On Wednesday 10 March Siv Anderson, professor in Molecular Evolution at Uppsala University and Co-Director of Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab), met with the board of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (KAW) to talk about the coronavirus and the types of threats it would pose to Sweden and the world. The risk of general spread of infection in Sweden was considered to be moderate. But the board members of Sweden’s largest private source of research funding wanted to form their own opinion and see what KAW could do.
After Andersson had finished speaking it was clear to the board that the pandemic was something it needed to monitor carefully and probably be prepared to act quickly on if necessary.
On Sunday 22 March a press release landed on all the countries’ news desks. The heading was “The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation to immediately provide
SEK 50 million in funding for coronavirus testing”. The money would go to the academic labs at SciLifeLab, Karolinska Institutet (KI) and Uppsala University to help the healthcare system scale up testing.
On 20 May KAW and SciLifeLab issued another press release saying that they were jointly launching a national Covid-19 research programme. A total of 67 research projects focusing on everything from virus diagnostics and serology, to biomarkers and computer models would share an additional SEK 50 million from KAW.
In just over two months the country’s oldest and most stable research funding actor had restructured itself to become an agile organisation providing emergency research support. KAW invested SEK 130 million in the spring to fight the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning of October the Foundation granted an additional SEK 50 million to continue Covid-19 related research at SciLifeLab. The total amount invested was SEK 180 million.
“We have the privilege of working with extremely competent individuals in whom we have great confidence. This is a typical example of that. Siv Andersson, Mathias Uhlén and Lars Engstrand and the people in their teams quickly identified what we could do to help. We have the financial resources and can make fast decisions”, says Wallenberg, who serves as Vice Chair of KAW.
Have you seen any results yet?
“Both yes and no. Perhaps I’m not the right person to ask about that. But our funding has been one of the contributing factors to what Sweden is trying to achieve in its efforts to combat the coronavirus. We will certainly continue to focus on the areas of disease control, immunology and infectious diseases. The coronavirus has brought new dimensions to the area”, he says.
The Wallenberg family has a long tradition of funding research and education through the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. The Foundation was formed in 1917 and to date has allocated around SEK 36 billion. In recent years the grants distributed by the Wallenberg Foundations have totalled around SEK 2.5 billion a year for research and education at Swedish universities.
“During the years that I’ve been on the board – which is quite a few – we’ve gone from primarily finding labs and buildings to increasingly supporting various projects. These days we invest in large projects, such as WASP (Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program) and we also support excellent individuals, allowing them to take a longer term approach in their research. We can provide the type of help so that researchers don’t need to constantly apply for research grants. You could say that the Foundation’s work has evolved”.
WASP was launched in 2015. It has been called Sweden’s single largest research investment and the goal is to raise Sweden up to a leading position in the area. The Foundation is investing SEK 4.2 billion up to 2029. Combined with funding from participating universities and Swedish industrial enterprises, the total amount being invested is SEK 5.5 billion.
The goal for the programme is to have at least 60 new research teams and to recruit more than 400 doctoral candidates, 100 of whom are to be industrial doctoral candidates (i.e. employed by a company while pursuing their PhD) to build a leading international environment in autonomous systems, software and AI.
Why are you making this investment?
“We identified a need to increase knowledge and expertise in these particular areas and to prevent Sweden from falling behind in development. Society will be increasingly impacted by digitalisation and digital systems. And we must be at the forefront to understand how it impacts us. It’s impacting Swedish industry and our entire society. Unfortunately, others have overtaken us in certain areas. Look at the development of 5G for example. 5G will be essential in order to use autonomous systems and in many industries in the future. Europe has fallen behind in development. The Government and the scientific and business communities need to walk hand in hand if we as a society are to keep up”.
Wallenberg believes that we need to be innovative to be at the forefront of technology development.
“Especially right now when the step from basic research to applied research is getting shorter and shorter for numerous reasons, including the fact that increased calculation capacity has reduced the timeframe”, he says.
Just a few days after this interview, at the beginning of October, KAW announced that the Foundation was donating SEK 300 million to Linköping University and the National Supercomputer Centre (NSC) to build Sweden’s fastest supercomputer for machine learning and AI. It is a computer smart enough to be dubbed BerzeLiUs after the Swedish scientist Jacob Berzelius from Östergötland.
Marcus Wallenberg is passionate about research and entrepreneurship. He is Chair of SEB, and the Wallenberg family has a long history of working with entrepreneurs. He reminds us that the “old bank” Stockholms Enskilda Bank and its logo had the motto that translates to “In the service of enterprise”.
“We cannot forget that Sweden’s big corporations were launched many years ago. Too few enterprises in Sweden have grown into big corporations in recent decades. If we’re to create new jobs, prosperity and export income, we need to create new enterprises. Entrepreneurs drive much of the economic growth and employ people. Entrepreneurs are important for Sweden”.
Wallenberg also points out Sweden’s dependence on innovation.
“Entrepreneurs don’t just drive the economy, they also drive technical development and create entirely new business models and methods. This is something that Sweden has excelled in over time. We need to take care of research and technical development, and this cannot just be a task for big corporations. It needs to happen through new enterprise as well and here lies a big part of Sweden’s challenge”, he says.
His personal engagement is channelled through the bank financing entrepreneurs with good ideas, or through the bank’s funds that support entrepreneurs. But entrepreneurial power is also about something else, according to Wallenberg.
“We need to see them; we need to support them. The Prince Daniel’s Fellowship project has, for example, been an important investment. Its initiatives and mentors are helping entrepreneurs in various ways to build their businesses. It’s not possible for them to do everything on their own – sometimes they need help with the composition of a board for example. But it’s not just about creating a company around an idea and following a passion. It’s important to understand that these individuals are taking a risk, including a financial risk. So we need to make sure that there are incentives and the right conditions for success”.
Prince Daniel’s Fellowship was launched in January 2013. Marcus Wallenberg has been involved in this IVA project for a number of years and serves as Chair of the Steering Committee.
Where does your own personal drive come from?
“Much of it comes from the fact that I, like those in past generations of my family, am a bit of a technology freak. It comes from our commitment to research. But it’s also about running businesses and development them. I’ve had the good fortune to work for big corporations as well as some smaller ones. And if there’s an opportunity to help projects like Prince Daniel’s initiative or for IVA to invest in innovation, that’s something to really become involved in. It’s what keeps Sweden resilient”.
Education: BSc of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA.
Career: 1980–1982 at Citibank in New York and later Deutsche Bank, S G Warburg, Citicorp and SEB. Came to Investor in 1993, President and CEO 1999–2005, member of the board 2012 and Vice Chair since 2015. As a board member, Vice Chair and Chair he has been active on the boards of many big corporations, including Ericsson, AstraZeneca, Electrolux and Stora Enso, and served as Chair of the state-owned LKAB 2011–2014. Currently Chair of FAM, Patricia Industries, SAAP, SEB, Vice Chair of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and member of the board of AstraZeneca.
Distinctions: Honorary Doctorate, Stockholm School of Economics, 2001 and Chalmers University of Technology, 2018. Inducted as a fellow of IVA in 2001.
GREAT GOLD MEDAL
Dr. h.c. Marcus Wallenberg for his extraordinary contributions to Swedish industry, entrepreneurship, scientific development and Swedish innovation, integrated with his strong commitment to social issues. He has strategically driven the development of global relations and cooperation between universities and industry.
PHOTO: DANIEL ROOS