24 Nov 2015   |   News

Building the innovation hub in Stockholm

Alexander von Gabain, the new innovation leader at Karolinska Institutet, pushes the famed medical school to bring more companies, entrepreneurs and investment on campus

Networking can seem like a religion for Alexander von Gabain, the new head of innovation and commercial outreach at Stockholm’s famed medical university, Karolinska Institutet.

Nearly 20 years ago, drawing on his personal networks and research, he co-founded a major European vaccine company and led it as CEO until its initial public offering.  For four years, he was chair of a new European agency that is all about networking, the European Institute of innovation and Technology. For universities and companies alike, he says, the “eco-system” for innovation is critically important. To develop ideas and talent, “it’s better you are in an eco-system where people find value.”

So it should come as no surprise that his first steps at Karolinska, as deputy vice-chancellor for innovation and corporate alliances, have been to deepen and broaden the university’s connections. One instance came in May, with the announcement of an unusual deal for Johnson & Johnson to open a small office on campus to scout for new drugs in KI labs – and across the Nordic region; von Gabain says he intends similar deals with other companies. Also announced this year was a new chair in innovation, endowed by a $4 million alumnus gift by the late US biotech entrepreneur, Entrez Balazs;  and creation of a broadly-constituted Innovation Council to get more joined-up thinking about innovation in and around the campus.

The entrepreneurial touch

At Karolinska in Stockholm, as it was at the EIT in Budapest, his intent is to get research, education and business working together to produce new products, businesses and young leaders. The objective is translating bio-medical breakthroughs into better healthcare.

And propelling it all is the entrepreneur: “We have to push into the centre the entrepreneur,” he says. That makes a major university like Karolinska a critically important place for training new leaders. Already, every first-year undergraduate there has to have some exposure to basic concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation, such as patents and translation. And the school has long had one of Europe’s most active masters’ programmes for aspiring bio-entrepreneurs.

KI’s push for innovation began in 1995 with former KI President Hans Wigzell, who argued that great science and teaching weren’t enough; translating them into societal health and prosperity was also a responsibility of the university. In subsequent years, a string of new initiatives appeared. In 2011 it became only the third university in Europe, with Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield, to spin an in-house investment company out onto the stock market, in an effort to raise more capital for its bio-ventures. That particular initiative, Karolinska Development AB, hit heavy turbulence in the past year with a reported loss, a decline in portfolio value, and rapid management turnover at the top; to stablise, it has recruited a new chairman who secured a large Thai investor.

Culture wars

What’s important now, he says, is focusing on the culture of the university overall - “to change the mind-set”.  As the university whose faculty names the Nobel for medicine every year, Karolinska “will always have the top class in research, in people. But we could do better on innovation. We should have as a benchmark MIT and Weizmann. We have to do something to reinforce the innovation culture.”

Von Gabain, who started work in Stockholm late last year, says his strategy is broad: To integrate, in his newly created role, the different aspects of innovation on campus. To start, the new Innovation Council brings together university, hospital, county and business leaders. It meets five to six times a year to consider overall strategy, on a five-year outlook. KI is also expanding innovation-related courses in the curricula. It’s developing a new set of metrics – key performance indicators, in business-school speak – to track its progress on innovation. And it will organise one of the hubs of a new EIT consortium, EIT Health.

The university is also seeking more capital for its primary investment arm, Karolinska Institutet Holding AB. The aim, Von Gabain says, it to make it “a real commercial vehicle, with seed funds and incubators.” It can provide high-risk ‘proof of concept’ funding for Karolinska researchers who think they’re on to something valuable, but need more business help to find out.  It has preliminary commitments for €5 million so far.

Central to Von Gabain’s strategy is enmeshing big companies in campus life, in a way seldom undertaken in Europe. Karolinska and the area of Stockholm around it are in the midst of a major construction project, creating one of Europe’s largest science parks. A number of drug companies are already involved: Merck, Roche and Astra-Zeneca have been regular partners for individual KI researchers for years.

J&J’s new Nordic hub

But the Johnson & Johnson deal is broader – and, it appears, more open-ended than the norm in university-industry relations. The US pharma giant said that its London innovation office is to “establish a hub” at KI to scout for new drug and therapy prospects on the Stockholm campus, but also throughout the Nordic region. The company said it will provide researchers “investment, coaching and access to a range of resources and expertise.” The office, it said, is “a platform to explore opportunities in the wider Nordic regional life science ecosystem.”

The deal, Von Gabain says, does not give J&J exclusive rights to KI research, or a right of first refusal. But it is understood, he said, that J&J would be “disappointed” if the KI labs had something interesting and didn’t tell the company. The financial terms include an annual “maintenance” fee for the office, plus the potential of seed funding – possibly with Karolinska Institutet Holding – for interesting projects. The deal is for three years, as an experiment for both sides.

Von Gabain says he’d like to see more such deals happening on campus – and not just with pharmaceutical companies. Big data and other information technologies will be crucial for future medical breakthroughs; Silicon Valley would also be welcome in Stockholm, he says.

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