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Women Behind PHOENIX: Johanna K. Scheper

In honor of International Women’s Day, we are highlighting just a few of the many women behind the scenes at PHOENIX-OITB. This interview series takes a look at their career paths, frustrations and inspiration.


Johanna K. Scheper, Ph.D., MBI (BNN & GB)

Job title: Innovation & Scientific Manager, BioNanoNet Forschungsgesellschaft mbH (BNN), Co-founder and CEO, GraceBio S.L.

Role in PHOENIX: Manufacturing under GMP conditions of the GLA protein (DC4); innovation activities and business model, service portfolio


Tell us a bit about your position and your role in the PHOENIX?

I’m co-founder of GraceBio S.L. and I was the CEO since the founding of the company, back in September 2019. Recently, in January 2023, the CEO’s role has been transferred to another person as the company is entering another phase in its development. However, I’m still the main contact for the PHOENIX project within the company, and which is in charge of the manufacturing under GMP conditions of the GLA protein, that is part of DemoCase 4.

At the same time, I’m also the Innovation & Scientific manager of BNN (also partner of the project), and within the project my role is more related to the innovation activities (related to the business model and plan that have been generated) as well as to support on the creation of the service portfolio of the OITB. Thus, both of the hats I wear cover clearly different roles in the project.


How did you end up where you are? Was it a straight path or did it take you along many curves?

Well, I would say that it took some curves but with a targeted approach. I studied Biology and Biochemistry, simultaneously, and I became fascinated early on with the amount and variety of different biomolecules that exist within our cells and all the functions they are in charge of within our body – and at the same time how complex their own nature is (i.e., cellular expression, molecular structure 3D-folding, etc). This fascination led me to do a PhD in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, focused on pharmaceutical development and aimed at the generation of novel compounds capable of antagonizing a specific protein-protein interaction.

Once I finished my PhD, I moved to Montpellier (France) to begin my 2-year stay as a post-doctoral researcher, where I focused on the design and development of biosensors and inhibitors for probing and targeting proteins involved in cell cycle coordination, applying rational and multidisciplinary approaches at the interface between biochemistry, cell biology, biophysics and nanotechnology.

After that, I wanted to look for a job much more in the applied field, so I returned to Barcelona and was recruited by a Spanish research center dedicated to the biomedical field – this time not in the lab but as R&D Project Manager of its Nanomedicine division. Here I gained skills to do scientific management of complex and multidisciplinary projects, as well as management of both IP issues and regulatory issues related to the results.

As a consequence of being involved in an increasing cross-fertilized ecosystem in the biomedical field, I had the opportunity to have close relationships with more and more companies that drove me to reinforce myself in the business skills, and so I enrolled in an Executive Master’s in Business Innovation for two years alongside my job. The Master’s provided me with several new skills that clearly complemented my scientific technical abilities: among them, the understanding of global management of innovative SMEs and/or start-ups, business strategies, comprehension and knowledge of innovation models and project selection, design and creativity, public policy of innovation and innovation management.

In 2019, several things happened at the same time (as usually is the case) that defined both of my current roles. First, two colleagues and I decided to create GraceBio, and at the same time, I moved to Graz to join BNN as Innovation and Scientific Manager. To do this work, I need to take advantage of everything I have learned during my last 20 years, from research to innovation knowledge.

As I said, my path has had a lot of curves, but they took me where I always wanted to end up: able to push forward challenging projects, as well as to be an entrepreneur.


What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is the multidisciplinary knowledge you need to be able to do it. The most amusing part is to realise how all the knowledge you gained through the years suddenly becomes key to solving daily issues that at first glance seem really challenging. This has always been rewarding…everything I have done comes back and is needed at a certain point!

Also I just love the number of people that I have met during my career, all of them coming from complementary and multidisciplinary fields and backgrounds; the mix of all together enriches my own life.


Who are your role models?

Definitively one of my role models is my PhD mentor, Dr. Timothy Thomson. He is a brilliant scientist, and by the end of my PhD he had instilled in me rigorousness, perseverance and attention to detail when performing your tasks (in the laboratory and beyond).

My other role model is Jessica von Bredow-Werndl (German Olympic gold medalist in dressage). With her I share my love and gratitude for animals, especially horses. In her field you also need perseverance and quite a lot of patience to get what you want from a horse. They are animals of utmost sensitivity, which teach you to control yourself, to guide and use your internal energy in the most efficient way; only by paying attention to the most minimal detail can you and your horse become a team.


Is your field welcoming to women?

This is a difficult question for me to answer. For myself, yes, I think the field has welcomed me. I have always been able to achieve what I wanted to, but at the same time I know it is not the case for everybody. Thankfully, more and more women are becoming scientists with high-level positions within the research field, and the same is happening in industry, I think. More and more, we see women becoming CEOs and/or heads of the most important and strategic departments of many biotech and pharma companies, and this is very good news: something is definitively moving out there!

Of course, there are still challenges or barriers that need to be solved. The most important one is reconciling family life with everything you have to achieve at your job and personal expectations, but I think we are doing much better than in the past, and that by itself is good news.


Do you have tips for dealing with sexism in the workplace?

Not really, as I never have experienced myself. But I think that if I ever experience it, I would fight it by demonstrating that women (in this case me) are equally capable of doing those tasks/activities/role positions that some men/women claim we can’t.


What advice can you give to young women contemplating a career in your field?

I would suggest that girls and young women prepare themselves (from the content and technical side) as much as possible, and then simply go for their dreams, keep calm and be patient. We tend to rush things and this doesn’t help us to reach our goals – it only leaves us frustrated. I really do believe that opportunities will arrive at the right time.