The Managing Director of Bayer Nordic Oliver Rittgen and professor Howy Jacobs had a discussion at the Biotech-Club.

Collaboration between academia and industry – not a paradox anymore

The BiotechClub at the University of Helsinki organized a joint event with Bayer Nordic in order to give views of the collaboration between Bayer and the academia concerning the future goals in complementing innovations of medical and basic research.

— BiotechClub is a great example of people who are concerned of what they are doing and make the initiative to take it forward although it is not something imposed by the university. This means that the doctoral students organize the BiotechClub by themselves, started the Director of the Institute of Biotechnology Howy Jacobs.

— BI is one of the flag ship institutes in Helsinki region although despite its name, in the past it was not much oriented towards applied science. This is, however, very much the theme of the BiotechClub trying to shape up students' careers. The goal is that you can apply your knowledge, approach, philosophy and discoveries to solve real world problems. This requires interaction with the private sector, said Jacobs.

— This interaction used to be rather sterile and the joint projects were not really joint but only something on paper in order to get funding for a project. Or that a company wanted technical help from a research group and after that the collaboration was over.

— I would like to see real joint projects between industry and academia with joint financing from both sides, suggested Jacobs. Projects should be developed together as a collaboration from the beginning on. It requires joint ideas so, people should talk to one another more. Complementary experties from both sides should be deployed.

— Furthermore, there should be more intense, almost a marriage-like relationship between companies and university units. Not just for a special project, but a company should see an academic unit beneficial for their own goals in the long term and put there funding according to their broad area of interest. After paying in advance, the company would get access to yet unknown academic IP rights and start developing the discoveries towards potential applications that can be commercialized, Jacobs visualized.

Jacobs described some very early stage plans that have emerged to develop a real innovation center in Helsinki according to above lines.

— We have started talks about it with colleagues at BI and with outside actors. The innovation center would include many different partners contributing with different things:

  • Institutes providing the source of academic discoveries
  • The city providing various platforms (e.g. buildings)
  • Investors
  • People with real business experties
  • Pharma industry

— The idea is to give scientists from BI or elsewhere funding and some specific experties (business or other) for 2—5 years. This would be a time-out from their basic science to develop their ideas, Jacobs explained.

— Starting any of this, however, requires that people talk to each other more, demanded Jacobs. The first goal is to develop a regular Helsinki Biotech Forum. It would have some aspects as a scientific conference and some as the startup event Slush. There people from all those organizations would be talking openly about their ideas towards developing new applications in the biotech.

— Such a forum could brand Helsinki as one or the global hub for biotech. Helsinki has there a rival, though, Basel with its big pharma companies, but there is also a vigorous industrial sector in Finland, which would be underpinning such an event by providing speakers and financing.

Bayer Nordic is the Nordic country group within the international Bayer company. It has its headquarters in Espoo and big production facilities in Turku and in Norway. The Managing Director of Bayer Nordic, Oliver Rittgen, was giving the views of the industry to the questions concerning collaboration between industry and academia.

— In the past, pharma industry had it easier to put new drugs to the market and get payback for their R&D costs. Nowadays, new drugs have reduced likelyhood to get the authority approval unless a significant increase in the economic outcome. Therefore, it is more and more difficult to be succesful with drug development overall, said Rittgen.

— Today pharma companies have two chances for success: Either to be very cost efficient, as the generic drug companies or to be extremely innovative, Rittgen told. Nordic countries are research and innovation heavy with big consumption in research and development. We believe in the R&D here and that is why Bayer is the heaviest investing pharma company in the Nordics.

— The fact that universities and the industry are strongly separated used to be very true still a couple of years ago and we are familiar with the thinking "industry is evil, science happens at universities". At least at Bayer since for many years, however, collaboration predominates over separation.

— Academia is sometimes afraid that startups and jobs leave the country with a big industrial partner. This has not been the case at least with Bayer.

— The basis for further collaboration is transparency, knowing who is doing what in the project. We are also mapping the interests of university and industry. Only when they overlap it is worth making an investment, Rittgen described.

— The outcome of the research cannot be usually predicetd in advance, though. Therefore, we also offer various more general grant programs for startups and university reseach groups. — I would say all is about finding interesting partners somewhere in the ecosystem, either startups, universities with biobanks or a big pharma company. We are constantly screening for potential collaboration opportunities.

The points presented at the BiotechClub in August sounded like a true win-win case for academic biomedical research and industry. The goals are different, funding or science but collaboration can bring success to both parties.

Text and photo Katri Pajusola

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