Viewpoint Roland Wolf
Exploiting the scientific excellence of Scottish universities in the commercial sector…
Viewpoint Roland Wolf
Exploiting the scientific excellence of Scottish universities in the commercial sector
Research collaborations between universities, the pharmaceutical industry and biotechnology companies are an integral and highly successful component of all Scottish universities. There are numerous examples of how such scientific/commercial interactions have resulted in improved health care and have contributed to the Scottish economy. In the distant past, such collaborations may have been frowned on by academics, but they are now a key component of their research portfolio. However, translating academic excellence and university research into the creation of successful spin-out companies has slowed down over the last few years. We need to understand the reasons behind this slowdown and to develop new approaches to regain momentum in an area where Scotland has world-class expertise and that has the potential to make a major contribution to the Scottish economy.
Academics are judged by the international competitiveness and impact of their research. Their goal is to perform research of the highest standard to benefit mankind. This is reinforced by government through the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which assesses academic research output and provides financial support to universities based on their performance. Although the REF takes commercial activity into account, university researchers are extremely concerned about any new commitments that risk damaging their basic research careers. Given the large amount of time needed and the uncertain rewards, setting up a new company is often perceived as a very risky commitment for academics.
New ways are needed to support academics as founders of companies in achieving the correct balance between academic and commercial work. Universities, and their funding systems, need to give appropriate recognition and reward to academics who invest precious time in commercialisation, and investors need to understand that academic founders are generally motivated by translating science into either public or patient benefit, rather than by short-term financial return or making money per se. The latter is, of course, essential to any successful business, but the balance between vision, innovation and commercial return must be dynamic to navigate the complex landscape to significant growth and success.
Understanding motivations is also fundamental in the relationship between founders, the CEO, the board and the investors. Generally speaking, founders should do what they do best and be concerned with the intellectual and scientific management of the company and not its day-to-day management. A biotechnology company cannot operate like a major pharmaceutical company, and a balance between running a commercial business and innovation, entrepreneurship and motivation is needed. The company’s CEO and board must have an in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the business it is running, including the science and the market-place, otherwise competitiveness will be lost and the company will not realise its potential.
Finally, the relationship between the founder, the CEO and the chairman of the board is pivotal to the success of a spin-out company. This must be based on mutual respect, transparency and trust. There must be a high level of commitment from all parties; simply turning up for board meetings is not enough. Everyone must subscribe to a common vision and goal.
Scotland’s universities spend hundreds of millions of pounds on outstanding innovative research every year, yet are still not exploiting efficiently the best of the significant economic benefits that this should create. There are many possible reasons for this and we are still searching for a model that both encourages and reduces the pressures on founders. More effective new initiatives are urgently needed to try and bridge this gap, as current approaches have been largely ineffectual. It is critical that we re-evaluate our approach and that government, higher education funding councils and investors all listen to what the academics are saying. Academics in Scotland are up for this!
Roland Wolf is Director of the Biomedical Research Centre, University of Dundee; Honorary Director of CRUK Molecular Pharmacology Unit, Ninewells Hospital and Medical School; and a member of the Scottish Science Advisory Council.