Boost the quality of technology transfer and entrepreneurs
“Dutch scientists in the life sciences really are among the best in their field. But for invention to become innovation, even brilliant ideas need entrepreneurs and funding. These are big issues for healthcare innovation in the coming years and rightly figure large in the topsector plan.
US universities take business development seriously, whether in hospitality and conference services, clinical trials or technology transfer. Such activities report directly to a board member with a proven track record in leading technology commercialization in (big) industry. At Dutch universities, technology transfer typically falls under science faculty deans who have no experience in setting up a business. Valorization in the Netherlands seems to still lack priority, ambition and professionalism.
Some universities have certainly moved in the right direction and in several places there is sufficient capacity – but we urgently need to improve the quality and structure of technology transfer. Let us start with, for example, one disease area like oncology. The University Medical Centers of Utrecht and Rotterdam and the Dutch Cancer Institute NKI have experimented with working together on the valorization of oncological innovations as the ‘Cancer Genomics Center’ – a de facto joint technology transfer initiative, but one that now lacks funding to continue. Let us embrace this initiative, or one like it, and demonstrate that it is possible to set up a truly professional operation with top people reporting to a board-level executive with the credibility and authority to drive technology commercialization.
Much has been achieved in the past 20 years. General interest in entrepreneurship and the number and quality of business plans have increased. But the system is still far from efficient. Biopartner successfully helped launch some 80 ventures, but few have gone on to become firms of serious scale and growth. The Technopartner Seed Funds are many and good, and there is no shortage of capital to see ventures through the famous ‘valley of death’. But there are simply too few entrepreneurs of sufficient quality to invest in. Universities launch and spin-out ventures before the entrepreneurs and their plans have sufficiently matured. They should be developed or incubated to a higher level before venturing outside, but Technology Transfer Offices lack the mandate and budget to do so.
The fund-of-funds idea in the topsector plan could (and should!) be part of the answer. It would ensure that capital remains available to life sciences entrepreneurs despite the financial crisis. Even more importantly, it would allow venture capital firms to spend less time on fundraising and more on hands-on support of promising entrepreneurs. These in turn would be more successful in attracting capital and developing into larger and fast-growing companies – and that is when innovation starts to pay off.”
Quality begets funding
- Improve the quality and structure of technology transfer and make it a board-level responsibility
- Back an existing initiative (e.g. in oncology) and make it work as a model for others
- Realize a fund-of-funds and encourage investors to spend not just money but also time and energy on promising entrepreneurs
René Kuijten is a General Partner at Life Sciences Partners and serves or has served on the supervisory boards of a range of life sciences companies. He is also a board member of the NVP, the Dutch Venture Capital Association.