The recipe to a successful entrepreneurial journey: Does it exist?

Interview with Co-founder and CEO of   AC Immune Andrea Pfeifer

Following a recipe is comfortable, exploring the unknown may not. Baking a cake is just like that. You can either follow the comfortable way by using the enlisted ingredients for the dough (base), followed by the filling and an icing to round up your outcome or you can explore and create your own recipe. So which way to choose? Easy, convenient, and comfortable, or exploration, uncertainty, and culinary excitement?

In professional life, entrepreneurial journeys seem to be like baking. How do you choose which ingredient might be best for your start-up to successfully emerge from scratch to a global leader or from base to icing speaking in baking language? Does a set of necessary ingredients for a successful entrepreneurial outcome even exist?

In search of a fixed recipe for a successful entrepreneurial journey, one cannot escape the fact that half of all start-ups and entrepreneurs fail after their initial 5 years in Switzerland. It surely is an art to not only find the ingredients yourself but to also combine them right in your start-up from the beginning onwards.

In this interview, Andrea Pfeifer, CEO of AC Immune reveals her insightful considerations (=ingredients) on how she managed to leave this initial threshold of start-up failure in Switzerland behind.


Who is Andrea Pfeifer?

Prof. Andrea Pfeifer studied pharmacy with a focus on Cancer Research. She eventually became Head of Nestlé’s Global Research where she co-founded the 100 million Nestle Venture Capital Fund and managed more than 400 people.

In 2003, she co-founded AC Immune at EPFL Innovation Park, Lausanne, Switzerland. Since then, she is at the forefront for 20 years “to find a vaccine for the world against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease” that degrade our brain and memory function. While today, the company is still on a promising path for a breakthrough in a challenging and unknown field of ca. 139 million people worldwide estimated to be affected by 2050, Andrea Pfeifer has managed to overcome the phase of “no product, no technology, no money, no investment, no salary, no nothing”. She successfully led the company to an IPO on NASDAQ in 2016 in the USA and established multiple partnerships with leading pharmaceutical companies (~ CHF 3,3 billion value).

How she overcame this phase will be illustrated in the form of a cake and its 5 ingredients. Let’s dive deeper into the base, the filling, and the glazer.


The base

Number 1: Think outside the box in investor relationships

One of the most promising survival kits that keeps a start-up going is adequate funds, hence it’s the elementary ingredient for any start-up to survive. But don’t forget “finding investments and investors is an art for itself and surely not an easy road,” says Andrea Pfeifer. She explains that most of the time people forget that “finding new investors is NOT just a simple presentation and then they will invest in you.” In fact, “it is more than that”, she continues.People invest in you as a person, in your values, knowledge, and what you stand for. One can nearly say it’s almost like getting married with a giving and taking.” It is the constant availability, reliability, consistency in your values, and transparency/honesty when things go wrong. Ultimately, thinking outside the box and exceeding society’s norms may be the entrance key to a long-term investor relationship because as Andrea Pfeifer says: “If you neglect this personal investment into the relationship with your investor, so to say the marriage, you will lose the investor, too.”


Ingredient Number 2: Embed your unique story in your dream

The clearest advice and recommendation to any entrepreneur Andrea Pfeifer provides is:

“You have to have a dream, execute a dream and never give up. “When I was small, at the age of 6, I already told my parents I would like to be an entrepreneur. But it was all about how I can find treatments for unmedical needs or people who have no hope.”

Due to her parent’s different types of diseases during her childhood, she built a strong passion for the provision of medical treatment opportunities. And today, “Entrepreneurship, Innovation, helping people in a disease such as Alzheimer’s became my office”, a combination of her dream and personal story. She continues that it wasn’t an easy start “but it was absolutely desired and far beyond from making money at first. You do have to be very dedicated”, she adds at last.

Having a profound dream with a personal story does not only give you direction but when you have a clear picture of why and what you want to do, you are driven, motivated and persistent. It may be the precondition to further success or is it just a small portion of the cake?


Ingredient Number 3: Location matters

Many integral decisions come along when building up your own company. Indeed, investments and your dream(s) are important as a starting point but location matters, equally weighted. The world is big, and has many beautiful places so how does one choose and how will the location affect future moves of your start-up? For AC Immune, during its start-up phase, the decision narrowed down to EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne, Switzerland, a community aligning business and academia together to impact from high-class research to solutions for society. With a mission as such to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, this location was a great fit. As Andrea tells, “I was very close friends with the President at EPFL and our common vision was to have a very strong region in Neuroscience, and in fact, this is exactly what happened. This area has become a neuroscience hub”. Later on, she specifies: “In terms of fusing facilities, finding space for our mice and research, there was a lot of local support by the EPFL.” Consequently, local support can be a substantial decision criterion, especially in the initial phase, any support is appreciated. But ultimately, location has the physical power to make or break your entrepreneurial journey. Therefore, it’s helpful to question:

  1. Where will you be able to attract and retain the best like-minded talent for the start-up?
  2. What will the financial costs of renting out space be?
  3. Where could growth opportunities be maximized in the area?
  4. How does the tax situation look like?



Ingredient Number 4: Choose your team  and employees wisely

Employees are the backbone of all operations. Without them, no task can be implemented or tackled. They can make the entrepreneurial journey as sweet as a cake’s filling. But what if they don’t operate well and cohesively as a team? Will this drive your start-up towards a successful entrepreneurial journey? No great challenge has been achieved alone. The constellation of a great team and efficient teamwork matters. It starts from knowing yourself and what you’re personally best at to finding the right complementary skillsets of the board members. But even later throughout the company’s development, new members’ alignment with the company’s vision and mission is essential. No team can work together effectively with a culture lacking profound values. The art herein lies in choosing the right person. Andrea Pfeifer reveals her technique for it. “Usually when I interview potential future employees for the first 5-10 minutes I want to see if they share the same values. If these values are not the same, you lose the company culture.” For some companies, these values could be 8 core values such as leadership, innovation, team spirit or modesty, etc., as at AC Immune. For some others, it may be fairness, empowerment, and diversity. Company values set the tone and as Andrea Pfeifer says “You need money, you need experience, knowledge and all of that. But you also need values.”



Ingredient Number 5: Make your personality and skillset shine

Just like the icing makes a cake shine from the outside, so can your personality and skillset shine on your entrepreneurial journey. All along the way, there are setbacks and challenges that a CEO has to maneuver to find the ultimate sweet spot of success, but how? “I think you need to be very people-oriented”, Andrea considers as one of the crucial skills of a CEO that are generally not mentioned. “At the same time, you have to be very resilient. You need to have a good heart that allows you to work for many hours and be willing to work hard. Money should not be your driving factor. It is not a sufficient factor.” Just as she does not consider money as a driving factor, she does not leave the unexpected in the dark either. In fact, “you need to plan”, she says. “When you know this could go wrong, particularly in Research you need to make sure you plan and have enough money to survive the next 2-3 years.” However, something may happen differently than planned. Your success then narrows down to your technique on how to deal with it. Surely, “it is extremely a disappointment because you put half of your life into your mission but you need to accept it quickly. I’m personally accepting 2 days of disappointment but no more and then you have to move forward and ask yourself “now what’s next?”, what went wrong, why did it go wrong, what does it tell me and why do we have a negative result? It shows that leadership does not only mean delegating work but also understanding people, engaging them, and transmitting your personality and skillset as an interconnected power to your company. Most importantly though, moving forward and “putting the negativity into a strategy to potentially solve the issue and show positivity and confidence as a leader.”


In the end, does a recipe for a successful entrepreneurial journey truly exist? There’s definitely no clear answer to this nor a prescription of readymade answers. As Andrea Pfeifer defines her recipe as such so do many other entrepreneurs in the world differently. If there’s one thing to know though, then it is the complexity of our world. Each cake baked by someone else tastes different and so does each start-up. Seek for differentiation, seek for your personal set of ingredients but do keep the advice from others in mind. As a journey never ends, whether in personal development or entrepreneurially, so does AC Immune’s pathway still continue to thrive with the hope to find a cure for AD& PD soon. It would be a life-changing medicine for millions of affected people and families.

Saskia Sartor

: logo Innovation Time Genève


Last modified: 18 mai 2023

One Response to :
The recipe to a successful entrepreneurial journey: Does it exist?

  1. Saïd BOUARI dit :

    The impressive point about this article is how deep it is. The informations are very specific and related to a concrete experience. It was a real pleasure to read it.
    The ingredient 2 make me remenber about important it is to have a dream and making it become true.
    Thank’s Saskia

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