of Icosagen on the CSO’s office door.

We all have the opportunity to contribute, daily.

A very large proportion of in-house developed, produced, purified, and analysed molecules have already advanced to clinical trials. In other words, our people have already contributed to the creation of such medicines. Their fingerprints are literally on them. 

However, the ambition to go further is bigger.

“I don’t know how working in a family business affects me. In fact, I’ve never really felt that I worked for anyone else but myself.”

Duties in the Position of a Scientific Director

A significant part focuses on the R&D department and the activities related to the creation of new therapeutic molecules. Together with the entire team we search for potential targets for specific diseases and then develop antibodies to target them.

At the same time, we implement new technologies for therapeutic and diagnostic antibody developments. The molecules that we develop are also necessary for our clients.

By identifying the bottlenecks in the development, we can improve and enhance the services we’re providing.

We have already witnessed the benefits of developing our own therapeutics.

Business Development – A New Direction

Since the start of 2023, I’ve taken on an additional interim role in business development. Actually, it’s not even an addition, but rather an expansion, as many of us are involved in it to some extent.

Business development includes communication with clients, marketing, quality assurance and conducting audits. Accordingly, the responsibility has been extended to me to coordinate the overall activities of a significant number of people.

We’ve made several changes and additions to the business development team this year. Previously, people had to take on many more responsibilities, but it also provided them with additional chances for career and personal growth.

In the grand scheme of things, I believe it’s a positive development because changes often bring benefits.

A Third of the Year Spent Soaring Through the Skies

One of the most challenging aspects of work is being away from my family and home for extended periods of time. It’s difficult to be separated from my children who are young and go to school, while I find myself spending most of my weeks and weekends at airports.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s nothing like a laid-back vacation.

Instead, it involves going directly from hotels to planes to conferences, engaging in various activities from early morning until late evening. This takes a mental and physical toll.

“In the grand scheme of things, I believe it’s a positive development because changes often bring benefits.”

In Good Company

The best part about working at Icosagen is that the people are professionals and implementing innovation comes with ease.

On the other hand, constantly updating and upgrading is difficult and stressful. But it’s also inevitable in the biotechnology field. We have to be in constant motion to stay competitive. We can’t stay on the same path forever. That means monitoring changes elsewhere to stay on top of our game.

The Icosagen team at the ADML 2023

Recharging your Batteries

Currently, the best place to relax is in the countryside. The perfect way to unwind is knowing that you can go there straight from the airport, and into the sauna. Engaging in gardening and enjoying the rural atmosphere further contributes to this sense of relaxation.

As a result of my limited leisure time due to work and travel, I prioritise spending each free moment with my family.

However, if possible, I enjoy winter skiing and tennis the most.

I think such places and activities are essential for everyone to sometimes switch off from everything.

“We have to be in constant motion to stay competitive. We can’t stay on the same path forever. That means monitoring changes elsewhere to stay on top of our game.”

Mart Ustav Jr. is a great example of how quickly one’s life can change.

However, sometimes the best remedy to combat that is by slowing down and taking a deep breath.

With a focused mind and a set vision, the curves that life throws at you may still be unpredictable, but not overcomeable.

The biotechnology field is rapidly evolving but it’s important to remember: We’re only human.

Written by LISETT LIBLEKAS, MARI ANN VILT | Life at Icosagen

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