Mike de Leeuw received his Masters degree in Molecular Biology in University of Leiden. Having worked in famous MNCs like Unilever, Shell, and DSM, Mike finally established himself as a start-up founder. In 2007, he created Branching Tree, a start-up company specializing on the targeted delivery and controlled release of different drugs. Branching Tree was the starting point for some other of his initiatives, among them are InGell Labs BV (2010-2017), Beta Cell (2012-2015) Hy2Care BV (2017-2019), and OncoLize (2017-present). These companies specialize in localized and sustained drug delivery to treat cancer, diabetes, and CNS disorders. Mike de Leeuw has a strong track of turning around large corporations at a critical stage, but also as a founder of several successful start-up companies. In 2020, Mike joined MyLife Technologies BV as a part-time CEO and helped them start a new chapter in their history. Their work focuses on intradermal delivery of vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs. MyLife Technologies develops nano-porous microneedle arrays (npMNAs), which allow for a pain-free vaccine delivery to one of the most immunologically active regions of human body. Next to MyLife Technologies, Mike dedicates himself to getting the funding and worldwide partnerships for his biggest passion – OncoLize.
1. What sparked your interest in science in general and drug delivery/nanomedicine in particular?
Initially, primary school in the US sparked my interest in dinosaurs and space-travel.
Middle school in the Netherlands offered me the focus on sciences. My teachers were very stimulative, but the drive came from inside of me. Biology was my natural choice, while I enjoyed chemistry, physics and history as well. And, of course, I was a part of the theatre group and way into our music classes (Frank Zappa versus Beatles, Edward Grieg). After turning around a DSM Polymer JV in China for 6 years, I was starting up a new business unit for DSM (combining the expertise in polymers with new applications in healthcare) when I came across a company that developed controlled release using polymers (AP Pharma, now Heron Therapeutics). I proposed to buy the ailing company, but the Board of DSM wasn’t ready yet as we had just started. The stock price of Heron says it all. After being turned down, I decided to do it myself.
So that is why and when I started up Branching Tree (2008), which later became InGell Labs (2010). I am still a shareholder, but not managing there anymore. I split off to start up OncoLize (2017) to develop our own products focused on cheap Chemo for intra-tumoral drug delivery. This required again my investment in time and money.
At the same time, to earn money for our livelihood, I have been part-time CEO for several start-up companies and turn-arounds in vaccine and drug delivery, cell-based therapy and biomarkers. Very stimulating and interesting, but can also get distracting or dilutive from time to time.
2. Did you experience a significant turning point or defining moment during your career?
Yep, to take a ‘gap-year’ between Unilever and Shell, travelling through Indonesia and New Guinea. This idea was inspired by one of the board members of Unilever: don’t compromise on your dreams; reconcile, don’t compromise.
Also, our decision to work and live for 6 years in China. My wife was confident we would thrive, and I trusted her judgement. Greatest personal development time, my biggest entrepreneurial learning curve, changing a bankrupt company into a highly successful corner-stone of growth in China, rising out of the ashes.
Our decision to start-up our own company to follow our dreams and, again, my wife and my children to support that ‘leap of faith’.
3. According to you, what are the most exciting developments in your research field?
I am not a scientist, I try to apply practical solutions and make it
“Triple A: Affordable and Accessible to All”. There is so much to be improved or repurposed or re-formulated instead of yet another magic bullet that misses its mark and/or is way too expensive for many societies around the globe…
In my opinion, discovery is great, but delivery is equally important. Right now, developments in therapeutic vaccines are quite interesting to me.
4. What is the best piece of professional advice you have received and from whom?
I received a lot of guidance from my father and my wife, but also from the senior managers I worked with. I was told to have an open mind for external ideas. I also got a lot of help and advice from Dr. Jorge Heller, Prof. Jan Feijen and Prof. Wim Hennink. It was a big honor to work with them. Recently I started collaborating with prof Helena Kelly from RCSI in Ireland; way cool!
That being said, the scientists and technicians I worked with all these years have been essential in getting where we are today. Two of the most important inventions and patents I am part of feature two experienced technicians as first authors; they did the actual invention; I recognized the potential to patent.
5. Would you change anything about your career path if you could start over?
Starting and early career at a big MNC is great to learn a lot in short time, but it is all based on very sound principles and structures that evolved on efficiency and gradual improvements or acquisitions. Structures and principles which you will not have access to as you start-up highly innovative ideas /technology / products.
I am happy to have learnt so much with well-structured companies. However, I could have started earlier on my entrepreneurial track. I started at age 46. Looking back I gathered enough experience by the time I was 38.
It takes several years (3-5) to switch from comfortable corporate life to the true, boot-strapped pioneering and entrepreneurial style. Never start-up by yourself, always have ‘partners in crime’ with you. That means they have ‘skin in the game’, like you.
6. What advice would you give to someone who is starting their scientific career?
Before you start your own company, start in a well-organized setting, like a scale-up company or MNC. Alternatively, if you do a PhD, select a position where a few PhD’s already paved the way, so that you can accelerate soon instead of having to find out the basics and what doesn’t work for the first 2-3 years. Make sure the technicians and the more experienced experts are on-board and please listen to their opinion before you decide on next steps.
7. How do you manage a healthy balance between work and personal life?
My family supports me. I enjoy making music and sports regularly. I never work more than 45-50 hours per week on average, but I allow for bursts of energy and inspiration when they come. And sometimes I am just not available…
8. What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab? What are your hobbies/interests?
My passion is to make and play modern music. I also enjoy snowboarding, pedal biking, and gymnastics.
9. Why would you advise scientists to become CRS and Local Chapter members and what are the membership’s benefits?
Should do this anytime. Firstly, you expand your network and participate in interesting discussions. Knowledgeable and experienced people around you in CRS can give you inspiration and provide more insight into your problems. I think these are the main reasons for joining the Local Chapter.