When not orchestrating the day-to-day operations and technology development at Antleron, Maarten Sonnaert can be found traversing wilderness areas all around the globe. Last year he led a hiking group in icy Greenland. Maarten, currently the COO of Antleron, was in fact the first employee to join the company, one year after its establishment. He followed CEO Jan Schrooten to execute and build the vision of turning cells into living therapies. Before he joined Antleron, Maarten had acquired his industrial engineering biochemistry degree and PhD from KU Leuven, “Joining Antleron felt natural, since it allowed me to apply the skillset I acquired in academia to solve biomanufacturing challenges in a more entrepreneurial setting.”
Maarten is very familiar with applying engineering solutions to biological material, such as cells. His PhD, supervised by Jan, focused on the development of tissue-engineered products for non-union bone defects. Afterwards, Maarten joined Antleron with the ambition to keep innovating in the field of bioprocesses. A major driver in his professional career is facilitating the transition from research to real-life applications. Antleron enables Maarten to use his PhD experience as a basis, and contribute to delivering solutions with a more direct impact for patients.
The research Maarten conducted at KU Leuven allowed him to build expertise that enabled a smooth transition from academic to industrial R&D and contribute to Antleron’s technology toolbox. In particular, his learnings on the use of three-dimensional perfusion of cells and novel ways of monitoring and controlling culture conditions provided him with a unique bioprocess engineering profile. This allows him to drive biomanufacturing innovation at Antleron and lead the translational development of sustainable and custom bioprocesses into scalable personalized cell & gene therapies in the promising ATMP field.
“My role is primarily to enable the team to excel in their specialized assignments while I remain actively involved in the overall technology development,” Maarten says when asked about his responsibilities. Over the years, he grew into the COO role following what he calls an interesting path. “Over time I had to shift my mindset from purely problem-solving engineering to long-term strategic thinking, and part of that transition was learning to delegate more tasks to other team members. The team, which grew significantly over the past years, is built on persons who are capable of working on different projects and levels within the organisation. This line-up is essential to avoid silos and maintain the creativity that helps tackle partner challenges and develop in-house solutions.”
Maarten is happy about the working culture at Antleron which evolved over the years. It boosts creativity and provides the necessary freedom for researchers and engineers to turn ideas into reality. “We cultivate an atmosphere that supports our fellows in developing themselves towards their personal interests and goals, within the scope of innovations that Antleron is developing.” The interdisciplinary profiles make each discussion interesting and allow enables to approach topics from a variety of perspectives.
Despite the hardships of building a company from scratch, Maarten makes sure to create sufficient space for his passions – traveling and hiking in the wilderness, BBQing, whisky, and running. As an avid runner (he can run 60+ km in a single session!), he takes brakes during workdays for trainings, enjoying the flexible working culture at Antleron. “Staying active allows me to clear my mind and let go for a moment, and re-center.”
Looking back at all the hard work, and looking forward to all the work still left to be done, Maarten is happy to see the team grow and ideas being turned into real solutions for partners and customers. “These solutions will certainly provide better outcomes for patients further down the line.”