Maria Severina, who has a PhD in biochemistry, grew up in an academic family in Moscow, moved to Finland 30 years ago and made it big after years as an entrepreneur. Today, she helps others grow their good business ideas into global success stories.
In spring 1991, a couple from Moscow, Russia, moved into an apartment owned by the Student Village Foundation in Turku, Finland. Maria Severina, who got her PhD in biochemistry from Moscow University, and her partner Alex Michine, arrived in Finland just months before the fall of the former Soviet Union.
Biochemistry is deeply rooted in Severina’s DNA: her parents, aunt, grandmother and brother all worked in biochemistry in the Soviet Union.
“My grandfather was a famous academic and biochemist. I am specialized in immunochemistry, the field that HyTest operates in,” Severina explains.
HyTest. We cannot talk about Maria Severina without mentioning HyTest. It is also a key reason for this article because HyTest’s growth story led to Maria Severina becoming Finland’s highest earning woman 30 years later.
The biotech company HyTest manufactures antibodies and antigens as key components for the diagnostics industry. Its precursor was a joint research project between Moscow University and the University of Turku, which Severina came to Finland to work on.
In 1994, they began to develop a business around the research project. HyTest was established and quickly hit the jackpot. The company became a market leader in immunological reagents such as cardiac markers and influenza reagents.
In its early days, the company was owned by the Moscow research institute run by Severina’s father and the technology transfer company Aboatech. Sitra offered the company funding but at the start of the 2000s, the company’s employees bought the company for themselves.
In Karo Hämäläinen’s book Taivas+helvetti: Riko rajasi (2015), Severina describes how the change in the company’s ownership was quite a gamble.
“My husband and I pledged all our assets as collateral for the loans. If HyTest had not been a success we would have gone bankrupt,” Severina recounts in the book.
The opposite happened. Severina held the role of CEO at HyTest for 27 years until they decided to sell the company.
Firstly, the majority of the company was purchased in 2018 by the Swedish-Norwegian venture capital company Summa Equity and, at the time, HyTest’s turnover was EUR 22.3 million according to its financial statements. In 2021, another deal was made, worth an exceptional amount for Finland: one of China’s largest diagnostics companies, Mindray, bought HyTest for EUR 545 million. The transaction made Severina Finland’s income queen. In 2018, her combined earnings and capital income came to around EUR 36 million and even the latest tax figures show that they exceeded EUR 18 million.
When Severina and Michine, who worked in IT at the time, moved to Turku, Hansa Shopping Centre, designed by Benito Casagrande, had been completed, as had the Turkuhalli arena, built for the 1991 World Ice Hockey Championships. At the same time, the recession was battering Finns with unemployment.
Turku, which today brands itself a culinary city, was very different when it came to its restaurant offering. The city had “only a few restaurants” according to Severina as she pours herself some coffee in private cabinet number five of Suomalainen Pohja, possibly the most iconic restaurant in the city, located near the art museum.
“There are a lot of restaurants to choose from now and the city is bustling. Turku is a developing area. Minna Arve is doing good work as the mayor. She worked at HyTest after she graduated university and we have remained friends.”
Suomalainen Pohja has been a favorite haunt of policymakers and bigwigs of their day and many major issues have been debated in its nostalgic milieu. Severina is here now to explain what has happened since the sale of HyTest in 2021.
The family-owned company Almaral is based in Kaarina
Private cabinet number five is reserved under the name Almaral Oy. Alex, Maria and Alex. The name of the family-owned company Almaral is a combination of the first names of Alex Michine, Maria Severina and their son Alex. The Finnish company Almaral, which launched its operations last spring, supports health care and biotechnology startups as a venture capital firm.
“After we sold HyTest, we decided to try our hand at something else. I was one of the founders of HyTest so the field is very familiar to me, which made it easy for me to start working with startups. I can immediately see what changes need doing in a company. Now, thanks to the sale, we have the time to share best practices and experiences with startups and growth companies.”
Almaral was established in Kaarina, near Turku, where Severina and her family have lived since the early 1990s. When HyTest began to succeed, the now three-person family moved first to Littoinen in Kaarina and then to Kuusisto.
“Although our cat Fidel believes that our house is his and we are just visiting,” Severina says with a smile and shows me a picture of the feline.
Another important photo worth showing is of her son and his girlfriend Anastasia. Alex (24 years) and Anastasia are currently both completing their Master’s degrees.
“My son is studying economics and we are not pushing him to get involved in the business. Only time will tell if he wants to be actively involved in Almaral or do something else.”
In the book Taivas+helvetti, Severina says that she did not originally mean to remain in Finland permanently. Her arrival in Finland was mostly at the behest of her father. There would have been a demand for her expertise in the United States, among other places, but her father wished to keep his daughter closer and arranged a position for her in the research project in Turku.
“We have now spent more than half our lives here. This is our home town. I like small, quiet places because I was born in Moscow – although being in Finland after having lived in Moscow was very different. Most of my tax income has gone to Kaarina.”
A diverse team leads to success stories
Severina heads Almaral and the core team also includes Kalevi Kurkijärvi (Ph.D.), Elina Makino (Ph.D.) as scientific advisor, Juuso Enala as market strategist, Petteri Tenhunen as legal advisor, Lauri Kuronen as venture capitalist and other advisors from various sectors. Her spouse Alex Michine’s expertise is displayed also in his own company Metgen, which strives to find new renewable biomass alternatives for oil-based products and chemicals.
“HyTest was established in Turku by four people and we had to build all of the company’s functions ourselves, from financing to legal matters, sales and the dispatching of products. Now, it’s renowned in its field. Almaral’s team has irreplaceable experience of building internationally successful companies. The only way to become an expert in how to introduce a product on the market and figure out how the logic of the diagnostic market works is to put in the work,” Severina says.
The team’s know-how is meant to be shared and this is where Almaral’s business idea differs from other venture capitalists, according to Severina.
“We know how to make scientific innovations into global success stories. We help develop a business plan, ensure financing and protect immaterial rights, build a brand that stands out and a successful sales strategy. If we invest in a target company we want to be active, practical mentors in the company’s daily operations.”
“For example, Business Finland does excellent work to help out startups and companies, but it is also very important to keep track of the commercialization aspect too. Startups don’t always know what to do next. They don’t know how to commercialize research or how the product can be brought to the market the fastest. This needs to change.”
Almaral’s first investment round is ending this spring. Fewer than ten companies have made it to the final stretch.
“During the year, we have assessed altogether 35 companies. Not just life science contacts but those from other fields too. As angel investors, we have the luxury of investing in whatever we want when we find it interesting,” says Severina.
Good financial prospects and a seat on the Board are a must
There are plenty of candidates looking for the protection of angel wings, so how can they convince Severina? Family friends and partners who have known Severina for decades describe her as a person to whom a person’s goals matter the most. According to a friend, Severina has “the world’s biggest heart that takes care of everyone.”
“Money is only a third of the recipe for success: money means nothing without competence and putting your heart into it,” Severina says.
“Some companies want money to pay their employees’ salaries, but others have a clear vision of their business idea, upcoming milestones and what the end result is. Those kinds of companies are more interesting to investors, of course.”
Severina expects the company’s management to be motivated and committed to their idea.
“Obviously, the business idea needs to be good too.”
If the business idea convinces Almaral’s jury with its pitch, it also has to pass muster with the partners carrying out scientific assessments and meet certain financial and commercial outlooks.
Digital health diagnostics, according to Severina, is a trend that currently interests researchers, companies and thus also financers.
“Covid changed the trend. Diagnostics is now developing in a direction where one test can measure more than one thing. From an investor’s viewpoint, pharmaceutical development is a long road; the fastest way to achieve results is through diagnostics development.”
Almaral’s investment criteria are decided on a case-by-case basis.
“The investment amount depends on the target. We don’t have a criterion or a single protocol. The amount can vary anywhere from EUR 300,000 to a million, but we can be flexible.”
One criterion is the same for everyone, however: without a seat on the Board, Almaral will not invest.
“It is also important to be a lead investor in order to be able to influence decision-making.”
Fepod from Finland is looking for a slice of the health care markets
Almaral’s first investment was the Finnish company Fepod, last spring. The electrochemical blood analytics developed by the company allow health care professionals to measure the real blood concentration of paracetamol, opioids and other pain medicine directly from a drop of blood at the point-of-care, in just a few seconds. Fepod’s technology has been developed for years at Aalto University with the help of grants from Business Finland and early clinical trials have been completed at HUS. Fepod, which is targeting global markets worth one hundred billion euros, is a perfect example of the kind of partner Almaral is looking for.
“Fepod is a good investment; their idea is good and the team is motivated and eager to make progress. It has been a privilege to walk this path with them.”
Another already announced partnership is Seppo.io, a Finnish company focused on the gamification of education. Seppo.io is used by companies, educational institutions and public organizations in some 50 countries and its customers include the world’s largest publisher of training material, Pearson, and Merlin Entertainments, which operates the Legoland theme parks.
“We always assume that a company or innovation has the ability and will to improve people’s lives. We are well versed in biotechnology and health technology and the sustainable chemical industry that saves natural resources, but we are not limited to these. We are ready to discuss things with people who want to focus on improving people’s quality of life,” Severina explains.
A good everyday life and vacations balance out work
In the autumn, Almaral will launch a second round of financing and the plan is to also expand the partner network.
Working at Almaral, on the board of Meridian Bioscience and at various angel investment network events means dozens of travel days a year. In addition, the couple of 35 years likes to travel in their free time. One week of sightseeing, one week on the beach is the concept that Severina and Michine have used when touring Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, among other places. Nevertheless, the majority of their free time is occupied doing ordinary, everyday things: spending time in nature, watching movies and enjoying food. However, they cannot share their mutual love of tennis. “We would start yelling at each other,” says Severina.
“During the pandemic, my husband began to cook on a daily basis. He’s a good chef and can make anything from Thai food to pasta. From my perspective, the good thing is that his enthusiasm for cooking has continued, even though Alex is busy with his own work at Metgen.”
One road has been blocked for quite a while, however: the family has been unable to visit Russia for more than three years due to first the pandemic and then the geopolitical situation. They stay in contact with relatives and friends through messaging apps.
Already when agreeing to the interview, Severina said that she does not want to talk about political issues even though they play a large role in her life. For a dual citizen of Finland and Russia the situation in Ukraine is distressing.
“I oppose war, wherever it may be, because the world should be creative, not destructive.”
This is an article published in Kauppalehti Optio 04/2023.
Munkki, Kati: “Jättimäinen yrityskauppa teki Maria Severinasta Suomen tulokuningattaren – Harvinaisessa haastattelussa hän kertoo, miten tähän on tultu”