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Slush welcomes Science Track keynote speaker, Iceland’s scariest scientist Kári Stefánsson

Founder of biotech company deCODE Genetics and former Harvard professor Stefánsson identifies genes associated with common diseases such as cancer and schizophrenia. He does not like small talk.

Text: Kristiina Markkanen

About thirty seconds into the Skype interview Kári Stefánsson declares: “I don’t want a profile written about me.” We’re off to a great start.

Sefánsson is an Icelandic neurologist, founder of leading biotech company deCODE Genetics and keynote speaker at this year’s Slush Science Track. deCODE Genetics identifies human genes associated with common diseases such as schizophrenia using population studies.

”Stefánsson might be the most intimidating person I’ve encountered but he does have a bright mind.”

Stefánsson might be the most intimidating person I’ve encountered but he does have a bright mind. The work he does is extremely important. Reykjavík based deCODE Genetics has collected the full DNA sequences of 10 000 Icelanders. Since the people in Iceland are all related to each other, the company could accurately guess the DNA’s of the rest of the country’s population based on this information. deCODE’s data can identify gene mutations related to for example different types of cancer.

A mystery without a filter

Stefánsson is the second most famous Icelander after Björk and his daughter is married to late George Harrison’s son. However, the celebrity status hasn’t softened him. The neurological mastermind is notorious for his lack of filter. Earlier this year he called Iceland’s former prime minister Davíð Gunnlaugsson an “obese two-year-old little boy”. And Finns, he thinks, are lazy bastards who never got over the falling of the USSR. What sort of keynote can we expect from a guy this opinionated?

”People love mystery and that’s essentially what science is.”

“No one has any say in what I’m going to talk about. I will come up with that on the spot”, he fires. We shouldn’t be too worried, though: Stefánsson knows what he’s talking about. Before founding his company in 1996 he worked years as a professor of neurology, neuropathology and neuroscience at Harvard University and University of Chicago. He’s been at it for so long he knows what keeps people interested in science.

“On one hand it’s the novelty of the knowledge. On the other hand it’s the mystery. People love mystery and that’s essentially what science is.”

Kári Stefánsson seems to be a bit of a mystery himself. He leaves me with this enigmatic gem: “Entrepreneurs need to know one quality about science and that’s honesty.” I wait for Stefánsson to elaborate, but he has already turned off the webcam and left.

BIO

Kári Stefánsson, M.D. & Dr. Med., is the founder, President, CEO and Director of the world’s leading biotech company, deCODE Genetics. From 1983 to 1993 Stefánsson held faculty positions in neurology, neuropathology and neuroscience at the University of Chicago. From 1993 to 1997, he was a professor of said fields at Harvard University. Stefánsson is among the leaders of the world in the discovery of variants in the sequence of the human genome that associate with the risk of common/complex traits.

In 2007, Dr. Stefánsson was chosen as one of the 100 most influential people and one of the 10 most important biologists of the 21st century by Time Magazine and Newsweek respectively. He was the recipient of the Jakobus Award 2007, The World Glaucoma Association Award for present scientific impact 2007, The European Society of Human Genetics Award 2009 and The Anders Jahre Award 2009.

Kári Stefánsson will be speaking on Slush's Green Stage on December 1st at 12.20 pm.

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