Dr. Björn Örvar is Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of BIOEFFECT. He has also held the position of CEO, as well as that of Director of Gene Technology. He received his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology from the University of British Columbia, and was a post-doctoral fellow at McGill University before returning to Iceland to co-found BIOEFFECT.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: In a town called Kópavogur, just south of Reykjavik. I went to school there, got my B.S. in biology at the University of Iceland, and taught general science for eight years at a comprehensive school.
Q: Were you always interested in science? What sparked your interest?
A: Ever since high school, I was interested in science, but always particularly fascinated with making something practical. I was inspired by my father, who was an entrepreneur, always thinking out of the box and starting businesses unlike anyone else. He trained as a watchmaker, but wasn’t happy in that profession, so he traveled to Europe, looking for importing opportunities, and he became an importer of Citroën cars, Canon cameras, and Breitling watches. Whenever he could, he took me traveling with him, sharing his love of new ideas. I remember when he took me to Paris to the Citroën factory, to see the Citroën SM assembled. My father had an innovative mind, and it inspired me: I wanted to do good science, but with practical applications.
Q: So that’s what sent you back to school?
A: I knew I needed good tools in my pocket to innovate, so after eight years of teaching, I decided to do my Ph.D. in plant molecular genetics at the University of British Columbia. I got a grant and focused on how plants respond to stress. I was lucky because the field of human and plant genetics was just starting to open up: it was a perfect intersection of my interests and the science at the time. Timing is so important!
Q: Wow, plant stress. It makes sense, but I’ve never thought about it before.
A: It’s fascinating because plants can’t get up and walk away when they’re stressed by drought, harsh weather, or pollution. Later, at McGill University, I did research on how plants sense cold and prepare for winter. I used transgenic plants in my research, cloning certain stress genes and reintroducing them into another plant. I was trying to dissect the cold signaling mechanism. This was very hard because experiments don’t work out and you have to keep doing them over and over. You have to be so persistent. It was a hard job and what I learned, I used later in the lab.
"Human genetics and human cell biology are much better known than plant cell biology, so it’s a huge resource—if you know where to look."
Q: What is it that fascinates you about plants?
A: There are so many similarities between human and plant cells—genes, composition of cell membrane. You can look at genes in human cells and then compare, looking for the same things in plant cells. I ended up reading more about human genetics than plant genetics! Human genetics and human cell biology are much better known than plant cell biology, so it’s a huge resource—if you know where to look. You must ask if there are similar mechanisms in both and then look for them. Plants can’t escape difficult conditions, so what the plant does in response is produce all kinds of chemicals to survive. Plant chemistry is far more complicated than human chemistry: they have an extra group of pathways that can produce all sorts of chemicals that we can’t, like fragrances, nicotine, or opium.
Q: Given the complexity of plant chemistry, what is it about barley, the plant in which BIOEFFECT EGF is grown, that is so important?
A: Barley is a closed biological system: it’s self-fertilizing, meaning its pollen will not pollinate flowers on a different plant. This is extremely important for the business of molecular farming—it’s a contained system, you’re not spreading pollen with new genes to other plants. We can grow twenty-five different kinds of growth factors in barley plants, side by side in the greenhouse, without ever worrying about cross-breeding.