Centre for Digital Life helps researchers right out of the gate
With the fourth year of operation coming to an end, several of the Centre for Digital Life Norway’s (DLN) research projects are reaping the fruits of the offer for innovation support. A handful of researchers have benefited from individual counseling and follow-up from the Centre's innovation advisor and believe that they are better equipped to develop socially beneficial innovations from their research.
Uppsala University: The oldest university in the Nordic region, an hour north of the Swedish capital. On this rainy morning in May a small delegation of four Norwegians expectantly await the day’s meeting programme.
Uppsala University has a strong reputation within research and innovation in the field of materials physics, and especially nanomaterials. This is the reason Dirk Linke, project leader of the DLN BEDPAN research project , made the journey to the Swedish university city, together with his PhD candidate Nadeem Joudeh this morning.
Linke is a microbiologist at the University of Oslo (UiO) and his BEDPAN project has discovered a way to make bacteria produce nanoparticles of the metal; Palladium. Linke and his colleagues know that their discovery is exciting, and that it can be developed into a useful product: not only the particles but also the bacterial production process. But the project leader is a microbiologist and therefore does not necessarily have knowledge of the potential areas of application of the project’s innovation idea.
This is where the journey to Uppsala becomes part of BEDPAN’s innovation history.
Centre for Digital Life's innovation package
The initiative for the excursion was taken by Alexandra Patriksson, Innovation Advisor at DLN. She also invited Lise Rødsten, an adviser at UiO’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) Inven2, to join them. During the day in Uppsala, the four meet with experts in the fields of materials research, chemistry and innovation.
The main objective of the Centre for Digital Life is to create societal value from biotechnological research and innovation through transdisciplinary approaches. The Centre has a special work package dedicated to helping research projects achieve their innovation potential. Patriksson is responsible for this part of the Centre's activities. She offers support to the research projects, either in the form of funds for use in various innovation initiatives, which can be applied for on a running basis throughout the year, or through individual consultancy.
The journey to Uppsala proved to be very useful for Linke and his colleague. Researchers they met offered new insights into the possible applications of Linke's nanoparticles, which he had not yet thought of himself.
In the aftermath, Rødsten from Inven2 has used this knowledge actively in the continuing efforts to identify possible markets for Linke’s nanoparticles. She is currently in the process of establishing contact with specific companies to initiate collaboration and development. Inven2 has got involved with the BEDPAN project at an early stage, and this is the result of Linke applying for and receiving funds from DLN to get them on track.
Valuable excursion to Uppsala
In addition to insight into relevant markets, Linke gained new contacts from the trip to Uppsala. His conversations with one of the researchers they met, an organic chemist, were of such positive character that it resulted in a letter of intent for a collaborative effort to apply for funding from the European Union in the Spring.
– The innovation support we have received through DLN has been very useful to us, says Linke. – Alexandra has acted as a mediator of ideas and helps us find relevant grant calls to apply for. Inven2 has also been useful, but they have naturally a more commercial focus. In addition, the rates that they require are too expensive to afford routinely. This is not something we have to take into consideration when we receive advice from Alexandra.
Patriksson is conscious of DLN's role in innovation development. – The Centre must have a role that contributes to additionality in the projects’ innovation efforts, i.e. we should not do what others do, but nevertheless contribute to value creation. We must work closely with the research institutions' own technology transfer offices (TTOs) and assist the projects with what the TTOs do not have the capacity to do. That’s where we should be. We need to to fill those gaps!
Centre for Digital Life as a catalyst for collaboration with Technology Transfer Offices
Another project that has received innovation support from DLN, in a way that would not otherwise have been possible, is dCod and project leader Anders Goksøyr, at the University of Bergen (UiB). The innovation idea of the project had been discussed on several occasions within the research group, also together with UiB’s TTO VIS and Patriksson at DLN. The original idea was to develop a sensor for measuring pollutants in the sea using biomarkers from cod. But after Goksøyr, together with Maja Mugic Elgsaas from VIS, worked on his business idea through a two-day workshop in Lean Innovation, they decided to change course.
Through the workshop, organised by DLN and partners, they aimed at a slightly different industry than originally intended. To find out more about the new market they agreed to conduct a market validation, through close consultation with Patriksson and VIS; a survey of possible customers and their interest in purchasing the product that Goksøyr and his colleagues are developing. Innovation funds from DLN made it possible to hire the business advisors in VIS to do the job.
In parallel with the market validation, Goksøyr's research team continues to develop the product itself. And now they are applying for milestone funds from the Research Council of Norway (NFR) for conducting a crucial so-called proof of concept study, which their research funds alone cannot finance.
– Through the follow-up from DLN, we have been able to initiate contact with VIS. And as we speak, we have a close and absolutely necessary dialogue with both them and Alexandra about the application we are writing for milestone funds, explains Goksøyr.
In the milestone application, the Goksøyr requests financial support to produce recombinant proteins that the research group needs for the further development of the pollutant sensor.
Goksøyr’s dCod project is not the only DLN project that has recently applied for milestone funds.
The long road to fully-automated glucose regulation for diabetes patients
Sven M. Carlsen, project leader for the DLN project Double Intraperitoneal Artificial Pancreas (DIAP) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and his colleague in the project, Reinold Ellingsen, are perhaps those from the DLN network who have had the most to do with the various opportunities for innovation support offered by the Centre. They are working to develop a solution to regulate glucose levels for patients with diabetes Type 1, via an "artificial" pancreas; in practice, a fully automated control of insulin . In other words, the idea has significant commercial potential in that it could be important for a large patient group.
Last year, Patriksson from DLN worked with the project as a case at the Health Innovator School that the University of Oslo (UiO) organizes in cooperation with NTNU and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. During the course, she prepared an exhaustive business plan in collaboration with Carlsen and Ellingsen, which was presented to investors from Karolinska Holding.
The entire process awakened the awareness of the two project managers. They had to describe in a realistic way all aspects of the future business and create a plan for the project up to an imaginary market launch, i.e. six to ten years ahead. This quickly revealed both the strengths and weaknesses in achieving that goal.
– It was a very useful experience that really made us more aware of the scope of the development process. The time perspective in particular gave us an Aha! experience. The innovation race is a long race! It is just as long as the research race, explains project leader Carlsen.
A market completely covered with patents
Another work that DIAP has received support in, in a collaboration between DLN and NTNU's TTO, is to conduct an analysis of the Intellectual Property (IP) landscape of the project's innovation idea. This has given Carlsen and Ellingsen a more comprehensive overview of the commercial field of their product idea; the glucose regulator.
The analysis has become a useful tool to better understanding the market niche that they should target. The main lesson: That their market is essentially carpeted with IPs from before, and that it is very difficult to find a gap they can fillthat is not already "taken". What should they do then?
This is where they hope that milestone funds, for which they have just sent off an application, will lead them on. They are applying for financial support from NFR to be able to use external experts to survey everything of value in the research that their group - Artificial Pancreas Trondheim, APT, is conducting. This survey will be conducted using a special methodology, and the result ought to provide them with a clearer strategy for what they should try to patent. – Without any potential patents, there will be no commercial path to follow," Carlsen states.
Like Goksøyr and dCod, Carlsen and Ellingsen have been given crucial support from both DLN and their local TTO in the work with their application. Carlsen explains the application writing as a well-functioning three-party collaboration: – We have scientific competence, Alexandra has taken care of the innovation part, and the TTO has assessed the DOFIs ( Disclosure of Inventions) that we have come up with.
However, both he and Ellingsen emphasise that there would have been no milestone application without the advice and the push, on both them and the TTO, that they have received from DLN.
The Centre for Digital Life enters where the TTOs have to sit back
Through assistance in finding proposals and writing applications for funding for innovation and commercialisation of research findings, finding relevant contacts, more general innovation consultancy and financial assistance, DLN's innovation support has aided many projects in parallel throughout the year. It is a type of support that lies outside of - and ahead of - what the universities’ TTO’s can offer. As a general rule, the TTOs are unable to get involved in projects during the starting phase of innovation and wait until they have progressed further in their innovation process, than most of the DLN projects have today.
– Alexandra is able to guide us into different collaborations since she has more system responsibility with respect to the DLN research projects as a whole, explains Anders Goksøyr about the support they have received. – For example, VIS contributes to the milestone application, but they have their capacity limitations, especially when large joint application deadlines like this, he says.
This limitation at the TTOs is also recognised by Sabina Strand at NTNU TTO: – Since many of the Digital Life projects are still at a very early stage, i.e. no inventions have been reported to date, we have limited capacity. It's therefore great that DLN has its own dedicated support that can help and guide the researchers to develop the innovation opportunities, IP and so on, she says.
Calls for application guidance
Several of the researchers in the DLN network point out this particular issue as being a significant bonus to the Centre's innovation support. Dirk Linke has obtained great benefit from the work that both Patriksson at DLNand Inven2 do. But he says that both he and his colleague, Joudeh, must often remind themselves that they also need time to conduct the research. There is a real conflict between research work and innovation development. It takes tremendous time and expertise to develop innovation from a research idea -both in shortage with hard working researchers who are experts in their research fields, but do not necessarily have knowledge of the market and the mechanisms surrounding the development and commercialisation of products and services.
When grants from NFR are announced with requirements for innovation, whichis the case with all research projects supported through Digital Life and BIOTEK2021; there are no corresponding requirements for budgeting items for innovation development. The projects have different degree of previous experience with innovation development, and therefore different prerequisites for predicting the size of the budget item. Sven M. Carlsen from the DIAP project believes that NFR should take a more active and guiding role in meeting the challenge by advising the budgeting in the application phase. – If NFR really believes that manpower and funds need to be set aside for the work of preparing the budget, then we should be notified in the application process. It costs, and it costs a lot – in both funds, manpower and competence that the researchers cannot be expected to have at the outset! he says.
He believes a better alternative than using funds to train the researchers, could be that NFR can offer innovation support themselves, like they do through DLN. – Let those who are good at it do what they are good at”, he states, referring to Patriksson.
Reinold Ellingsen (left) and Sven M. Carlsen (right) have learned a lot about innovation through collaborating with Alexandra Patriksson. In the latest meeting they presented exciting findings from their research, which runs parallel to the innovation work by necessity. – Alexandra is a useful and obliging team player. And we can even share research problems with her, and she in fact understands what we are working on, they say, while referring to Patriksson's background as a bio engineer, in addition to her knowledge of innovation. Photo: Hilde Zwaig Kolstad.
The art of riding two horses at the same time
Another striking challenge with innovation development that several of the researchers point to, is on the one hand, the inherent conflict between the drive of younger researchers to publish, to satisfy the requirements for their dissertations, and on the other hand to hold back their scientific findings in order to secure patents in developing innovation.
– It is problematic that you have to be cautious about sharing information when something could potentially be patented, says Astrid Aksnes. She is the project leader for the DLN project Lab-on-a-chip, at NTNU.
Earlier this year, she attended an extensive innovation management course organised by the NFR, together with Patriksson. During the course, the two worked to narrow down the business idea in Aksnes‘ research project: a portable medical analysis platform that can be used to make diagnoses from minimal amounts of saliva, blood, or other body fluids. It is another innovation idea that has the potential to become very useful, especially in doctors’ surgeries and rural clinics in poorer parts of the world.
Aksnes talks about one of her PhD students who, after working for a little more than two years, made some very striking discoveries. But instead of publishing the findings, the student had to hold them back while they examined the potential for patenting. Fortunately, the student had not got further than the second year of the PhD course, and there was still time to pursue the potential for innovation. - But we couldn't have done the same with a third- or fourth year student, she explains. - If you really want to do something about innovation in research, then I think it would be smart if the researchers had the opportunity to apply for more money for this, she believes, also echoed by her NTNU colleague Carlsen.
To San Francisco to develop ideas
Aksnes has received good help from NTNU’s TTO and DLN, but in different ways. Sabina Strand at the TTO has assisted in searching the IP landscape. Patriksson advises more on the overall concept, according to Aksnes. – Alexandra has been more closely involved, especially through the Innovation Management course, where she helped identify and develop the business idea.
Aksnes and Patriksson attended the course through five gatherings and a week's stay in the innovation hotpots around San Francisco. The professor is very pleased with the course, which she believes is an excellent initiative for increasing competence related to research-based innovation and commercialization. But it was important for the outcome that she had Patriksson join her. The two worked together on the assignments, where the final assignment consisted of presenting their concept and a business model to a panel of investors and NFR.
– We made a great effort to narrow down and be specific; obtain an overview of potential users and what is useful for them, not necessarily what we researchers want. Usually, we want to create the best, the most optimal. But that's not necessarily what they need, perhaps they rather need something that matches the system they already have, Aksnes explains enthusiastically.
One of the five meetings that Astrid Aksnes and Alexandra Patriksson participated at together, through the course in innovation management and commercialisation, took place in Silicon Valley. Among others, they were instructed at Faculty Club at Stanford, by Justin Ferrell from dSchool. Patriksson is number two from right. Photo: Privat.
A few steps closer, miles richer in knowledge
The researchers who have worked on innovation development with the support of DLN unanimously agree that they have learned a tremendous amount. Nevertheless – just as they have very different research projects aimed at very different markets, they have different opinions about what is the most important knowledge they have gained.
Aksnes believes the most important knowledge she has gained, especially from the Innovation Management course, is about timing. - You could perhaps immerse yourself in the possible applications of the research even earlier, and ask yourself what is good enough, where is the greatest need? All the same she thinks it is challenging: - When we start we don't know what the result will be, so it could also be foolish to start too early with interviews and research. You know what is the most valuable of what you have done when you have been working for a while and obtained some results. For me it was good timing in the project's third and fourth years.
Sven M. Carlsen and Reinold Ellingsen claim that the most important thing they have learned through the innovation efforts and support they have received from DLN is the total awareness of the entire process: the time perspective, resources and expertise it requires, strengths and weaknesses. And they agree that without the Centre there would have hardly been any innovation at all. - Alexandra has been absolutely essential. She has helped us with the writing, she has pushed and nagged, and this is actually necessary in a working day that is so interruption-driven, says Ellingsen. - The interaction we have with Alexandra has undoubtedly been and still is valuable, and she is also an important link and driving force in the dialogue with TTO.
The link to the TTOs is something that all researchers point to as a strength in DLN’s innovation support; it has helped accelerate their efforts in the projects. - Having better contact with the TTOs and insight into how they work has been very useful," Anders Goksøyr emphasises as some of the most important knowledge gained during the innovation development in dCod. He also points to the latest work on the milestone application as being very instructive.
After his visit to Uppsala University, Dirk Link believes that the most important knowledge he has gained so far in his innovation work is how demanding it is to find "the right experts". And here lies most likely some of DLN's added value, Patriksson believes: - Us coordinators in the Centre for Digital Life are in one way experts on the Centre's research projects. Thus, it can be easier for us to understand the different needs of the projects and find ways to help them. And altogether we coordinators have a broad network to draw upon, both in Norway and internationally.
The Centre for Digital Life has the capacity to increase the support
And the Centre wants even more of the projects to actively request and receive assistance with their innovation efforts. Financial support for innovation-oriented activities is offered on a running basis throughout the year. NFR’s Innovation Course runs every year and DLN’s projects are invited to participate. In addition, the Centre can continue to arrange courses and seminars that the researchers want and need. And in 2020, DLN’s capacity will be increased when the working group for innovation is extended with yet another advisor: On January 1, Beate Rygg Johnsen willstart working in team with Alexandra Patriksson.
The extension is part of the new, large innovation commitment of a total of 30 MNOK that the DLN has been awarded from the NFR. Over the next five years, the commitment will increase the availability of funding to provide the projects with the knowledge and expertise they need to develop their business ideas. Furthermore, it will help the Centre's research projects put themselves on the innovation ladder to a greater extent so that the TTOs can start working with them. The Centre will find out how this should be done, together with external consultants. The work starts now and will run throughout 2020.
– However, one case is evident already now, says Patriksson. – The Centre for Digital Life has found a place in the innovation ecosystem where we can make a difference, and we will continue to explore and develop this.