Bjorn Saven

We speak with the industrialist, investor and Cancer Research UK supporter about his substantial donation to support our early career researchers… and why he changed his mind about cancer research

“The first step towards making an impact is always to make sure you run a good shop and carry out efficient, high-quality work.”

So says industrialist, investor, philanthropist – and now a major Cancer Research UK supporter – Bjorn Saven. “Only once that focus and excellence has been achieved in your area of expertise are you in a position to communicate what you have learned to the world.” Luckily, Bjorn’s recent substantial donation suggests he believes we are indeed running a good shop.

Shaking the tree

The generous donation will support our Cancer Research UK Future Leaders Programme, which gives early career researchers the tools and resources they need to build exceptional careers and make a significant contribution to the fight against cancer.

With part of the gift, Bjorn will support two PhD students and a postdoctoral fellow studying cancer at our prestigious institutes, including our flagship, the Francis Crick Institute. There, they’ll benefit from daily access to state-of-the-art facilities and mentoring from world-leading experts. This combination allows our junior researchers to contribute vital insights early on in their careers – insights that are broadening our understanding of topics such as how cancer evolves inside the body and what makes us susceptible to disease in the first place.

The second half of Bjorn’s gift has already helped to launch the annual Cancer Grand Challenges Future Leaders Conference, which was held for the first time last month. The conference offers early career researchers from teams funded by Cancer Grand Challenges – a global research funding platform co-founded by us and the US National Cancer Institute – the opportunity to come together and share ideas from their multidisciplinary projects, all of which are tackling one of cancer’s toughest challenges.

“Of course, once everyone has started to dig into their own corners of research, what’s often lacking is that helicopter view,” says Bjorn. “When excellence has been achieved within their respective fields, researchers need to be able to come together to share their knowledge and findings, to try new approaches and develop.” To do that, he says, “You need the integrative mechanism of conferences and get-togethers like the Cancer Grand Challenges Future Leaders Conference, which I’m pleased to support.”

Naturally, this year’s conference was held remotely. But in time, we hope it will evolve into a vibrant in-person event that helps foster an active cross-team, multidisciplinary and multi-national community, who learn from and challenge one another to think differently about problems that are holding back progress in cancer research. We hope it will encourage these talented young minds to pursue new avenues of exploration and gather new knowledge – like piecing together an incredibly complicated jigsaw puzzle – and that this will continue throughout the year, not just at the conferences.

“It feels good to help launch an initiative that will convene some of the world’s brightest early career researchers, who can really help move the world forward” – Bjorn Saven

The conference is powered by a steering committee of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows who work hard to make it memorable and relevant for their peers. One such volunteer is Dr Elee Shimshoni, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Wyss Institute whose team was granted Cancer Grand Challenges funding in 2019. “For those of us with their boots on the ground – the trainees, the graduate students and postdocs who carry out experiments and analyse data – communication between one another has the highest potential to lead to fruitful collaborations,” she explains. Calling the conference “invaluable”, Elee told us her key takeaway was: “We can all be agents of change in our own realm.”

For Bjorn, this is exactly what he’d hoped for from the inaugural event. “It feels good to help launch an initiative that will convene some of the world’s brightest early career researchers, who can really help move the world forward.” He believes that by developing the infrastructure for people working in science, medicine and technology to thrive, we can bring about meaningful change. Bjorn is already looking ahead to next year’s event: “It will be interesting to see how these early career researchers continue to ‘shake the tree’.”

Changing perspective

With his donation, Bjorn has shown a generous commitment to helping early career researchers progress our understanding of cancer. And he has recently taken on a volunteer advisory role on one of our leadership committees. With his wealth of business expertise, we’re delighted to welcome Bjorn’s ideas around how we can be even more effective in the way we fund the world’s best research.

But he admits he didn’t always see the value in supporting cancer research. “Many years back, I think people misunderstood the usefulness of it,” he says. “It seemed that, despite much research, people were still dying of cancer.” Seeing the vast progress that’s been made over the past few decades, Bjorn eventually came to change his mind. “I started hearing about breakthroughs that allowed people to live for many years after treatment,” he recalls, noting the significant progress seen in breast cancer and prostate cancer outcomes as particularly awe-inspiring. “All of a sudden, I realised that it wasn’t about death. It was also about the extra years of life cancer research can provide.”

Early on in life, Bjorn himself received a cancer diagnosis. “I was told I had a malignant melanoma, and that it was fairly serious,” he says. Bjorn promptly received surgery, which was thankfully a success – he needed no further treatment. But it left an indelible impression, and made him think again about the impact and promise of cancer research. “It was the starting point for my interest in supporting Cancer Research UK,” he says.

Filling the gaps

Bjorn’s philanthropy has grown in recent years, with other interests including the arts also benefiting from his generosity. But health and medical charities feature prominently. As well as his work with Cancer Research UK, he is a trustee at the fantastic pregnancy and baby loss charity, Tommy’s. With so many causes to choose from within health alone, how does he decide which projects to support?

“What’s important is finding programmes where personal gifts can make a difference. Philanthropy gives us the opportunity to, in a small or bigger way, help fill gaps left by the public sector or governments,” he says. “Initiatives like the Cancer Research UK Future Leaders Programme wouldn’t necessarily be funded by the Government, but by supporting early career researchers to do their jobs really well, I believe we can help move the world forward and, in the long-term, make a big difference.”

In the end, says Bjorn, it’s fairly simple. “I pick the areas that I think are most promising, support them and hope that it will help.”

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