As part of the CALIPER project, we are conducting a series of interviews with inspirational women who work in STEM research and innovation. We explore what motivated them to choose their career, their experiences and the barriers that they faced.
About Özgen Özer
Prof. Dr. Kevser Özgen Özer combines a successful career as both an academic and an entrepreneur. She acts as a researcher and lecturer at Ege University and has published more than 60 papers.
Özgen has a fascinating background as an academic researcher who successfully transferred the results of her own scientific research to market, leading an all-female team that patented and brought to market Dermalix, a wound healing skincare product. In her interview she discusses combining entrepreneurship with her academic role, stepping out of her comfort zone, and how she motivates the next generation of STEM scientists.
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Can you tell us about your background?
I graduated from the Ege University Faculty of Pharmacy. After graduation, I stayed at the faculty, majoring in Pharmaceutical Technologies. Pharmaceutical technology is a branch of science that examines every stage of drug production as well as cosmetic production, from production to market. I have been deeply interested in it since I was a student. I was really into this area of science because it was tangible, it teaches you how to create a drug and bring it into the market and I stayed there.
Were there specific people or events in your life that influenced and inspired you to take up this route?
I chose pharmacy because I wanted to be in the field of healthcare. So, my goal is that you either become a pharmacist, work in the industry, work at a hospital or become an academician. You know, for me, the more industrial and academic part was always more interesting. Many people from the industry gave us presentations during my university years, which probably had a big influence on me. I was influenced by some of my professors as an academician too. I aimed to create a life between academia and industry during my education.
What were the turning points in your career?
When I was an assistant professor, I went to France as a post-doc at the University of Paris-Sud. My professor there, Prof. Dr. Monique Sellier, she and what I saw there were my role models. Because I saw a model where the industry and the academia cooperate, the industry had a place in the academia and they created a product together in that laboratory. That was a very important change of perspective in my career. Changed my outlook on life as well.
In other words, my professor really improved me a lot as a person too, not only academically. People like me need an objective. So, I said, okay I will work with the youth, I will pave new ways for them. Then I established my company, we developed our product and saw it in the market, etc and many more events like these influenced my career.
On top of your academic identity, you have successfully introduced a highly important wound healing product to the market. Can you tell us about this process, from the birth of the idea to reaching the market?
So here’s how it started: I brought together the things I’d heard from my lectures, convention, etc., and talked to my dear team about developing my idea. Here, I want to mention their names: Prof. Dr. Evren Homan Gökçe, Prof. Dr. İpek Eroğlu, and Assoc. Dr. Sakine Tuncay Tanrıverdi. We all sat down together and added new things until we developed the project of the product. But we were not yet aware that it would be an actual product, it was only an academic product for us.
Then, we started applying for patents with EBILTEM Technology Transfer Office at Ege University. Then we decided to look for investors as neither we nor the university can pay off the patent fees because we wanted a European patent, not a Turkish one. I made numerous presentations to various investors in Istanbul. Then we participated in the Turkey Innovation Week in 2015 within the WAVE Innovation Exhibition of TİMTEB. TİMTEB mentored us and showed great support at every stage. With the contribution of TİMTEB, we were chosen as one of the three projects for the WAVE Innovation Exhibition. That was an entirely different environment for us, everything we saw there made us incredibly happy and excited. That’s when investors started to come and we started to learn about this business.
We’ve received mentoring, learned about business models, canvas business models, sales, how to earn back what you gave, etc., and received various investments. Then we developed it, so we got new investments too. We started production, partly because we saw that we needed to have a company to commercialize our product. Our company was established with a 1512 TUBITAK BIGG project. Therefore, in all the presentations we joined, we received offers from both angel investors and investors funded by the European Union. We even broke off an engagement -as we call it between us- because we were almost at the final step when we decided to break it off because we could not understand them. We broke off with some angel investors as well. So, we were infamous for being unable to put the final signature since we are academicians and find it hard to trust others. Then we decided to follow the path we know of as pharmacists: Pharmaceutical companies. So, we wanted to continue with them. Because we understood each other. The problem was not just money, it was also about finding the right people and the right environment for your product.
So, we started negotiations with Abdi Ibrahim Pharmaceutical company. We signed a development and purchasing contract with them in 2017, March. Their CEO Süha bey said that this was their first time signing a contract with a company in three months just based on trust without seeing the product once. Thanks to their trust and belief in us, we continued with them. Because why? Because we absolutely had to get this budget. Firstly, for our clinical trials, and second for regulations. Because the medical device we needed was class 3, which means we needed to prepare a research or a file at the highest level. Teams came from abroad to examine both us and Abdi Ibrahim Pharmaceutical for regulations for this. That’s because we don’t have authorized institutions in Turkey to give the approval needed for class 3 devices. So, the foreign team stayed here for a week and examined both Abdi Ibrahim Pharmaceutical and our production site in Ankara. They asked us and Abdi Ibrahim a wide variety of questions. In other words, the regulation stage was not easy at all.
Around the end of 2018-2019, we asked for a CE certificate for medical devices. We were finally able to get the device in near 2020. We were just about to hit the market when the pandemic broke out. Abdi Ibrahim Pharmaceutical is a company that works with physicians. But the pandemic prevented that. They couldn’t join medical conventions either. So, unfortunately, our product waited out the pandemic. In May 2021, the pandemic was over but we had to have an online launch because we couldn’t gather large crowds. That’s how we hit the markets, we’re still on the market now. So, the story of our Dermalix wound cover continues on the market. Why did we make such a wound cover? Because our actual goal is to cure people’s problems. Our clinical trial is called “Derman” (Cure). We had our clinical research at the Department of Endocrinology at Ege University for two years, we’re happy if we were able to help patients out. According to the reports, Dermalix is getting good feedback. I wish to see it in higher positions too, but there’s still so much to do.
As you mentioned earlier, you lead a team of women. You work with women. Was this a conscious choice and what advantages this provided?
It was really not a conscious choice. Let’s call it a natural choice because, among the fourteen members in our department, only two were men. So, in our department, there is a reverse gender dominance. So, I’ve seen a lot of positives, I’ve always seen positive outcomes of this. For one thing, the fact that all three of us are women and academics has always made us very strong, we understand each other very well. Marching in unison for the same purpose. The first goal was not money, of course, it shouldn’t be. The fact that we love and support each other so much, that’s a big success. So we saw really positive outcomes.
When we met the first investors in 2014-15 and attended our first investor meetings everyone was in black suits, we were the only ones in skirts. In fact, we were not negatively affected by this. Because all entrepreneurs were men. Our investor audience was men, and we were women. The number of women gradually increased later, in 2016-17 you know, and this continued. I saw there was a positive approach to women in entrepreneurship in Turkey. You can see support for “women entrepreneurs” in various places, why not “men entrepreneurs”? Because the ecosystem is for increasing the number of women entrepreneurs. But I hope that not all women entrepreneurs will sell food like pickles and jam. Because so far it had been revolving around food and agricultural business. I would love to see them in fields like engineering and health like us.
Apart from your researcher and entrepreneur sides, you are also a lecturer. Do you give any specific advice to women in your class that you can share with us?
I don’t really separate students by gender. I don’t separate this youth, I see the future in girls and boys. I see them as young people in general. And I am really happy with what I see in my faculty. So looking at the future, I’m learning a lot from them too. Because they want to do brand-new and different projects. For example, I never knew about 3D technology before a student came to me. They insisted on working with 3D tech, despite me saying I didn’t know anything about it. And I’m their Ph.D. supervisor. So, I learned from them, and we carried out the thesis together.
Now for the first time in Turkey, we are the authors of one of the most cited articles as the people who print a medication-loaded patch. Many young people can go great miles when they are given the opportunity and the path. The youth I see is very smart in science, hardworking and enthusiastic for the future. I advise all of them to never lose their motivation. Look how old I am, I’ve been talking about this for ten years, and I still have the same excitement. The point is, I just never seem to lose my enthusiasm. Motivation is extremely important. Never lose it. You can’t lose hope and hop from project to project. Don’t leave projects halfway. I don’t accept no as an answer. If I’m right, I’ll go all the way. You have to take risks. You can be successful if you step out of your comfort zone and step into risky environments. You can’t become successful by sitting on in a place where you’re happy.
If you want to succeed, step out of your comfort zone. Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t. But don’t despair against failure. If you believe in yourself, don’t lose your motivation. I say these things all the time. That’s how I’m trying to guide my students. I hope that I have been able to be a good example to young people without separating women and men – or let’s say more to women. But I’d like to emphasize that they should not give up, they should try and definitely see the results.
To find out more, please visit the CALIPER Project website.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 873134
11 April 2023. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk
As part of the CALIPER project, we are conducting a series of interviews with inspirational role models who work in STEM research and innovation. We explore what motivated them to choose their career, their experiences and the barriers that they faced.
About the CALIPER project
The CALIPER project’s goal is to make research organisations more gender equal by increasing the number of female researchers in STEM, improving their careers prospects and integrating a gender dimension in research. The project supports nine research organisations, predominantly in Southern and Eastern Europe, to establish Gender Equality Plans. Here are some key facts about the CALIPER project. Find out more about the project’s progress.
AE Cardiff’s role in CALIPER
The Cardiff Hub is leading on communications across Europe and encouraging wider engagement with the project, producing digital content and organising events.