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Saskia Biskup awarded top honour at 2014 EU Prize for Women Innovators

Saskia Biskup, CEO of CeGaT in Germany, was yesterday honoured as the overall winner of this year's EU Prize for Women Innovators at the opening of the 2014 Innovation Convention. The award recognises Saskia's outstanding innovation achievements in research into neurodegenerat...

Saskia Biskup, CEO of CeGaT in Germany, was yesterday honoured as the overall winner of this year's EU Prize for Women Innovators at the opening of the 2014 Innovation Convention. The award recognises Saskia's outstanding innovation achievements in research into neurodegenerative diseases, as well as her immense success in taking the results through to market. The work of Saskia and her team has allowed her company, CeGaT, to grow into a leading biotech company for diagnostic gene panels and has meant a major step forward in diagnosing patients with rare diseases. As she received the prize from Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Saskia was cheered on by an auditorium packed full of innovation enthusiasts gathered in Brussels for the two-day convention. She was joined on stage by second and third prize winners, Laura van 't Veer from The Netherlands and Ana Maiques from Spain, who were also being celebrated for their innovation successes and ability to combine scientific excellence with business savvy. Founded in 2009, CeGaT now employs 60 people and continues to grow. Saskia is keen to encourage other innovators to take the risk of going it alone. 'The freedom that you have running your own enterprise cannot be compared. It's different that being at university, it's different to working in a clinic. The level of freedom you get with your own enterprise is so amazing that once you become an entrepreneur, I think you will always be an entrepreneur. ' A Human Geneticist, Research Scientist and Bioinfomatician, Saskia positions herself at the interface of diagnostics, research and clinic. Her work revolves in the development of new biomarkers to enable early prediction of neurodegenerative diseases. Her team looks for the 'needle in the haystack' taking the blood or the tumor of a patient and trying to find the cause of the disease by analysing the genetic code and then looking to what the exact therapy might be, moving towards a type of personalized medicine. Among her achievements, Saskia can count the discovery of variations in the LRRK2 gene, a gene involved in Parkinson's disease. She doesn't feel that her gender has disadvantaged her along her career path. 'To be honest, I don't think that I experienced specific challenges as a female innovator. I think it largely depends on you and how you follow your idea and how passionate you are. But I like this prize because I think it will motivate women to take this path. It's not so much that I had disadvantages or advantages, but I really wanted to do it. I think others who see that will be motivated that it can work and you don't have to be a man to be this successful, so I think the prize really is fantastic.' Saskia echoed these sentiments in her brief acceptance speech, 'I hope that this motivates women to found their own companies and to have belief in their own ideas'. When asked about the secret for successful innovation, Saskia insists on the importance of diversity. 'The central and the crucial part of the company is the diversity of disciplines and experts that we have. Bringing together people with totally different expertise and then thinking about the same problem from different angles. Even my husband who is an economist is really interested in genetics and biology and asks questions that are totally different from our team, and they are very inspiring. People asking different questions really moves us forward and is also the most fun part.' Nurturing collaboration and helping young projects in particular to gather the experts they need is where the EU can step in, Saskia believes. 'The biggest contribution that the EU can make is bringing people together. When you have an idea you have to find the right team members, and that is really difficult. When we started, we had huge problems to find people who wanted to work with us. In the beginning you are not successful, nobody knows you so it's really hard to find people who want to work with you but then you bring together people who get excited about the same idea and have the same passion then things can move much faster. Once you are known, people apply for jobs without any advertisement, but in the beginning it's crucial to have a network and I think the EU can be a great platform for creating that.' CeGaT is involved in two FP7 projects, CAM-PAC and DESIRE. The CAM-PAC consortium works on pancreatic cancer with Saskia's team focusing on transcriptome sequencing of pancreatic cancer tissue and cell lines. DESIRE, meanwhile, targets the treatment of epilepsy. Saskia notes, 'We have to do something really interesting and challenging within DESIRE - we have to sequence micro RNAs from thrombocytes. Obviously when something is going on in the brain, you see those changes also on the periphery. Especially for brain diseases, I think it would be a huge advantage if you had better tests where you can have access to blood and draw conclusions about what's going on in the brain. I'm very excited about this project'. Saskia is also excitedly looking towards the possibilities of Horizon 2020. 'What I think is really fantastic is that within those new programmes, collaborations between research institutes and SMEs is really pushed forward. That's something that's good for me but it's also good for the research and enterprise environment.'