Bridging the Innovation Gap Between Academia and Industry
Speakers from the Pfizer Ventures Investments Team, Max Planck Innovation, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory convened at the German Center for Research and Innovation in New York to discuss what enables a seamless innovation partnership between academia and industry.
• German Center for Research and Innovation
• Max Planck Innovation
Dr. Jörn Erselius, Managing Director of Max Planck Innovation, kicked off the evening by providing the audience an overview of the Max Planck Society, the largest basic research organization in Germany, featuring 82 institutes nationally. Although the Society is primarily dedicated to basic research, it also recognizes the immense value of technology transfer, which led to its establishment of Max Planck Innovation. This decision highlights the fact that while technology transfer is not the Society’s official ‘mission,’ it is a ‘responsibility’ of the Max Planck Society, according to Dr. Erselius. The Society facilitates this knowledge transfer in a variety of ways: via 15,000 publications annually, the education of over 9,000 junior scientists, and numerous joint projects with universities and industry, as well as via license agreements and the development of startups based on Max Planck technologies. One economically successful technology transfer project that stems from a Max Planck startup, for example, is the drug Sutent®, which is now marketed by Pfizer. The Life Science Inkubator (LSI) in Bonn and Dresden is another example of an effort that Max Planck Innovation has undertaken to bridge the innovation gap between academia and industry. Similarly, Max Planck’s Lead Discovery Center (LDC) that focuses heavily on pharmacology aims to overcome the translational difficulties in the development process of new drugs.
Teri Willey, Vice President of Business Development and Technology Transfer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), stressed that her institution, which has been home to eight Nobel laureates, offers a collaborative environment that invests greatly in young scientists. These are a few reasons for why there is no tenure at CSHL. The lab’s portfolio contains innovative science education programs directed at individuals of all scientific levels: from middle school students to distinguished researchers. Although CSHL is primarily oriented towards basic science, it also is a place that is highly supportive of scientists and their entrepreneurial ventures. This support has resulted in 20 company spin-offs so far. Furthermore, CSHL fosters collaborations with public institutions for clinical trials so that CSHL’s research can have a greater impact on society at-large. According to Teri Willey, many key criteria need to be met in order for technology transfer to be successful, e.g. wise investment decisions, the right industry or investor partners, and of course, excellent science.
Dr. Barbara Dalton, Director of the Pfizer Ventures Investments Team, started off by congratulating the two speakers’ respective institutions for their great achievements. Before beginning her official presentation, she emphasized the importance of having private venture capitalists close to the research facility who understand the local situation. She then transitioned to looking back at recent historical developments in the field of pharmaceuticals. In the early nineteen eighties, molecular pharmacology emerged, producing many of the most economically successful medications, according to Dr. Dalton. Nowadays, with the development of a new drug costing up to a couple of billion dollars, many payers ask, “Isn’t what we have today good enough?” She explained that society needs to make a value decision about whether it wants to invest so much financially to move forward in the field of pharmacology. With this in mind, many patients still need new medications and advances in genetic discoveries could very well bring the next wave of highly successful treatments, as Dr. Dalton predicts. She described her own team’s mission as investing for return in areas of current or future strategic interests to Pfizer. In general, innovation comes from multiple sources and it is critical, in Dr. Dalton’s view, to have one’s eyes open to all of these sources, be it medical centers or research facilities. But it is also important to acknowledge that there might be disagreement between researchers, industry, and VC’s on what constitutes an actual innovation. Another key factor for successful technology transfer from Dr. Dalton’s experience is the people, specifically EIRs, or Entrepreneurs in Residence. She encouraged academia to create an EIR culture of its own and to rely on people who have already built their own companies and know what to do as well as which pitfalls to avoid.
Moderator Prof. Dr. Mark Ebers, Professor of Business Administration, Corporate Development, and Organization at the University of Cologne, posed the following two theses to the panelists and audience to spur a lively discussion: first, that the innovation gap between academia and industry is actually widening as both parties are suffering from financial cutbacks to basic research funding, and second, that industry and academia are a bit like oil and water, i.e. they do not mix easily, as they have very different end goals and reward systems. These provocative statements paved the way to an engaging discussion.