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Making science relevant

Interview with Carl-Johan Sundberg

“I would like SSES to contribute to the development of teachers’ mindsets, to teach teachers”

Dr. Carl Johan Sundberg is the SSES Centre Director at Karolinska Institutet, a Professor of Physiology and chair of the Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics at KI. He is the Basic Science Editor at Läkartidningen, the Journal of the Swedish Medical Association, former President of the Swedish Society of Sports Medicine and Treasurer of Euroscience, a pan-European non-profit organization promoting science and technology. Carl Johan also serves on the board of biotech startup and health service companies.

Name: Carl-Johan Sundberg
Title: a Professor of Physiology and chair of the Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics at KI.

Tell us about your journey with SSES
I was part of SSES from the very beginning and have since been Karolinska’s Center Director, developed courses and also been the interim CEO at SSES.

Where does your interest in entrepreneurship come from?
Already as a student at university, I ran companies with class mates and since then I have worked within venture capital in life science and served on life science company boards. Looking back, I’ve always had an interest in utilizing academic knowledge, that has been one of my driving forces during my career.

How is entrepreneurship viewed at KI?
Many are engaged, especially the researchers and KI is a very research-heavy university. We have Sweden’s largest research community with 700 research groups and 2000 doctoral students. However, among our students, entrepreneurship is mostly found among those who set up their own practice such as physiotherapists and dentists. In 2008, we started the master’s program in bioentrepreneurship, which is aimed at the industry so basically everyone runs their own company or goes into startups. But still, that’s a very small part of KI.

Why do you think entrepreneurship is important in society?
I think it’s absolutely crucial because entrepreneurship is about problem solving, getting things done and taking leaps of faith. What would society look like in its absence?

Can anyone become an entrepreneur?
No, just as with all professions, one has to have an aptitude for it, but I think everyone can become more entrepreneurial. We are all influenced by our environment, the expectations placed on us and what the surrounding culture confirms and encourages. Through SSES we are able to show young people what’s possible and give them the tools to deal with adversity and risk in a safe space. Life can be hard, and we have to acknowledge that failure is more common than success, but one can always learn something new along the way.

Do you think universities are good at teaching students how to fail well?
No. After all, most universities have been focused on the scholastic tradition, teaching people to think and to know. Failure comes about through working practically with something, and in health care we are taught not to fail. I think there is a big difference today compared to when SSES started, but as a country, we still lag behind in our ability to fail well. My hope is that we could move away from the innovative image the world has of Sweden to actually start putting innovation into practice.

How could SSES help in this shift?
I think we should increase our scope beyond Stockholm and include a larger part of society in our activities. Our courses are crucial, that students from different disciplines meet, but I would like us to also bring together the research community and welcome more of society into the projects. Imagine if you were to take major societal challenges like the aging population, or climate change and bring together students from different disciplines to collaborate on such projects over the course of a semester. And why not include challenges from the private sector, making SSES into a platform and playground for new innovative, boundary-crossing solutions to occur? I believe student participation is indispensable in projects that need innovation and I’m a true believer in reality-based education.

Do you think SSES is more suitable to do this than the universities?
Yes, in many ways SSES is faster, more dynamic and free from the bureaucratic obstacles that characterize academia. SSES can play a big role in leading forward-thinking projects in new ways and getting the universities to work together. The complex challenges we face require so many different skills. We need deep knowledge in medicine but also, business thinking, technological knowledge, law, design thinking and the humanities. This is what makes SSES so unique, that we are able to bring together these various abilities in project-based learning.

What are your best memories with SSES?
It’s the enthusiasm and excitement that surrounded the startup years, when the universities struggled to find ways to cooperate. Also, starting the course “science-based companies” which later became “from science to business” together with Anna Nilsson Vindefjärd was a lot of fun. Seeing how diverse students would meet and slowly come to realize their unique contribution, meanwhile building respect for each other’s competences, has been truly amazing.

Where would you like SSES to be in 10 years?
First and foremost, alive. SSES is needed. Also, my hope is that we are more visible and active in the schools, that we are perceived as an organic and important part in Stockholm and in the research world, as well as for those who have already graduated. I would like SSES to contribute to the development of teachers’ mindsets, to in a sense, teach teachers. Entrepreneurship is, after all, about the ability to embrace change.