cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Andreea Serban

Does it help entrepreneurs to get experience in a different country? We asked Andreea Serban, a Romanian paediatric surgeon, who spent time in France, Luxembourg and the UK before returning home and launching her healthtech startup, KIDoc, when medical services for chronically ill children shut down during the pandemic.

In 2022, she also became a fellow of Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders, a US Department of State exchange and mentorship programme that selects a maximum of two entrepreneurs from each European country and brings them to the US. There, at the University of Pennsylvania, Serban became involved with spinout PhylloPharma and met her mentor Michael Poisel, a previous guest on Talking Tech Transfer.

Serban tells about her insights into both the Romanian and US innovation ecosystems and what they could learn from each other.


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Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.

Andreea, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you so much for the opportunity, Thierry. I’m so happy to be here today.

You are my first entrepreneur, so I’m quite looking forward to this discussion. It will be something very different and interesting, I think.

You are a doctor specialised in paediatric surgery. You have an MBA. You’re the chief operating officer of PhylloPharma and the founder of KIDoc. Can you give me a little bit of an overview of these companies and what you do in your daily life to set the scene for our listeners?

Sure. So maybe let me start chronologically. So I will start with KIDoc. I started working at KIDoc early 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. The idea had obviously been there for years, but pandemic context really made the need for such a solution an acute one. Just to tell you a little bit what KIDoc is, this is a platform dedicated to families of children with chronic conditions.

So prior to building KIDoc, I had worked for eight years in a paediatric emergency hospital. So when the pandemic hit, the entire world shut down for chronic patients for very good reasons. There weren’t enough resources to look after everyone, so we had to focus on acute problems. And also chronic patients were very vulnerable, so exposing them to such an important infectious threat wasn’t a good idea.

But on the other side, what many people didn’t seem to be able to understand was that the chronic disease in the context of paediatric patients is a very different reality compared to one of an adult. Let’s say if you have a 60-year-old patient with the cardiovascular pathology that’s doing well under treatment with an adjusted lifestyle, he might be okay over several months if he doesn’t get to see his cardiologist.

On the other side, at the beginning of the pandemic, the hospital were looking after, let’s say, one-year-olds with kidney malformations and for them not being able to be continuously monitored, right, meant potentially losing their kidneys. So it’s not the same for kids as it is for adults. So that was the moment when I said that I have to do something, that we all have to do something.

So my way of answering this problem was building a team of very ambitious tech specialists, pharma specialists and medical doctors and build a platform that tackled three problems that our medical system had during pandemic and we still have after the pandemic, which were, first of all, the communication in a multidisciplinary team, because we know that a chronic patient can have up to like seven, eight, or maybe 10 specialists looking after the same patient. So we weren’t doing very well at bringing that team together. So this is what we are doing with KIDoc together.

We also have KIDoc Treatment. That’s a specialised tool assisting parents in giving the treatment to their kids, ensuring that they don’t make mistakes. And we also have KIDoc Digital, and that’s a component building a digital folder of an electronic health record, if you want, because as a country, we don’t do very well at that either. We have started digitalising the medical system, but it’s still a journey. So at the end of the pandemic, we asked ourselves, is this still relevant? And we actually understood it’s more relevant than ever, because among the very few positive aspects of covid and all this reality that we’ve all shared over the past years, one of the very few positive aspects was the fact that the medical community was more open to technology and more open to embracing technology in their day-to-day activities.

So we are now getting ready for a pilot study in the biggest paediatric hospital in Romania, so we look forward to that.

The other side with PhylloPharma, that’s a story I really like to share. You know how people talk about serendipity and how that plays a major role in big changes in their life. There has been some of that in my life and in my story with PhylloPharma. So two years ago, I was extremely fortunate to be selected by the US State Department to participate in a one-year exchange program with the United States called Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Program. So as part of that programme, we visited the United States for five weeks for an in-presence fellowship, and I was very lucky to go to work at Penn Center for Innovation with Michael Poisel.

And at that time, my mentor told me about this new technology that our technical founder, Henry Daniell, wanted to bring to the market. And that technology was meant to increase access to people worldwide to therapeutic proteins by making those drugs affordable, by eliminating expensive manufacturing steps, and by making them shelf-stable without the need for cold storage. And the main target was insulin, pro-insulin for diabetes. At that point, I was at the end of five years of research in the field of natural products and diabetes. So it did feel like the dots were connecting. And when I received the invitation to join the team as chief operating officer, I was more than happy to embark on this adventure.

Amazing. I think there’s quite a few things in there that we’ll get back to, including the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Program. You have quite an impressive CV. You’ve worked in Paris, you worked in London, you worked excitingly for me in Luxembourg at the children’s hospital there, in Romania, obviously. And then you became a fellow in the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Program in 2022, as you said, bringing you to Philadelphia.

What first sparked your interest in innovation and entrepreneurship?

My interest in this field started about 15 years ago. At that point, I had just started medical school, so I was spending most of my time in the day studying biophysics, biochemistry, anatomy on cadavers. So I was in a very conservative school. I’ll just say that the world of innovation there was almost like taboo. No one talked about innovation. Why would you change anything? They should do things the way they worked for the past hundreds of years.

So again, I felt very blessed that back then an NGO called Leaders Foundation developed a summer school for young people of different backgrounds. I received a scholarship there. And during that programme, we interacted with innovators in Romania from different fields, like starting with astronomy, sustainable development, even people from art. And that was for me an aha moment when I understood that talking about innovation and entrepreneurship doesn’t have to necessarily equate talking about a job. You can basically choose to love what you do for work and change and inspire people, even if you do a nine to five job or if you go on a more independent career pathway.

So that experience really changed my mind and changed my mindset more than anything. And it opened the gate to new experiences afterward.

I always quite like asking people as well what a challenge is that they have overcome, because I think that tells me quite a bit. So what is something that you have overcome? Was that the learning that innovation is necessary and is something that should be done?

That was an interesting lesson for sure. But I would say I would like to share actually something that might sound surprising to a rational mind in the reality of the 2023 world. But as a woman, there are still many contexts in which I personally had to work twice as hard compared to male peers just to show that I was worthy of equal opportunities.

And again, this has been my experience. But also I’ve chosen to go on non-traditional pathways for women. I’ve chosen surgery. I’ve done paediatric surgery. And we all know that surgery has been traditionally associated to strong male presences.

But I think the interesting part was that I got to experience, as you’ve mentioned, different systems in different countries in Europe. And obviously the culture was reflected differently in those systems. So my experiences were quite different. But there were moments in which I felt that things… like that chances weren’t offered equally to myself and other women compared to men.

On the other side, I’ve also worked in the business environment for the past few years. And I’m happy to share the fact that I’ve never felt at any point that being a woman was a problem in any way. I received opportunities for development. I was always given the same chances as anyone else. And I was given the opportunity to use my skill to rise up to the occasion every time. So I feel blessed from that side.

A mixed bag of opportunities and challenges really.

Hm hm.

If you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change about innovation and entrepreneurship?

Great question. Well, different places come with different challenges. And I feel like, for example, Romania, but also many other places. In these places, children are not introduced to entrepreneurship as early as they should. They find out that entrepreneurship is a reality very late, sometimes accidentally. So I think we all kind of have the responsibility, even if we don’t possess any magic wand, to raise awareness around this and support decision makers in the educational field to bring entrepreneurship earlier to schools, to young children.

Yeah, that is very wise. I do want to talk a little bit more about the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Program. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that involved other than going to the University of Pennsylvania and then what you’ve learned from it? Any big lessons?

Sure. The Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Program, short YTILI, is a flagship programme funded by the US Department of State. It’s dedicated to entrepreneurs in Europe, age 25 to 35, with a demonstrated track record of successfully managing an entrepreneurial venture for at least two years prior to enrolling in the programme. But what they present as the most important criteria for selection is the commitment to our learning from other members from the community and giving back to the community.

The main purpose of the programme is building transatlantic partnership by creating a dynamic network of leaders that supports partnership between people in Europe and the US. After European entrepreneurs come to the United States, there is also a reverse exchange experience where our mentors from the United States get selected to participate in exchange experiences in our country. So it’s an amazing programme.

Honestly, I’ve always had a bit of an aversion against big words because quite frequently they are empty. But I would say that this has really been a life-changing experience for me. I was a different person at the end of that programme compared to who I was when I first started it. It was amazing from a human perspective. It was amazing from a professional perspective. I got to interact with so many amazing professionals that I had prior to that only read about or that I admired. And I got to meet them in person and see how amazing they were as humans, not only as geniuses.

I know what you mean, yeah.

Also, honestly, the biggest lesson I’ve learned was that I can do anything. I know a lot of people get that feeling when they go to the United States, but this has certainly been the case for me. And the weird part is that now we are more than one year after the end of the programme and that weird thought that I can do anything is still present. So I’m not healed of this anything is possible mindset. I’m really grateful for that.

Plus, probably the opportunity to continue collaborating with my team there has helped a lot in keeping the mindset that everything is possible and no obstacle is too hard to overcome.

Yeah. Is there a lot of networking with other fellows in the programme or is it very much a kind of mentor-mentee relationship?

That’s an excellent aspect of the programme. Actually, one of the biggest gains is the fact that at the end of the programme, you remain part of the YTILI alumni network. And we only recently last week had a meeting of the programme. And we have also regular interactions through a WhatsApp group. And if there are business opportunities, someone is looking for a partner in a different country in Europe, we get to start partnerships there.

And also, we’re talking about the continuous involvement in the community, meaning that, for example, next September, we’ll have another gathering of all the alumni of the program starting in 2016. So there’s that aspect there. So that’s another huge benefit of the programme, the fact that they support us as a European community, as well as supporting our connections with the United States.

Are there many other Romanians among the alumni?

So every year, one or maximum two fellows get selected from each European country to represent that country. Yes.


So starting 2016, I think with a break during the pandemic, every year there had been a fellow Romanian representing the country in the YTILI programme. That was actually how I found out about the programme, because I was part of an accelerator program developed by a former alumni, YTILI alumni.

You’ve spoken a bit about what you’ve learned from the US, the kind of everything is possible attitude, being the prime example. Is there something that the US could learn from Romania?

This is a very broad question and I obviously have too limited experience to be able to address that. I will talk only about what I have observed. And I think that a major difference comes in the communication style between the two countries. And obviously, as a disclaimer, I’ll be biased in addressing that, because as humans, I don’t think we do a very good job at differentiating between what’s familiar and what’s good. So maybe what’s familiar to me is what I consider to be good. But I’m very familiar to the Romanian communication style. We are warm and compassionate, but in the same time, I feel that we are quite open and we are not afraid of sharing uncomfortable truth, whether that’s in a family environment, at the level of society or in a professional working setting.

So I think that comes with huge benefits, because through open communication, even if that might feel uncomfortable at times, we manage to identify potential challenges quite early and to address those problems. And I feel that in the United States, they tend to be more…

Like the Brits, kind of holding back and yeah. That’s really interesting. I didn’t realise that it’s an aspect that I quite like about Dutch culture as well, for example, they just tell you what they mean. There’s no flowery language. And if you screw up, they tell you that you’ve screwed up, which, yeah, is helpful in the long run. It can be not nice to hear in the moment. But if that’s something that as a culture, you’re quite happy to deal with.

It also depends on how you choose to share that truth.

Yes, yeah!

I feel that we do tend to be quite empathetic, maybe at times too empathetic. But I guess it’s about the way you do things, not necessarily what you choose to pass on as a message.

Yeah, you can still be nice about constructive feedback rather than being mean about it.

This is another kind of big question. And we’re hopefully going to get into a few elements of this. But what does the entrepreneurial culture look like in Romania today? Is there much of one?

I will start by saying that it’s a quite young culture. As you know, we are only 34 years into democracy after the fall of the Ceaușescu communist regime. So I feel for us, it has been a very slow transition, not necessarily at the level of the society, but more than anything, at the mindset level. And I would say that this has played a huge role into the fact that us as a country embraced innovation and entrepreneurship maybe later than other societies. But what numbers show us is that we are right now growing at an accelerated pace, and we are quickly becoming quite an attractive market. And there are many opportunities right now.

Actually, we have the highest entry rate of new firms compared to other countries in Europe, obviously with similar per capita income. So a lot of companies get formed. And I would say that one of the strongest points comes from the human resource aspect. And about one third of graduates in Romania graduate from studies in the STEM disciplines. So they do science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And this actually places us third in Europe after Finland, which obviously is there leading the way, and quite close to the second country, which is Portugal. So we do well at education.

Also, we do very well — and different studies have even placed us first in Europe — in the IT and communication sector. So we have the highest number of specialists in the field. And we also have what I’m very happy to share the highest percentage of women in ICT, which is 23%. And that’s a lot higher than the average in Europe, which is I think, around 17%. So we do well at education. Again, we have good people, but we also have important challenges.

And it’s obviously very important to address those as well. And just to give you an example, we still are not doing a very good job at supporting collaboration between R&D, academia and business, public and private collaborations basically. This means that our universities have excellent research, they are accessing European grants for research, and more and more funding is being attracted into research.

We have patents because several European grants have as requirements, protecting the intellectual property. So we have patents there. However, the road for many projects ends there at the end of the funding for that research project. And there’s no translation of that innovation into real life into companies, there isn’t a good communication. And this is bad also, because there isn’t a real feedback that academia and R&D institutions receive from industry. So our teaching programmes are still quite conservative. And we are still focusing on relatively traditional pathways of professional development. Because since there’s no real communication with industry, we don’t get to develop more innovative educational programmes.

Yeah. Is there no tech transfer expertise? Like are the people not there? Or is it a lack of translational funding or both?

Probably both. We do have TTOs offices throughout the country. Obviously, things are better in Bucharest than in other centres. But what we see throughout the country are TTOs with one or two people being hired there, and they mainly support patent applications for research grants purposes. So we’re not really talking about technology transfer, we’re mostly talking about just stopping at the intellectual property level and protecting that intellectual property.

Yeah, nothing is done with it beyond that point. It just gathers dust.

It’s ticking boxes on grant applications.

Yeah. Is there much other infrastructure for startups like incubators or even wet labs?

We do have… It’s again a growing part of our ecosystem. There are several programs. For example, we with KIDoc went to several accelerators and we were part of one accelerator from Impact Hub, and they have several thematic accelerators. For example, one that focuses on sustainable development. They have the one that we went to called Innovators for Children, and that one is focused on innovation, obviously for kids in education and health as well. There’s a big programne developed at the national level that is called Innovation Labs, and that starts with students and young researchers, and it’s happening in universities. And through that programne, different projects get selected and they get some support after the programne as well.

And there’s also the field of programmes that not only offer mentorship, but they also offer funding. For example, we have Early Game. They offer up to €3.5m in funding at the end of that programme, which for us is quite significant. And for a startup, obviously can make the difference between just being an idea and actually going to market.

So I would say we are doing better and better in this.

Interesting. Is there enough talent available for small companies? Like are people quite willing to join those types of companies now?

I would say yes. Again, more and more. We are growing and we are learning. We still don’t have programmes in universities dedicated to entrepreneurship, or we have very few of those, meaning enrolling from the beginning when you go to college, enrolling to an entrepreneurship programme. We have the more traditional economical grades that people would get and some optional training in entrepreneurship.

But we do see more and more young people going in this direction because we have made quite visible the examples of people who succeeded in this area. And we have our unicorns, we have our success stories. So seeing those success stories of young people who managed to go from nothing to a big company that’s visible internationally has certainly helped.

And as we’ve mentioned, there is talent. We also, obviously, as many other countries in the region, we also struggle with brain drainage. And actually, Romania has the fifth largest diaspora in the world.


Yes. We don’t brag about this, unfortunately, because we would need all those people back home to build a better reality for Romanians. And maybe a very sad part of this is the fact that a quarter of people living in Romania are people with tertiary education. So we’re talking about highly skilled individuals.

And what different studies show is that in the countries that they decide to make their new homes, about half of them are overskilled for the jobs that they’re taking, which is obviously a drama at a personal and at a society level, because back home, maybe their skills could be used differently. It’s just that the opportunities weren’t there when they decided to leave the country.

And some might have fled the dictatorship and they’ve made a life somewhere else now over the last three decades.

And also, after 2007, after Romania joined the European Union, leaving the country has suddenly become significantly easier. And we always talk about the high number of medical doctors that decided to leave the country, of engineers. So it’s very easy for us right now to leave. And there are different systems that already have tradition in receiving people from Romania.

And this has been the reality for me going to work in UK or in France or in Luxembourg. In every one of those places, there was already a tradition of Romanian people going to work there. Normally, for a limited amount of time, there’s also this, let’s call it trend in Romania of people wanting to specialise and going in different centres in Europe or outside Europe just to gain some new skills and come back home and apply those skills. And we always talk about those positive examples as well, because we have quite a few of those that went abroad, learned and came back home to build something that Romania didn’t know before

Yeah, that would be my next question, whether there were positive aspects of EU membership. I’m hoping it’s not all been bad since 2007.

No, certainly. So I would say that the two main advantages are training of people and funding. So we talked about people going abroad and gaining new skills, but also collaborations with European teams, among European teams. And when we talk about collaboration, we obviously talk also about EU funding, which has honestly changed Romania in so many ways.

We all know when we mentioned European funding, we acknowledge the fact that there is a high level of bureaucracy beyond accessing those funds. And you have to have a good team capable of creating that documentation for EU funding and also a good team to help you strategise well enough in order to at the end of the project to complete it successfully. But I would say, again, a field in which we need to improve. And I feel that we are improving right now.

But we are accessing more and more EU funding for creating roads, for doing research in universities. And this is really changing Romania.

Is there much funding for startups available in Romania, whether in Romania or do they have to raise overseas when they want money?

There is funding available in Romania. And we’ve mentioned briefly earlier accelerator programmes that give at times even substantial funding. We do have some VC funds that are quite good at supporting especially technology projects. I think in every system, only starting to embrace innovation, technology gets a privileged place in accessing funds and getting people’s attention. But again, EU funds have been an important source for us as well.

And also we are starting more and more to access funding from sources outside Romania, outside Europe at times and collaborations with the United States and other countries.

Something where hopefully your connections in the US can help.

Actually yes, we are, I think the magic of exchange experiences and getting to go to different countries is in the people that you get to meet there and how you manage to connect the dots years after those experiences and maybe help someone else in your environment connect with someone abroad and create some magic.

Yeah, creating magic. I quite like that. And I remember when I talked to Michael Poisel, he sounded quite enamoured with Romania. I think you have a champion in the US for your country, which is always good to have someone somewhere else that really is keen on helping an ecosystem grow and has the expertise to hopefully help a little bit.

Is the Romanian government doing enough or much to support entrepreneurship? Are there good tax breaks or frameworks in place to help entrepreneurs?

So again, this is fairly recent. We have young people leading innovation at the governmental level right now. And we have people trained outside Romania, people trained in the US and with very innovative views. And this helps a lot.

Something that has been in place already for years is the fact that people working in the IT department don’t pay taxes. So this helped us a lot when we are able to brag about the fact that Romania comes first in Europe at the number of people working in ICT, that’s also due to the fact that there’s this fiscal benefit. So that’s one aspect of things.

But also we have a governmental agency called UEFISCDI and they are doing a really good job in different ways. They are trying to support more and more technology transfer, but they are also the ones that help people access more EU funds. And they are the ones basically putting people together in different collaborations, in different centres throughout the country. So that’s very helpful.

And there has also been an important investment in a very recent one in 2019 in what we called Măgurele Science Park. That is the biggest innovation hub in Europe. And actually 30% of the budget Romania allocated to R&D in that particular year went to this innovation centre. It was also supported by EU funds, that helped a lot.

But we right now are waiting to see more and more of public-private collaborations going to that institute because at the moment there aren’t many incentives for those collaborations to happen. And it will reiterate the problems we had over time with stopping innovation at the level of finishing a research grant. That won’t be very helpful in pushing the society forward. So we just need to learn more about how to help public actors work more with private companies.

Yeah. Is this, maybe not happening equally, but is this kind of happening throughout Romania or is a lot of this still focused on Bucharest?

Development starts in Bucharest, but we do have several centres in Romania that are starting to do better. But several of those innovation initiatives are still focused around Bucharest. We do have accelerators and incubators in cities like Iași or Cluj that are the biggest ones in this area.

Okay. Still a ways to go there as well.

I think that is all the questions that I had. Andreea, thank you so much.

Thank you, Thierry. This has really been a great opportunity for me to get to talk to you and share this. And yeah, I’m happy for this and I’m grateful to you.

I loved hearing more about Romania. It looks like a beautiful country, so I should add it to my list of places to visit at some point.

Please do. So just to tell you at the level of natural richness, we are really good. We don’t do a lot at promoting those. We have so many amazing places. So it’s quite eccentric yet as a tourist destination. But if you do ever get the chance to come, you have a guide here. So please let me know and I’ll make sure you make the most of your visit here.

Awesome, thank you very much.

Thank you.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).