The ability of scientists from different disciplines to understand each other as well as excellent communication skills play an ever-increasing role in the transfer of knowledge from academic research to industry. Vice president of research at the Konstanz University of Applied Sciences (HTWG), Professor Gunter Voigt, explains how academia and industry work together and also highlights the conditions that are necessary for such cooperations to lead to a successful outcome for both parties. He talked with BioLAGO about the university’s technology transfer activities, taking the university’s intramedullary nail project as an example.
Prof. Voigt, what kind of transfer models are generally used at the Konstanz University of Applied Sciences?
The most important type of transfer works through brain power, in other words the appropriate application of learning. Our master’s students in particular are involved in research projects at the university and they then go on to apply the skills and knowledge they gain from this during internships in industrial companies. Professors supervise the students and also act as direct points of contact with industry. Another important instrument of knowledge and technology transfer is cooperative research projects that are mainly financed with public funds and through the participation of companies. These projects are generally knowledge-driven. And then there is also contract research, which we carry out on behalf of companies. Companies commission the university to carry out a specific research project. The content and the extent of transfer models also depend on the HTWG's capacities in a specific discipline. Transfer of knowledge and technology can range from consulting over a certain period of time to research projects where the work and personnel are funded over a period of several years. How is a technology project established at the HTWG? Do projects like these result from industry contacting the university in order to explore and find solutions for certain issues?
With regard to the intramedullary nail project, I believe that the decisive factors were the personal contacts the project initiators had with the companies involved and the HTWG Konstanz’ openness to working with companies. The cooperation with the company that now owns the patent was set up when we presented the first prototype at the Medica trade show.What role does the HTWG’s technology transfer office play?
Technology transfer activities are carried out in close cooperation with the HTWG’s research department, which deals with the preparation of contracts, offers and invoices. It is also in charge of patent management and offers a research- and transfer-friendly structure. Industrial property rights are filed in different ways. Generally speaking, the professors and staff of the HTWG are subject to the German Employee Invention Law. Therefore, the HTWG decides on how an invention is to be used. The Technology Transfer Office is supported by the Technology Licensing Office of the Baden-Württemberg Universities (TLB) for issues concerning the assessment, filing and utilisation of intellectual property rights.
Can you tell me more about the hurdles the intramedullary nail project has faced? The major hurdles are generally of a financial nature. There are of course technical hurdles as well, but they can be solved relatively easily, as can the challenges arising from contractual conditions. Financing is more difficult. The HTWG actually had to learn a lot, in particular as far as the approval of materials and solutions for use in the medical-technology sector is concerned.What are the differences between the new intramedullary nail and existing models?An important feature is that the intramedullary nail is smaller than currently used nails and it costs less to produce. In addition, the new actuator system enables the nail to be implanted into bones more easily than other nails. The strain caused to patients can also be considerably reduced as it is possible to alter the length of the nail without direct external mechanical connection.
Does the university hold the patent rights? What important issues have to be dealt with in this area? In this particular case, the university decided to sell the patents. An important issue in deciding whether the patents are held by the university or not is of course what the company, and also the university, has in mind. It is generally possible for the patents to either continue to be held by the university or be sold. Another important issue is the usability of a property right. The property rights can be sold, and thus assigned, to third parties. These licenses consist of either exclusive or non-exclusive rights to use the intellectual property. When the HTWG decides to sell rights, the university retains the right to use the outlicensed IP for teaching and research. Details are negotiated with the licensee and contracts of assignment are drawn up.How long did the intramedullary nail project take from initial development to market maturity?The first versions of intramedullary nails have been in use for many years and are equipped with conventional electrical actuator systems. However, the intramedullary nail is constantly undergoing further technological development and the latest version is equipped with an unconventional innovative actuator system. It is a complex medical product; such projects take around ten years from the development stage to the granting of marketing authorisation, which also involves testing the products in clinical studies. The intramedullary nail project involves doctors and business people. How would you describe their different ways of thinking? Is special understanding needed to bridge the different expectations of science and industry?As a professor in an academic institution, it is difficult for me to speak on behalf of doctors and business people. However, the university does need quite a bit of special understanding to develop good working relationships in order to ascertain the interests of all parties involved, especially as far as the understanding of how the interfaces between engineering science, medicine and manufacturing companies is concerned. But the HTWG is very application oriented and has a great deal of experience to fall back on. The HTWG tends to appoint professors with professional experience in industry as they then have the competence required for interdisciplinary understanding and the ability to communicate efficiently and reach compromises. These are key factors that we look for in our appointment procedure. And this is why we are in an excellent position to successfully run complex projects that involve people from a broad range of different sectors.
The intramedullary nail project
The new intramedullary nail was developed at the Konstanz University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with a medical technology company. This nail is equipped with an active actuator system that enables bones to be lengthened and the bone defect to be bridged. The actuator involves so-called shape memory alloys (SMAs). The SMAs are intermellatics (also called intermetallic compounds), stimuli-responsive materials that have the capability to change their shape when an external stimulus is applied (temperature change, tension). This can be done by deforming the material at a low temperature. The permanent shape is stored while the sample takes on the temporary shape. The sample returns to its permanent shape when a critical temperature is exceeded. A high-frequency unit, which is operated by placing a generator coil on the skin, serves as motor. Energy is applied for a few minutes, the generator coil can then be removed and the patient is able to move around again without hindrance. An external connection to the implanted intramedullary nail is not required.
Prof. Dr. Gunter VoigtE-mail: gvoigt(at)htwg-konstanz.deTel.: +49 (0) 75 31/ 206 - 510Fax: +49 (0) 7531/ 206 - 87 510
Dr.-Ing. Joachim StrittmatterE-mail: joker1(at)htwg-konstanz.de Tel.: +49 7531/ 206 - 317