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M. Carme Verdaguer: "In an economic crisis, one solution for struggling companies is to increase innovation through collaboration with universities"

"Our challenge is to ensure that researchers who have never worked with companies or other institutions are given the chance to do so"

"Our challenge is to ensure that researchers who have never worked with companies or other institutions are given the chance to do so"

"Now that we have more experience of the process we are probably more demanding and more thorough in our assessment of the viability or proposed start-up initiatives"

"Now that we have more experience of the process we are probably more demanding and more thorough in our assessment of the viability or proposed start-up initiatives"

"It is important for researchers involved in this third area of the university’s mission to receive official recognition for their work, which should be considered an integral part of their academic career"

"It is important for researchers involved in this third area of the university’s mission to receive official recognition for their work, which should be considered an integral part of their academic career"

10/01/2011

M. Carme Verdaguer is managing director of the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation (FBG), the UB Group’s centre for innovation and knowledge transfer. The FBG currently supports the work of UB researchers involved in collaborative projects with companies and other institutions or interested in transferring the results of their work through patents or other channels, as well as working with new companies created through the commercialization of UB research results.

 
Having obtained a degree in chemical engineering from the Sarrià Institute of Chemistry (part of Ramon Llull University) and a master in business administration from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Carme Verdaguer worked as a researcher for the Department of Biological Chemistry at the UCLA School of Medicine and later in the synthesis department of a Catalan company specializing in intermediate products for the pharmaceutical industry, after which she focused on furthering her career in the fields of technology transfer, university-company collaboration and university management.

Last year the number of university-company contracts overseen by the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation reached 832. What is your assessment of this? Which are the most established sectors in university-company collaboration and which are beginning to show an interest?

 
I would say that 832 is a very respectable figure. Nevertheless, we aim to build on this because we consider that the potential is there to do so. We are designing programmes that will help to increase both the number of contracts and partners and the value of the contracts signed, which is also very important.
 
In the last few years the financial situation has become extremely complicated and this has affected university-business collaboration. There are many companies that are fighting to survive, so their immediate priorities do not include collaborative work. However, in an economic crisis, one solution for struggling companies is to increase innovation through collaboration with universities. This applies, above all, to small and medium enterprises, and we have developed specific programmes to help SMEs increase growth and competitiveness through innovation. We have set up a business innovation programme through which UB graduates are given specialized training in innovation management and then offered placements in SMEs where they are responsible for developing innovation projects.
 
There are many things to do and many areas of the university-company relationship that need to be strengthened, and much of our work is focused on this. Many UB researchers already have extensive experience of collaborative work with companies through agreements with their research groups, and naturally we work closely with them to provide the necessary support. Our biggest challenge, however, is to ensure that researchers who have never worked with companies or other institutions are given the chance to do so. As such, we actively promote knowledge transfer in the humanities and social sciences, as we believe that there is enormous potential in these areas.
 
Last year the UB’s Agency for the Valorisation and Commercialisation of Research Results (AVCRI) became part of the FBG, as the Valorisation and Licensing Unit. What services does this new unit offer researchers at the university?
 
The integration of the AVCRI into the structure of the FBG has enabled us to bring together innovation and knowledge transfer in a single unit, combining the strengths of the two organizations to strengthen the support given to UB researchers in all areas of knowledge and technology transfer.
 
The service we now offer, which was originally provided by the AVCRI, begins when a UB researcher has a set of research results that can be protected either through application for a patent or through other channels for safeguarding industrial and intellectual property. We work with any researcher whose results offer something new and have a tangible commercial application. It is very important for the researcher to come to us before the research is published or disseminated, for example through a conference presentation. In conjunction with the UB Patents Centre, we can then analyse whether the results are suitable for protection in the form of a patent, software copyright, etc. At this point we also conduct a preliminary study of the market to assess the commercial potential of the results in question.
 
Once the results have been protected, we move to the transfer stage. We are highly proactive when it comes to identifying companies who may be interested in UB research results, through subscriptions to a range of international databases and monitoring of the global market.
 
The FBG is also involved in business creation. During a crisis like the present one, it would appear that people are tempted to prioritize security over other concerns. What effect does this have on entrepreneurial spirit?
 
Entrepreneurial spirit is something we must continue to work hard on. We have carried out initiatives in this area for some time, often jointly with the UB’s Entrepreneurship Chair and with the support of Banco Santander. However, experiences in other countries – in particular in Scandinavia – have shown that the importance of this skill must be stressed at a younger age, as once students have reached university level it is often too late. Some programmes in Scandinavian countries introduce the concept of entrepreneurship to children of primary school age.
 
Through my teaching experience in business creation programmes, courses and conferences I have attended and, most importantly, conversations with students, I have come to see that very few people consider starting a business their first career option. To stimulate greater activity of this type we need to talk with individual researchers and research groups, doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, who are the ideal people to generate research results that could form the basis of a business creation initiative, even though they may not always be willing to commit and do not necessarily have the entrepreneurial spirit to say, “I’ll lead this project”.
 
However, there are also willing entrepreneurs who are looking to set up new ventures and need the right research results from which to grow their companies. Part of our work is to facilitate communication between these two groups.
 
What we have seen as a result of the financial crisis is that it has become much more difficult to obtain start-up capital, and this has made business creation a very complicated task. On top of this, new companies are more vulnerable to the effects of the crisis.
 
Around ten years ago, the Catalan government introduced a series of policies aimed at supporting business creation, and a huge number of start-ups appeared as a result. Now that we have more experience of the process we are probably more demanding and more thorough in our assessment of the viability or proposed start-up initiatives.
 
What is your view on the role of universities in the development of the Catalan economy? We are the national leaders in innovation and knowledge transfer, but at the European level we are some way behind the pack...
 
Innovation and knowledge transfer – considered to be the third mission of public universities – are relatively new concepts in Spain, although they are an established part of the Catalan university system. Nevertheless, it is true that we do not compare favourably to other universities across Europe and in the United States. The results of knowledge transfer are not seen immediately but in the medium and long term.
 
For example, if we look at the revenue generated by a licensing contract, the university only begins to see a return once the company in question has commercialized a product developed from the original UB technology, and this process can take years. In the pharmaceutical sector, for example, product development and roll-out can be a particularly lengthy process.
 
At the UB, and at most other Spanish universities, indicators for licensing contracts are very low in comparison to other European and American universities, which have been involved in this form of knowledge transfer for much longer than us. To move forward we need a stronger institutional portfolio of patents, the licensing of which will secure a return on our investment in innovation.
 
The same situation arises in business creation. We have tended to focus on quantitative indicators such as the number of businesses created, but it is more important that these businesses grow and create employment as this is what generates revenue for stakeholders – a group that includes the UB, which is a shareholder in technology-based spin-offs developed at the university.
 
Now that there is a new Catalan government, what would be your message to those responsible for policies on knowledge transfer?
 
I would ask them to look closely at existing policies and current work in this area, which has gone well so far. I say this because political shifts sometimes lead to fundamental changes without sufficient valuation of positive initiatives that are already underway and have proved successful.
 
Another thing universities and public research centres have long been asking for is greater involvement in the design of new programmes and initiatives, as we are the ones responsible for implementing them. We often receive information about new initiatives only once they have already been finalized, at which point it is too late to make contributions based on our own experience, which we believe would be very useful.
 
We would also ask that funding be provided with the clear understanding that it will rarely produce an immediate outcome, although we realise that it will never come in the form of a blank cheque and that results are always required.
 

As a final point, it is important for researchers involved in this third area of the university’s mission to receive official recognition for their work, which should be considered an integral part of their academic career. A recent decision by the National Commission for the Evaluation of Research Activity, which establishes a specific field for innovation and knowledge transfer in research assessment, is an important step in this direction.

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