He has been a vital part of Umeå Biotech Incubator (UBI) since its inception in 2003. But now, after 42 years of service in the biotech industry, it is time for respected research engineer Assar Bäckman to retire.
“My work has been hugely varied, and over the years I have learned a great deal. I usually have an emergency solution to most things if needed”, says Assar.

UBI founder Tor Ny and Assar Bäckman’s paths crossed for the very first time in the early 1980s, when Assar, who trained as a laboratory assistant with a focus on microbiology, was conducting an internship in hospital hygiene in Umeå. Assar arrived at Norrland University Hospital to find the manager was away. Being clinically oriented he was instead paired with Professor Tor Ny, whose office was located in Umeå University’s virology department. Assar jumped at the chance to help Tor and Thomas Edlund (Betagenon’s founder) with some of their projects and never looked back.

Assar was involved in numerous microbiological projects during the 80s and 90s. He then worked at Symbicom and later Astra before joining “Idrottsmedicin” at the turn of the millennium. When Tor Ny started UBI as an ERDF project in 2003, Assar and Thord Johansson became UBI’s go-to people in the lab.

“Tor told us over lunch that he was going to start a company and wondered how many Astra employees were left in Umeå. Thord and I became involved with Omnio and Tor started UBI in 2003. We provided laboratory resources for projects and performed various experiments. In some projects, such as Tanomed, I was the only employee at the laboratory level. I have also, in various stages, carried out work in what became Hiloprobe”, says Assar.

Indispensable for Omnio and UBI

Throughout his 20-year association with UBI, he has been employed by the university, Omnio AB and UBI itself. It is, however, at the incubator where he became virtually indispensable – not just for Omnio but for other cases and companies in the building.

“It is difficult to say how many projects I have been involved with or distinguish whether I have been involved as an Omnio or UBI employee – but there have been quite a few!”, he explains.

It is not easy to sum up 42 years of work, but Assar recalls a year spent in the USA in 1987-88 with Michael Bagdasarian, professor at the unit for applied cell and molecular biology at Umeå University, as a particular highlight. Professor Bagdasarian took almost his entire research group with him when he left Umeå for the USA. Professor Bagdasarian worked a lot with Broad-host-range vectors and published a paper in which Assar Bäckman was one of the authors. The paper “A series of wide-host-range low-copy-number vectors that allow direct screening of recombinants” is still cited in publications from all over the world.

What are some of your other career highlights?

“One was when we cloned human tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) back in 1982. The next real highlight was when we were working with Symbicom and managed to isolate and clone what is today called Kallikrein 7 (KLK7), then known as SSCE, Stratum Corneum Chymotrytic Enzyme. Then much later on we were involved with some projects at Lipum which were rewarding, but maybe that’s due to the fact that I got a little worked up in the autumn of my career! In any case, it was great fun when we managed to produce an animal model that behaved the way we wanted it to”.

What has working at Umeå Biotech Incubator been like?

“Working at UBI has meant an enormous amount of variety and has been incredibly educational. The experience has been worth its weight in gold because I notice that I have solutions that go way back to the 80s – even if it might be totally outdated to do it that way today. It’s like having worked on an old B16 in a Volvo PV. You get to understand basic mechanics and can come up with makeshift solutions when they are called for”, says Assar, and continues:

“I have also built up a network that means I knew who to ask if I run into something unexpected, and I have been able to do things as part of a professional community that has been fantastic. We had a great team at ‘Mikro’ and ‘Enheten’ throughout the 80s and 90s where, for example, we had our own team called the ‘Mikro e liten’ that took part in Vindelälvsloppet (a 350 km relay race in northern Sweden) for ten years.

Time to hang up the lab coat

Now, however, it is time for Assar Bäckman to close his academic books and hang up his lab coat for good. His desk at Tvistevägen 48 has been cleared and this afternoon a farewell party awaits at Umeå Biotech Incubator. The Jämtland-born Hörnefors resident is looking forward to his well-earned retirement.

“It feels good, I’m ready for it. My new hobby of photographing birds and being more in nature, I will build on” Assar concludes.