The ability to generate knowledge is the basis of innovation. The first, in theory, is born above all in universities; the second, supposedly, in the company. But reality is almost never that simple.
After decades of fighting with each other, more and more universities understand that knowledge in itself is not enough to improve society and that seeking a practical application to their research not only does not interfere with knowledge, but rather improves it.
On the other hand, there are also more and more companies that know that without the knowledge of experts they are nothing. Or what is the same: that innovation without the support of a good theory is nothing more than fireworks, cheap magic tricks.
In recent years, say many experts, Spanish hospitals and research centers have shown that they do not have much to envy the elite in terms of patents and publications in high-impact journals.
“Although we have the most important thing, we face a clear area of improvement, Transfer that knowledge to companies that have the capabilities to turn it into products and services”, underlines Rocío Arroyo, CEO of Amadix.
Making the leap from the laboratory to the startup is not easy. However, it is becoming more frequent. Thus, Business Insider Spain has talked to some scientists and researchers who now lead successful start-ups and companies. How they did it?
Biotechnology for early detection of cancer: Amadix
Rocío Arroyo is 49 years old, has a degree in pharmacy from the Complutense University of Madrid and has an MBA from the Instituto de Empresa. In addition to her research side, she is a mentor in support programs for researchers and entrepreneurs, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of AseBio (Spanish Association of Biocompanies), where she coordinates the National Group of Molecular Diagnosis and Personalized Medicine.
Arroyo has been awarded the National Innovation Award from the Ministry of Science (2022) and the EU Innovative Woman Award (2022). He is currently CEO of Amadix, a biotechnology company dedicated to the early detection of cancer through a blood test.
As explained to Business Insider Spain, his professional career has been focused from the beginning on cancer prevention through innovation. Now, at Amadix they are working on precision medicine to detect the molecular signals of colon, pancreatic and lung cancer in a blood test before the first symptoms of the disease appear. “We want to get ahead of the tumor to extend the lives of patients.”
“Especially in health, researchers are the first to want to see how their scientific advances they finally get to transfer the patients. For this reason, technology transfer is increasingly encouraged from the transfer offices of our hospitals and research centers”.
In fact, as the entrepreneur indicates, in recent years several training programs have been launched aimed at scientists who want to undertake and acquire leadership and management skills for companies based on the technologies that they themselves develop, so that they can finally reach to the market.
For the CEO of Amadix, one of the keys to ensure that research and advances reach the patient is to “strengthen and professionalize the technology transfer offices of hospitals and research centers, providing them with sufficient human resources to provide support and tools to researchers.”
“It would be very positive to encourage and give more weight in the academic career to applied results, including economic returns for the researcher. Establish from the research center a system of incentives for cooperation between companies and research groups”, adds the entrepreneur.
Medical device for diagnosis of preterm labor: Innitius
Rubén Molina is 30 years old, from Martos, Jaén. He studied Building Engineering and a Master’s in Structural Engineering at the University of Granada, where he began his doctoral thesis on the device that gave rise to his entrepreneurship.
“I didn’t finish my thesis, I abandoned it to create the company. It is a decision that has marked and will mark my whole life, although I can’t be more sure that I did the right thingMolina explains.
“Since we created Innitius and I left university, my work has been about generating clinical and commercial value from our scientific base, plus, of course, raising funds so that we can continue to grow and move forward.”
With Innitius, Molina develops a medical device for the diagnosis of preterm labor. It consists of a hardware part that measures the consistency of the pregnant patient’s cervical tissue, and a software part that combines this mechanical parameter with other variables from the patient’s clinical history to give the diagnosis.
As the Andalusian entrepreneur adds, “preterm labor is the first pathology that we are going to tackle, but we can and we will apply the technology to other fields such as labor induction, fertilization in vitroetc”.
For Rubén Molina it is important to highlight that an exceptional scientist does not necessarily have to be an exceptional entrepreneur. “I always say that everyone has to focus their work on what really adds value.”
Regarding the transfer of knowledge in Spain, the entrepreneur has a fairly positive impression, although he states that “he would place more emphasis on analyzing and promoting not only industrial property, but also the need to be covered and whether this technology or science can make a real impact in society”.
“There has been a very drastic change in terms of support from public institutions. Whether they are universities, health systems or regional governments. They are betting on entrepreneurship and a lot is being invested in provoking it from universities and research centers, as well as helping startups in their initial stages”.
Business and science, worlds closer and closer
Eva Martín Becerra has a similar impression, a biologist who once dreamed of leading a more or less canonical career in the field of health sciences but who, after running into the barriers encountered by all researchers in Spain, turned towards a world that ended up fascinating her even more: that of connecting science and business,
“There is no color with respect to what happened 10 or 15 years ago. There is still a long way to go in terms of support from the institutions and removal of bureaucratic obstacles, but there has been a change of mentality.”
Years ago, he relates, concepts such as spin-off, that allude in the world of startups and research to projects that arise from other projects to the point of taking on their own entity, were not even contemplated.
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Today, explains the CEO and founders of Kinrel, a company specialized in technology transfer, there are universities that are even encouraged to enter the shareholding of companies that emerged as spin-off of their own research projects. The times are not far off when this was little less than a heresy.
It is a union that has fallen under its own weight, summarizes the entrepreneur and researcher: “If you think about it, Running a scientific project is not that different from running a business.. In the end, after a certain level, scientists touch the laboratory less and less and are more aware of issues such as the budget for their research.”
Martín Becerra emphasizes this precisely in the courses he teaches young researchers: “I teach them to think about things that until they leave the university they don’t worry about, such as what they want to develop, if it has a commercial outlet, how they want to sell it, to what public. .. Many tell me that they thought it was going to be a drag but that in the end they had fun”.
However, if there is someone who has witnessed how the relationship between science and startups has changed in recent years, it is Manuel Pérez, president of the Spanish Association of Scientific Entrepreneurs.
Not content with having reached the rank of Professor of Genetics at the University of Valencia, Pérez has also found time to work as head of the journal Medical Genetics News and to work more or less closely in more than a dozen business projects. The first of them dates from 1998, when the word startup was not even contemplated in Spain.
“Many researchers in Spain are civil servants, which means that our salary is paid by the people. For this reason, it is part of my responsibility to make sure that what I do does not remain in scientific journals, but reaches society. Books are great, but they don’t cure illnesses, that can be achieved with diagnostic products and medicines”, explains Pérez.
For him, the collaboration between business and science is not simply a matter of creating synergies, it is not something optional: one gives meaning to the other and vice versa.
“I started founding companies because there is a point where the university cannot go any further since its mission is to create knowledge, not to sell it. Many times, the only way to achieve this is to create a company, transfer knowledge and let it commercially exploit the idea,” says Pérez.
This was what happened, for example, with the first company that Pérez co-founded, Sistemas Genómicos, a biotechnological company that has grown remarkably in its more than 20 years of life and that today is part of the German Synalab Group.
Pérez’s idea when he helped create it, however, was not so much to create a successful company as to have something that would allow him to take the DNA-based disease diagnosis technology that he was researching at the time further.
He did it. Today Sistemas Genómicos has, among many other genetic analysis tools, even self-analysis kits (for which you must have your own laboratory).
“Thanks to Sistemas Genómicos we were able to sequence the first genomes in the world and present the results in Nature. Investigating gives the opportunity to know the technology in depth, but the leading technology companies give the space to go further. For this reason, it is no longer so frowned upon that a scientist also wants to undertake,” says Pérez.
The professor does not miss more money, although he does more steps in front of both the university and investment funds.
“On the one hand, I believe that we must continue walking in the culture of not staying only in scientific publications. On the other, the funds have to understand that good research is a project in the medium and long term. I still find many who , without having much idea, they want to invest and return too quickly”.
While businessmen and scientists learn to speak the same language, Pérez demands more support from the Government.
“Everyone, those on one side and those on the other, have more or less turned their backs on us. Attendees and speakers come to the annual congresses of entrepreneurial scientists paying for it out of pocket. When they really help us, something I think will happen, We will really change the trend.”