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Marko Hyvönen announced as BBSRC Innovator of the Year finalist

last modified Apr 23, 2018 01:51 PM
Dr Marko Hyvönen has been announced as a finalist in the BBSRC Innovator of the Year competition.

The shortlisted finalists will now compete to be named Innovator of the Year 2018 in London on the 16th May. Dr Hyvönen will be competing in the Commercial Impact category with his innovations in growth factor production.

Dr Hyvönen said: “I am very grateful that our expertise in producing high quality proteins and efforts in supporting stem cell researchers are recognised by the BBSRC Innovator of the Year panel. The foundation of this work was laid during the BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship I was awarded in 2000, and with Qkine we hope to expand this work to benefit stem cell research and regenerative medicine worldwide.”

Studies of protein structure necessitate the target protein of interest being made in high quantities and in a highly pure form; requirements that often make structural biology research a difficult and lengthy process. As a structural biologist in our Department, Dr Hyvönen thus spent four years of his research developing a new, highly efficient method to obtain activin A, an exciting growth factor with many functions in the human body from the regulation of egg cell development to wound healing and inflammation, in the quality and quantity needed for a crystallographic study.

Activin A and other growth factors are complex proteins that are essential for stem cell research, as they give cells the carefully orchestrated messages needed to differentiate them into the specific cell types found in our bodies. Unfortunately for stem cell researchers, they are also some of the most expensive proteins on the market. Activin A produced in Dr Hyvönen’s laboratory was tested by stem cell researchers and was found to be as good, if not better, than commercial alternatives, and is less expensive to make. In 2008, he established a core facility for the provision of growth factors to the local stem cell community, a service that continues to date. This had a tremendously positive effect, with affordable access to key components in stem cell culturing and differentiation enabling world-class research on a scale that would otherwise be hard to achieve.

With the success of the core facility, the desire of Cambridge alumni across the globe to have continued access to the facility’s growth factors for experimental consistency, and the UK government’s heavy investment in the development of regenerative medicine infrastructure, Dr Hyvönen was inspired to exploit his expertise further. In collaboration with Dr Catherine Elton, and through discussions with key players in the field of regenerative medicine, it became clear that the market for high quality growth factors was far from saturated, and that there was a significant need for both a UK-based specialist supplier of these proteins and for innovation to tackle challenges in the industry. In particular, a need was identified for consistent growth factors for scaled-up cell cultures, in preparation for the therapeutic use of stem cells, with Dr Hyvönen securing a BBSRC Super Follow-on Fund grant to develop engineered growth factors for this purpose. In 2016, Dr Hyvönen and Dr Elton established Qkine Ltd (an embedded company within our Department), to supply growth factors to researchers worldwide, through funding from Cambridge Enterprise and local Angels. Qkine was awarded an Innovate UK grant for the development of engineered growth factors for organoid research in June 2017. The company has now produced its first batches of proteins and is selling to the opening wave of customers, bringing immediate disruptive and transformative solutions to the market.

Speaking about Dr Hyvönen’s work, Dr Iain Thomas (Head of Life Sciences at Cambridge Enterprise) commented that “Dr Hyvönen’s vision that the UK will benefit substantially from a commercial high-quality supply of growth factors is quite unique in its approach. His commitment for over a decade to delivering that strategic outcome and innovation is second to none.


The BBSRC Innovator of the Year competition is now in its 10th year of recognising and rewarding individuals and small teams who have harnessed the potential of their excellent research. It is designed to recognise the full breadth of impacts that BBSRC investments in research have; from creation of spinout companies to social enterprises, to working in collaboration with business and NGOs, to working with policy makers, both in the UK and abroad.


Dr Marko Hyvönen.

Credit: Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge


Rhys Grant

Publication Date

18 April 2018