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Shifting into Action

E. Jardin & C. Schoch

From automatics to bioinformatics, from research at the VTT technical research center to managing a spinoff, Catherine Bounsaythip is not one to get stuck in a rut.

Catherine Bounsaythip just came back to VTT after a year’s sabbatical during which she started a company: Zora Biosciences Oy, which develops biomarkers for early detection of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Despite appearances, Catherine is not a biologist. During her PhD studies in automatics, she worked on genetic algorithms. When she arrived at VTT, she joined a huge European research project with a 5 million euro budget to create automatic translation software. France Telecom R&D and the SNCF (French railroads) are part of the consortium.

In 2001, Catherine was a victim of the backlash when the Internet bubble burst: information technology projects dried up. She started working on tools applied to the biomedical field. Two years later, Dr. Matej Oresic, a specialist in metabolomics, was invited to VTT. He put together a bioinformatics team and was looking for computer scientists. Catherine was in the running. Two years went by and the lab put out its new software. The team competed for the VTT innovation prize (50,000 euros to start marketing the product), but the software was designed for specialist use, which narrowed the market. First prize eluded them. Not one to get discouraged, Catherine went back on the hunt for funding. She landed a 40,000 euro subsidy from Tekes and Sitra to conduct a market study. Not able to count on outside consultants, Catherine rolled up her sleeves, spent her evenings drafting a business plan, while combining her functions as a researcher and managing director of Zora. "Doing business in Finland is not easy," she notes, "because the market is very narrow. But for research and innovation, it's great. You have time to think and dream and be really creative."

Off the ground

The spinoff is now off the ground thanks to financial support from VTT Ventures and a Slovenian investor who was interested even before the company was officially created. It has five full-time employees and is involved in three European projects. Catherine has gone back to VTT. What's next?

Catherine Bounsaythip,
1998: PhD, then postdoc at VTT Informatics
2003: Senior researcher at VTT Biotechnology
2006: CEO of Zora
2007: sabbatical from VTT and chief of operations for Zora
2008: back to VTT