View from Poland: building blocks for translational medicine are in place but the disconnect between research and industry persists

25 Jun 2014 | Viewpoint

The EU-funded BASTION project aims to build relationships between science and industry and promote the translation of cancer research into new treatments. But a number of obstacles must be removed before true collaboration can flourish

At a recent meeting, Poland’s medical scientists and biotech companies gathered to discuss how to stimulate translational research in oncology and enhance cooperation between science and industry. The event was organised by the Medical University of Warsaw and BASTION, an EU-funded project which aims to reduce the time from scientific discovery to clinical application. To assess the industry perspective, Science|Business spoke to Robert Verhagen, CEO of Helix BioPharma, to get his views on what is needed now

Q: What do you think Poland needs to do to be more successful at translating research to the market and what is missing in terms of academia-industry collaboration?

A: I’ve been in biotech and drug development for a lot of years and the biggest problem in academic and industry collaboration is the disconnect between what everybody wants to do. Each party can have different goals that, on the surface, may seem conflicting. And it’s quite interesting that if you can sit down with people and be upfront about what you want and they’re upfront about what they want, it’s easier to come to a collaboration that’s much more fruitful. It’s hard to do that in a formal way, it has to be through good communication.

A few years ago (in a different company) we were trying to do a collaboration with a group in the US. Their only goal was to publish, but they thought I didn’t want them to. I have no problems with researchers publishing anything that comes out of my collaborations with them. As long as I get to protect it, I am actually happy about them publishing. As soon as we agreed on a process for IP and publishing, the collaboration was very fruitful.

It’s hard to do that unless you have this component of communications between industry and academia in order to understand what the goals are. Each research institute has a goal, each company has a goal, and they have different reasons for getting into a collaboration. Unless you get the chance to sit with them and talk it’s usually not going anywhere. That’s the problem.

Q: Do you think that researchers should do more than just focus on publishing? Do you think they should have a more active role in IP protection and transferring results to the market?

A: That’s their job. I mean, what’s the goal of an academic researcher? It’s to publish and innovate. It all depends on what the arrangements are, but once it gets to a publication standpoint if you want to move forward that’s going to be the company’s job. An academic’s job is to innovate.

It’s very important that the goals of any collaboration are clear upfront. But, it’s hard for academic researchers to say “I am going to follow this plan and no more because they don’t know if they want to go any farther, explore a different facet of the research, etc.  And because they’re afraid they’re not going to have enough industrial support, which is important to them, it can be unclear unless goals are stated upfront.

Q: So, who should take care of the IP side?

A: The company. Always. IP is one of the largest assets to a life science company and IP management is a key component to business longevity.

Q: But teaching researchers about IP is still necessary?

A: Everybody should be able to understand what IP is, and what can be considered as IP. But I’d prefer to manage the IP and let the researchers do the work. It makes more sense. I’m a big proponent of the company managing the IP – not necessarily owning it, but at least managing it.

Q: Do you think there is a conflict between academic researchers and industry in Poland?

A: That’s a struggle everywhere. I don’t thing that’s just here. Small biotech companies come from academia and most people involved don’t necessarily understand the entire drug development process.

Small biotech companies can do two things: try and learn the entire drug development process and then hire in others to be able to do it, or do it themselves, which can lead to failure. Or they just do the things that they’re really good at and hope to sell that output.

Academic researchers want to publish. They want to do work and tell the world about it. Small biotech companies want to do work and figure out how to exploit it, and in some cases feel that it should never be talked about because they feel the competition is too high. I think that’s false because as long as I have my IP strategy solved, publishing is actually very good from the company standpoint.

If I am a small biotech company and looking for another investor or partner like a large pharmaceutical company, and I am looking for a pay-out, they’re not going to know anything about this and I have to go to them fresh.

Publications solve this problem. If for the three years that I’ve been working on it they’ve been reading papers on this new pathway or drug candidate, when I am going to them they’re already going to understand. Half my job has been done by the academics who have been publishing their work. Publishing is good for both sides.

Q: What stops companies and academics in Poland taking this pragmatic view?

A: Experience. It’s a relatively young industry here. There is not a lot of expertise that has been built up both on the business and research side. The research is fantastic, always has been. The universities are well-equipped, the academic staff are amazing, their support staff are better than most other universities. They have access to technologists and you name it, they can do a lot of really good work.

There are three things that make the biotech industry get moving. One is the science, second is the people, and third is the money. I think the people are already here and I don’t want to suggest that they don’t know what they’re doing.

But, the problem is the money. In the US there is access to the really big money. When you plan to go really big funding is key, and the company needs to understand where that money might come from. The US is the largest biotech public market. It makes sense to access this.

It’s kind of interesting that I am working on both sides of the fence right now and I am trying to understand how I might be able to use that to my advantage, because I have a foot here in Poland and our goal is trying to build a start-up in Poland. We’d like to begin some of that basic research, some of that pre-clinical work, some of that innovation, through a network of institutions here, along with our corporate entity in Poland. And then use Canada for being able to raise large dollars. I am not sure how I am going to do that yet but it’s an advantage that we have a foot on both sides.

Venture capital is always a problem because it’s a personal thing. Researchers don’t understand why so many times they get refused by venture capitalists – but that’s because venture capitalists don’t understand research. It’s more difficult; raising money is hard work.

I think that will change over time. Biotech is new in Poland. It needs time to seep into the economy.  But from what I have experienced, the ingredients (people and science) are here for a successful industry.

Q: What could the government do to improve things on the policy side?

A: Canada has tried several different things, but there are no one or two strategies. I think there are certain things that can be done that make things easier to set up relationships between industry and academia. That would be a big step.  If governments can help to make it a little bit easier for this relationship to happen that would probably do a lot more than investing in research or things of that nature. Money is always great, but money is not going to help if relationships cannot be built.

Poland, they’ve got the people. Absolutely. They’ve got the science. Now they need the money and the relationships. The building blocks are there. I think it just needs some time for people to understand how to build relationships – and that’s going to be a very important part.

If the government can make academia and industry to work together through a flow of money or different types of regulation, or support in other ways, that would be great. It’s hard to pin down what the right formula would be, but support of any kind for building more relationships is always welcomed.

This is the second of a series of three viewpoints assessing Poland’s progress in developing collaborations between academe and industry to foster open innovation. The first article is here.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up