When Universities Unite
European academic institutions are banding together to help commercialize discoveries. But in such a high-stakes game, can all players get along?
French biochemist Charles Pineau was an expert in proteomics at the turn of the 21st century, when the field was in its infancy. The University of Rennes 1 researcher "knew some technical tricks about proteomics," but lacked the tools to translate his unique knowledge into a commercial product. A proteomics platform that integrated the latest chemical assays and computer analyses might help conduct cutting-edge research and refine the technology, but Pineau just didn't have the resources to assemble such a facility.
Then came OUEST-genopole. The consortium of universities, life science companies, and government research organizations covering western France attracts academic collaborators to "technological core facilities," where they can develop commercial products while using the latest technology and exchanging ideas with...
Pineau says that when he started Innova Proteomics, French government officials scoffed at his business model of charging companies and university labs different fees (companies pay roughly three times more for speedier analyses) for his services. "Two years later, they were not laughing anymore," Pineau remembers. Innova Proteomics posted revenues of €130,000 in 2008 and received several hundred thousand more in government grants. Pineau says that he collaborates on about 35 projects per year from universities throughout Europe; all thanks to OUEST-genopole. "OUEST-genopole plays a key role in developing platforms and also in research programs and getting labs discussing projects with each other," Pineau says.
In Europe, where the biotech industry and tech transfer have consistently lagged behind the United States, universities are tending towards a different model, where academic institutions band together under regionally based umbrella organizations that act as tech-transfer motherships. Because Europe doesn't have a history of successful academic spin-off companies and a vigorous culture of university tech transfer, universities may catch up by teaming up, says Ross DeVol, director of regional economics at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank. "They're trying to gain some efficiency by having a broader network."
But while Europeans might be able to invigorate tech transfer by sharing ideas, techniques, and materials through academic collaboration, such relationships can also have downsides. "Can you imagine getting a letter of understanding between five universities on how intellectual property would be dealt with?" asks Patrick Griffin, the director of the Scripps Research Institute's Translational Research Institute. Revenues, patents, and corporate leadership also represent potential stumbling blocks to multi-university partnerships.
Since its inception in 2002, OUEST-genopole has overseen the construction of 17 core technological facilities focusing on sequencing and genotyping, transcriptomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics. It currently works off of €1 million per year. The organization counts nearly 800 university researchers among its participants, and has already spun out more than five biotech companies, including Innova. Another one of these companies, Cytune Pharma, is designing and developing third-generation recombinant cytokines to modulate certain critical immune system functions, a process that could help treat cancer. A large pharmaceutical is showing interest in partnering with Cytune, says Jannick Jacques, cofounder of Cytune and an immunologist at the University of Nantes, but could not reveal any specifics as the deal is still under negotiation.
Five spinouts is notable, but in comparison, US universities churned out more than 500 spinout companies and commercialized more than 700 new inventions in 2006 alone, according to a report compiled by the Association of University Technology Managers. But the consortium is still in its early days. "We expect to get more spin-off companies coming out from the network," says Jocelyne Le Seyec, scientific and technological core facilities coordinator of OUEST-genopole.
This is not the first time universities have tried to band together to make tech transfer easier. As early as the 1950s, DeVol says, universities in Wisconsin and those in the University of California system attempted to unite to encourage tech transfer.
Tensions between participating universities apparently tore these networks apart, however, as researchers and administrators from smaller schools complained that supporting the cost of the network was not met with equal share in the economic benefits of tech transfer. "Other universities begin to wonder: You're focusing too much on X and Y, and not on me," DeVol says. "Those are the types of conflicts that inevitably arise."
DeVol says that US universities evolved away from the regional collaboration model, and the independent nature of tech transfer at academic institutions was cemented by the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, which let universities own their IP and encouraged them to try to license it. DeVol adds that the relative economic stability of the last half-century also contributed to the demise of the regional tech transfer experiment in the United States. With more opportunities to partner or license with existing companies, the need to band together and share ideas and profits decreased.
But in Europe, universities may benefit from more infrastructure to commercialize products. "You could make the argument that because there is much more broad-based support [for tech transfer from public funding streams], it seems more logical that the regional consortiums would work better in Europe than they worked in the 1950s in the US," DeVol says. "You could also make the argument that the networking functions or abilities aren't nearly as embedded in Europe. The odds of successful inventors being across the street are not as high as they are in the US."
The Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA), a network that incorporates Scotland's major research universities, is hoping a major infusion of funds will boost its effort. SULSA started in 2007 when the Scottish Funding Council injected £27 million, with partner institutions matching that sum two to one. "The universities have been pretty enthusiastic about it," says Mike Tyers.
The first chunk of funding went toward creating new research appointments at each of the member universities, and subsequent investments went toward building the technological capacity at the schools. For example, Tyers says, SULSA just routed £400,000 toward the University of Dundee in the form of an OMX structured illumination microscope, one of only seven in the world. As per SULSA rules, the instrument is supported by a SULSA technologist, and any researcher whose home institution is part of the network can use the scope. So far, both SULSA and OUEST-genopole say collaborators have gotten along.
Already, Tyers says, SULSA is coping with a glut of good ideas. "There's more ideas to spend funds on than there are funds," he says. According to a SULSA spokesperson, the organization has already created more than 20 faculty positions at Scottish Universities and more than 50 PhD studentships, which represent academic collaborations as the PhD candidates are mentored by two PIs at different SULSA universities. SULSA is also investing £750,000 to cover the cost of high-throughput small molecule screening at participating universities to "bridge the gap between basic discovery and potential application." So far seven of these screens have been funded.
Another collaborative tech transfer network launched in 2007, The Lead Discovery Center (LDC) in Germany, is funding seven projects, one of which involves researchers from different universities collaborating with the end goal of developing a marketable product. The LDC, a subsidiary of the Max Planck Society's technology transfer agency, recently secured a €20 million grant from the German Ministry of Education and Research. It has also received €2 million in seed capital from a German bank and a €3 million investment into infrastructure and lab equipment from the incubator that houses the LDC in Dortmund.
Thomas Hegendoerfer, head of operations and business development at the LDC, says that the organization determines how intellectual property is shared based on what project partners bring to the table. "Our general thing is we try to get external funding and depending on who brings the financing to the project, but also who brings in the know-how and intellectual property at the beginning of the project, we fix a ratio depending on what different partners bring to the table," Hegendoerfer says. "We try to fix things in the beginning in order to avoid disputes later on."
Michael Meisterernst, a University of Muenster biochemist who is currently working on an LDC project with researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and the Technical University of Munich, says that he and the LDC received a €1 million, three-year grant from the German Research Ministry about two years ago. This might not have been possible if he were working on his own without the contribution of Max Planck researchers who supply inhibitors to the kinases he studies, he says, adding that disputes are not on his mind. "We get access to [kinase inhibitors], and we get grants. That's my motivation."
Indeed, so far, Hegendoerfer says, the academics have all gotten along. "There's always competition versus collaboration, but so far they have been quite open for these discussions," he says.