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Meet our new Executive Director, Niklas Blomberg

Niklas Blomberg, our new Executive Director, shares his story with us.

18 January 2024
Niklas Blomberg, new Executive Director of IHI.
Niklas Blomberg, new Executive Director of IHI.

Hello Niklas! Were delighted to welcome you on board IHI. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – what country are you from, what did you study and where were you working up until now?
Hi, it’s great to join and thank you for the warm welcome. I’m from Sweden, and I studied in Sweden. I did my PhD in Germany at the EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, where I focused on methods to examine the structures of proteins, including bioinformatics. After my PhD I went back to Sweden to work for AstraZeneca, where I led computational teams in early research. I was with AstraZeneca for almost fourteen years, from 1999 to 2013. One of the things I did there was set up a project under the first IMI programme – working with colleagues in other companies to develop a proposal for a call and then co-leading the project. In 2013 I had the opportunity to move to Cambridge to set up ELIXIR, which is the European research infrastructure for life-science data. Now I’ve arrived at IHI, so that circle is closed and I look forward to work closer with industry partners again!

You’ve worked on IMI projects in the past before. What was your first introduction to the IMI programme and your first impressions of how IMI worked?

I was involved in the IMI Open PHACTS project while at AstraZeneca, that was the start. At the time, around 2009/2010, a lot of data – both chemical and biological – was being released into the public domain. I was managing a computational science group in AstraZeneca and started talking to colleagues with similar jobs from other companies. We realised that we were all trying to make sense of the open data in the public domain, all doing the same work to standardise, integrate and link all of those databases. The idea of Open PHACTS was to work across companies – and with the academic data community – to package and access the data in a systematic way, a bit like how containers are stacked on a large ship.

The Open PHACTS project was quite successful, and it was a really interesting experience. I remember an early meeting with the industry colleagues – we had an exciting and wide-ranging discussion on what we could do collectively (pre-competitively) – to make it easier for us to access the data as an industry group. In the end we worked up a proposal for an idea to IMI, the idea was accepted, the call was launched, and we started that project in one of the first IMI rounds. 

Running the project was also a very good experience. In the beginning the industry and academic partners had different ideas regarding the research, so we had to navigate through those and find solutions to work together effectively. In the end we were all very happy with the outcome – the project launched a foundation to help sustainability and we learned a lot. That was my first flavour of IMI but before the project finished I moved to ELIXIR.

And at ELIXIR you worked on IMI projects from the academic side?

Yes, I've seen IMI from both sides, from the industry side and from the academic side. And now I'll see it from the inside, which I look forward to. On the academic side, with ELIXIR, we were involved in the FAIRplus project which was about trying to make data from IMI projects FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) so that it could be reused by other researchers. Another project we were involved in was eTRANSAFE where the idea was to do translational safety modelling by getting data from companies as well as the public domain and using that data to do estimates or risk assessments of drug safety. Both projects have gone really well – for instance FAIRplus has delivered solutions that have been adopted both by industry and the European Open Science Cloud, while in eTRANSAFE the science platform coming out of the project has been licensed for commercialisation by a company that is working with the academic partners to make a product.

Any particular memories you'd like to share about working on an IMI project?
One really interesting story came from eTRANSAFE. There’s a small UK-based start-up where for many years they have been helping companies to adopt CDISC standards for their data internally. Thanks to eTRANSAFE, the pharma companies now request that the data they receive, the animal data and safety or toxicology data, gets submitted in the right CDISC standard from the contract research organisations (CROs). This SME has gone from having a small number of clients in the big pharma companies to a much larger potential customer base because of all the CROs that now need to submit data in the right format. In a way the eTRANSAFE project helped to create a bigger market. I think this is a great example of how developing and adopting standards in a pre-competitive setting can help to make the European landscape more competitive.

What led you to decide to take on this role at IHI?

For me it was really the two major strands of my career coming together. In my early career I spent more than a decade in industry and pharmaceutical research. Then I moved into academia to set up and run a research infrastructure for connecting data across Europe and to work with the research community to enable exciting research projects. When the IHI role came up, it felt like those two things coming together: industry experience combined with public experience from a large international research infrastructure driving public-private-partnerships in the health space. And we know that data will be incredibly important for health research and the European health systems.

IHI has its roots in IMI, but IMI was an EU public-private partnership with the pharmaceutical sector alone whereas IHI involves a diverse range of health industries. What unique challenges do you think IHI will face since the scope has been broadened and how should those challenges be addressed?

There are a couple of interesting and important challenges going ahead. One is around data of course. With COCIR and MedTech Europe, we have the companies that produce most of the data in a hospital setting or in the healthcare settings in Europe involved. What we all want – industry partners but also society and patient organisations – is to better use all of the data that is being produced. This will increase treatment options and address unmet medical needs, as well as increasing the safety and the quality of healthcare – for instance, how can you look at the individual patient both from a medical and treatments perspective but also from a diagnostic and ongoing monitoring perspective. But, this is incredibly sensitive data on individuals’ health and wellbeing and I think that IHI, by bringing together not only researchers and industry but also patient organisations and national representatives, has an opportunity to build the trust that is needed to launch exciting research in this space.

Another area is the climate and the environment. Healthcare has a large environmental footprint – what are innovations that help to address the environmental footprint of healthcare? IHI projects can bring together all sectors to tackle the impact that the healthcare sector has on the environment and hopefully help create opportunities for both large and small companies to contribute to the green transition.

What are you most looking forward to in 2024?

What is important in 2024 is that we get the right ideas for IHI to work with both the private partners and the academic community to drive idea generation. That is really important and I'm looking forward to engaging in that space. As a funding programme you live and stand by the quality of your applicants and we need to have the right topics.

Whats one thing that not many people know about you that you would like to share?

I'm quite outdoorsy and I like outdoor sports. I'm looking forward to seeing what Belgium has to offer in terms of outdoor sports, biking and kayaking, those are my big hobbies. It’s a new country, it's a new environment, it's always exciting to explore.