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Karin Lykke-Hartmann is a molecular biologist

Passion and purpose sparked health innovation
Karin Lykke-Hartmann is molecular biologist Aarhus University. Photo: Niels Åge Skovbo

Karin Lykke-Hartmann is a molecular biologist and has for many years worked intensely on a new drug for fertility treatment of women. It has been challenging to take the big step from the research world to the business world.


The 48-year-old molecular biologist spends many hours a day trying to launch her idea and take it from the lab to a health innovation product – a drug that may potentially revolutionise fertility treatment of women in Denmark and abroad.

New world opened at Yale

Karin Lykke-Hartmann has worked as an associate professor at Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University since 2008. Ten years before, she started her research career after finishing her master’s degree at University of Copenhagen and completing her PhD at the prestigious Yale University in the United States in 1998.

-At Yale I was introduced to a whole new world of embryology and reproductive medicine, and I was completely fascinated, Karin Lykke-Hartmann remembers.

During her stay at Yale, she was introduced to a research group from the famous Cambridge University in England. Together they did some research in single-cells and fertility, which brought her to Cambridge University in 2002. She brought her knowledge back to Aarhus University.

- Being employed as an associate professor involves primarily research and being a part of a teaching team to ensure research-based teaching at the university. It is not a regular nine to five job. You only get this kind of position if you signal from the start that you want to discover something new. You never know if you discover something innovative, but you must be visionary in your research and determined to keep on trying, says Karin Lykke-Hartmann.

Health innovation in the laboratory at Aarhus University. Photo: Niels Åge Skovby

Testing on pigs

Karin Lykke-Hartmann and her collaborators have come a long way and they are soon ready to test a drug on pigs.

The drug is injected into the ovaries to improve the production of eggs. In future, the target group will be women who do not produce enough eggs or produce eggs of poor quality, which makes it difficult for them to get pregnant.

- We have shown that the product works in mouse models and patient tissue. We now take it a step further and plan to test the drug on pigs before we can hopefully use the drug in humans in the future. Later, we also need to make toxicity tests and ensure the drug does not cause development of cancer, says Karin Lykke-Hartmann.

Today, there is only one treatment for ovary insufficiency. These women are treated with hormones, but statistically only a few women will succeed in having a child.

Age plays a role and if you have certain diseases, you do not tolerate the hormone treatment. Approximately 20-30% of the women tolerating this hormone treatment will get pregnant.

- Maybe your chance of getting pregnant is 40% if you are very young. We expect that our drug can repair some of the ovarian dysfunctions and enable production of eggs in a population where this is not possible at the moment, says Karin Lykke-Hartmann.

If we stick to the plan, the drug can be in production in four or five years although there are still many unanswered questions.

Karin Lykke-Hartmann owns the patent rights for the new drug together with two colleagues from Aarhus University.

Hormone treatment of infertile couples is not very successful. Maybe Karin Lykke-Hartmann’s new drug can change this. Photo: Niels Åge Skovbo

From research to business

The road from being a researcher to becoming a health innovator has been long and paved with barriers. Karin Lykke-Hartmann has experienced times when things were challenging.

- Today, I think working with health innovation is great fun. You really need to have a strong urge to do this because it is very different from doing basic research. You depend on funding and private companies, and they demand other things. Business models and budgets play a huge role, and this is far from what I am used to as a researcher. I have had plenty of rejections because I was not on top of the business-related issues, says Karin Lykke-Hartmann.

She has now teamed up with a business developer.

- I was beginning to understand the game and I then applied for funding. I do not have a recipe on what to do as a researcher when stepping into this unknown territory. If you get a rejection, you must be willing to change the way you think. You have to get back in the saddle. It is learning by doing, says Karin Lykke-Hartmann.

How did you feel when you got the green light to proceed with your idea?

- I was really excited. It is very satisfying because I have put so many hours into this. It is my choice, and I am happy with my choice - otherwise I could have chosen differently.

Karin Lykke-Hartmann has experienced that the road from research to business can be long and paved with barriers. Photo: Niels Åge Skovbo

Clicked immediately with fertility doctor

Karin Lykke-Hartmann is very conscious that she is a part of a large health innovation eco system in Central Denmark Region. To succeed in health innovation, you need to collaborate with other professions.

- You have to reach out to other professions and acknowledge their contributions. We depend on each other to succeed. If you do not understand the importance of this symbiosis, you will never be successful with your projects. Those who understand that they are a part of a larger eco system, and they depend on the competencies of others will succeed, says Karin Lykke-Hartmann.

- In my current project we needed patient tissue to test the drug. I contacted a fertility doctor at Aarhus University Hospital with access to a lot of tissue but no one to collaborate with. It was a perfect alliance, and this collaboration has resulted in quite a number of patents.

Overall, the eco system is an important driver in health innovation.

- Health innovation is very important for society. We will never be better at treating diseases if we do not develop new things in the eco system. We have an obligation to be innovative. But we need more money for research to improve the eco system. The problem is that we spend a huge amount of time applying for money - and without the money, we will never be able to take full advantage of the health innovation eco system.

Update August 2023: Karin Lykke and her research collegues from Dept. of Biomedicine have recieved the Distinguished Innovator Grant of DKK 6 mio from The Novo Nordisk Foundation. The grant provides long-term funding to established and entrepreneurial Nordic researchers and extends over three years. Part of the project will be carried out in collaboration with Professor Thomas Poulsen from the Department of Chemistry at Aarhus University.