With the establishment of the BioRN Innovation Center in the Rhine-Neckar Life Science Cluster, a professional, specialist and neutral intermediary between science and industry will be available to support the transfer of technologies in all of the cluster’s research institutions. In addition, the BioRN Innovation Center acts as a partner for strategic alliances set up to reinforce the competitiveness of the institutions on the European and international levels.
In addition to their education and research missions, the public research institutions – universities and non-university research centres – are also aiming to turn knowledge into innovations that improve people’s quality of life and/or increase the competitiveness of industry, resulting in socio-economic benefit for society. The effective transfer of knowledge and technologies is absolutely essential for turning scientific research into innovations.
The effective exploitation of results achieved in publicly financed research essentially depends on the appropriate handling of the intellectual property generated at the research institutions, no matter whether the intellectual property is protected by patents or other legal instruments (for example, the Copyright Law, or the Design Patent or Trademark Laws). The transfer of knowledge is not entirely aimed at generating revenues – and may not indeed be the major goal of public research institutions – nevertheless, the granting of licenses, the establishment of start-up companies and partnerships with industry are likely to lead to substantial financial yields that all benefit research. The major technology transfer (TT) activities, which account for more than half of all notices of invention and TT-generated revenues, occur in the field of life sciences, with the next most important field being the physical-technical sciences. The legally protected intellectual property of research institutions plays a key role in the technology transfer from the life sciences into economic application.
The majority of research institutions nowadays have own technology transfer offices (TTO) to promote the use of research innovations for the benefit of society and create revenues from the transfer of intellectual property to industry. The TTOs are based on the American university model. As early as the 1990s, many institutions in the Rhine-Neckar Bioregion set up technology transfer offices: the European Molecular Biology established EMBLEM GmbH and the German Cancer Research Centre its Office of Technology Transfer; Universität Heidelberg has several TTOs, one at the University Hospital and others at the various faculties. The “Coordination Office for Research and Development” at the University of Mannheim is also in charge of other universities of applied sciences in Baden-Württemberg and the Max Planck Innovation GmbH in Munich is in charge of the technology transfer issues of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, as well as of all other Max Planck Institutes in Germany.
The TTOs provide services to the producers of technologies, i.e. the researchers and the research institutions at which they work. Their major activities include IP management, the sensitisation of researchers to issues of political strategy, i.e. the transfer of innovations from publicly financed research institutions into society, as well as the implementation of technology transfer for the benefit of the institution where they work. For industry, as the recipient of new technologies, the situation is rather confusing due to the large number of different authorities and agencies in charge of technology transfer. This is particularly the case with the exploitation of research projects that involve a number of different institutions. The number of projects involving more than just one institution is increasing, as groundbreaking innovations often arise from interdisciplinary, “cross-border” cooperations.
When the Rhine-Neckar Biotechnology Cluster won the “leading edge cluster” competition run by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2008, BioRN Cluster Management GmbH was established in order to further develop the cluster. The long-term goal of BioRN Cluster Management GmbH is to promote the transfer of technologies within the cluster in the field of life sciences, in particular in medical biotechnology, as well as to advance the transfer of technologies from the point of view and in the interest of companies.
Dr. Armin Pscherer, in charge of project and knowledge management at BioRN Cluster Management GmbH, is working on the establishment of the BioRN Innovation Center. Under the leadership of Dr. Pscherer, the BioRN Innovation Center will develop and operate structures for proactive technology transfer and for closer cooperation between science and industry in the region.
The BioRN Innovation Center sees itself as a professional, specialist and neutral point of contact that acts on behalf of both partners – science and industry: the BioRN Innovation Center offers cooperation or service contracts to all TTOs that are active in the cluster’s life science sector and all scientific institutions. In addition, it directly liaises with pharmaceutical companies, thus selecting project enquiries according to demand and interest rather than according to institutional affiliation. This also enables the BioRN Innovation Center to identify innovations brought about by several institutions that the TTOs of the respective parent organisations find difficult to identify due to their affiliation to a specific institution. Pscherer reported that the transfer of innovations from academic institutions is as follows: about ninety percent of innovations result from R&D cooperations with industry for which strict IP protection is not normally required; ten per cent are licensing deals involving huge sums of money and only one per cent comes from start-up companies with a survival potential of more than five years. In order to increase the proportion of successful and profitable licensing deals and start-up companies, Pscherer believes that what is required is a critical mass (which would exist if all the research institutions of the BioRN Cluster were taken into account), an overview of this critical mass and third, a regular “proactive technology scouting” in the entire cluster.
Proactive scouting means that specialised Innovation Center staff, in cooperation with the relevant TTOs, visit scientists in their institutes rather than waiting for researchers to find their way to the technology transfer officers once they have IP-relevant results available. Interactive industry coaching and training workshops will be held in the institutions, which provide a comprehensive overview of the innovation potential in the region in relation to the innovations a particular institution might come up with, as well as serving to establish early contact with scientists and their projects. Care is taken to establish contact with researchers either during the “finding phase” when promising research results are identified, or no later than the “orientation phase”, when the technical feasibility and the economic potential of the innovation can be identified. The general goal of scouting is to identify promising projects as early as possible, so that the exploitation of the results can be driven in a specific direction (for example, R&D cooperation, IP for out-licensing or IP for company foundation). Pscherer estimates that there are around 600 project leaders and principal investigators in the cluster who would be suited for such purposes. Such a proactive and area-wide technology scouting cannot possibly be carried out by the TTOs of the individual institutions due to lack of personnel and their strong focus on the registration and management of intellectual property.
In addition to the principal investigators, the institutions themselves stand to benefit from industry coaching workshops. Advantages include: the acquisition of additional industry funds and hence greater flexibility for the institutions’ own research and better access to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies as well as to other regional cluster partners in government and associations or to venture capital investors. BioRN also offers access to important international partners for the commercialisation of scientific results.
In addition to the two leading biomedicine clusters in Europe – Leuven in Belgium and Cambridge in England – the new “Health Axis Europe” is a strategic alliance that brings together the health technology clusters in Leuven, Cambridge and BioRN and is aimed at cross-leveraging the innovation resources and jointly increasing the international competitiveness of the three clusters. The three clusters are focused on complementary health technology areas: Cambridge specialises in regenerative medicine and stem cells, Leuven in medical electronics and nanotechnology and Heidelberg in personalised medicine and cancer research. The initial goal of the new alliance is to initiate large translational research, development and education projects in the field of health technology. Initially, Health Axis Europe will work together to initiate major transnational collaborations in health technology research, development and education between the three regions.
BioRN Cluster Management GmbH is the only German founding member of the International Commercialization Alliance (ICA) that was inaugurated in March 2011 in Ottawa, and brings together experts from 18 countries. ICA will focus on exemplary practices and emerging models to build sustainable, innovative companies that are based on the results of publicly funded research. “ICA is an ideal platform for intermediaries – brokers at the boundary of academic research and industry – to exchange information,” said Dr. Armin Pscherer who participated in the inaugural meeting in Ottawa, Canada on 31st March 2011. “The ICA will focus on “best practices” but to an even greater extent on “next practices”, i.e. innovative approaches,” said Pscherer describing the goals of the alliance which also involves the other two Health Axis Europe partners.