Europe has a reputation for producing some of the best science, but its scientists often lack the skills, support and resources that are required to translate good ideas from lab to market.
One key element is having some sort of demonstration of commercial potential, another is attracting capital. A third is having drive and personality. The three are summed up by the ability to make an ‘elevator’ pitch, in which would-be entrepreneurs have three minutes to explain their idea and convince investors to back them.
This was backdrop for a Science|Business Innovation Board event held last week at the European Research Council (ERC), when nine winners of ERC Proof-of Concept (PoC) grants were trained and then invited to present their ideas to investors and stakeholders in three-minute long elevator pitches.
The projects covered a broad range of technologies, from 3D printing tools for nanostructures, to enzymes able to recognise nucleotide sequences in RNA molecules. The winner was Alberto Broggi, a professor at the University of Parma who has developed a low cost 3D sensor. Armagan Kocer, assistant professor at the Department of Neuroscience at the University Medical Center Groningen was the runner-up with her project to develop a targeted drug delivery system.
The grant holders learned how to be at the top of their game even when subject to lots of pressure, and were invited to engage in a broader policy discussion about the slow and risky process of getting new ideas to the market.
Also taking part in the debate were Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the ERC, Peter Gudmundson, President of the Royal Institute of Technology, Laura Montagna, Director of SKF’s Engineering & Research Centre, and Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General of DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission.
Researchers cannot do it all. First and foremost they need to focus on the research - it seems inevitable they will overlook the intellectual property and business aspects of their projects. As a PoC grant holder, Kocer said scientists need people who can take care of the business and IP side, because business can be a distraction from the actual research.
Not all universities have well-functioning technology transfer offices (TTOs) and researchers are often drawn into a process they do not know much about. In the absence of proper TTOs, the Commission could think of new funding basic business and IP training programmes for promising researchers who want to get their ideas to the market, but lack the necessary know-how.
Universities should be more involved in helping their researchers to succeed: at present European universities do not offer many incentives or support for collaborations with industry. Scientists are rewarded for publishing in the best journals - the better the journal, the higher the reward - and they fear working with industry will harm their academic careers.
Both Peter Gudmundson and Robert-Jan Smits argued that European universities should try to overcome this cultural barrier and create a new reward system. Otherwise, good ideas will languish in obscure libraries and online databases.
Universities and researchers need a reward system that celebrates taking the risk of commercialisation, Smits said. There need to be more interfaces between academia and industry, he added.
It is true that many researchers believe they have to make a choice between becoming a famous professor and getting rich. Moreover, many are conservative and view business as a very risky affair. The PoC grants seek to overcome these misconceptions, allowing excellent researchers to test their ideas and to build prototypes, so they can validate their research.
Becoming a famous professor and getting rich can go hand-in-hand, said Smits. These situations are not mutually exclusive, but the rewards system in academia needs to change and universities need to cooperate more with industry. Only then can it be expected researchers will show the same level of eagerness to develop businesses as in the US.
In addition, universities need to be more open, and to remove the division between professors and students, Bourguignon said. Human interaction is very important and the education system needs to change, to allow this factor to come into play, he added.
Researchers may have the necessary motivation and inventiveness, but they also need to experience the constraints faced by industry, said Montagna. Companies cannot do everything in-house and need partners who can adapt and be alert to the rhythm of industry.
As Gudmundson pointed out, universities need to adopt an entrepreneurial culture that will enable the creation of more start-ups that aim to reach the global market. Europe could look to the example of small countries which are forced to think like that.
More details about the PoC grantees and their projects: www.sciencebusiness.net/events/NewTechnologies/