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Dr. Fernando Albericio: "In the world of science, a chance meeting at the right moment can be the spark that leads to the generation of new knowledge"

Dr. Fernando Albericio, Director General of the Barcelona Science Park PCB).

Dr. Fernando Albericio, Director General of the Barcelona Science Park PCB).

“The creation of innovation-driven companies will be made possible by the support of the universities and science parks”

“The creation of innovation-driven companies will be made possible by the support of the universities and science parks”

“Science parks provide a range of technologies available to the academic and business sectors alike”

“Science parks provide a range of technologies available to the academic and business sectors alike”

12/04/2011

Institucional

Dr. Fernando Albericio, Director General of the Barcelona Science Park PCB), has been Professor of Organic Chemistry at the UB since 1995 and is the principal investigator of the research group on Combinatorial Chemistry for the Discovery of New Compounds. Following completion of his PhD in chemical sciences at the UB in 1981 Dr. Albericio took postdoctoral fellowships at Tufts University (United States), the University of Aix-Marseille (France) and the University of Minnesota, after which he returned to the UB as a tenured lecturer. From 1992 to 1994 he was head of peptide research at Milligen/Bioresearch (Boston, United States), a role through which he obtained a detailed understanding of the business world and knowledge transfer. Dr. Albericio is currently on the boards of several foundations and companies, works as a consultant to companies in the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors, and through his role at the PCB has been closely involved in the creation of technology-based spin-offs at the UB. Dr. Albericio has published over 550 articles in high-impact-factor journals and made more than 40 patent applications. He was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Buenos Aires in recognition of his teaching and research work during a long and successful career.

 

 Science parks are the precursors of a new economic model based on innovation and wealth creation through knowledge. Key processes in this transition are integrating science into the business fabric and incorporating research talent into the production sector. What is the role of science parks in facilitating these processes?

 
University science parks are clearly the main meeting point between the university, in its traditional role, and wider society reflected by the business world. In academic terms, the university-business relationship is still in its infancy, and one of the main obstacles to its development is that the two parties do not speak the same language. To give you an example, if we want to learn a foreign language such as English we might choose to go to the United States, England or Australia to improve our knowledge; if, however, we all want to learn the same language, we must find a single space in which to do so. This is where science parks are important, in providing a shared environment where universities and companies can interact and learn to speak the same language.
 
 
The Barcelona Science Park, created in 1997 and the first park of its type in Spain, forms part of the International Association of Science Parks (IASP), which groups together science and technology parks from around the world, and in which Spain has the highest number of member institutions. What are the features that set the PCB apart from other science parks in the country?
 
There are various models of science parks, such as those dedicated specifically to technology or innovation, for example. However, if we are referring to science parks per se, we have what is known as the Barcelona model, exemplified in the Barcelona Science Park. The distinguishing feature of this model is the level of involvement of the university behind the initiative, in this case the UB. It is essential to have the backing of a strong university, as this provides the support for the park to become a tool for the university itself, and the University of Barcelona is an example of this situation.
 
As a centre of excellence for knowledge generation and the creation of technology-based companies, what synergies does the PCB promote to strengthen the university-research-business alliance?
 
The PCB is a springboard for sharing knowledge and making it more accessible to more people. In science, we often talk about the value of serendipity, that is, of making the most of a particular set of circumstances to obtain a benefit. At the PCB the settings in which experts can meet and share ideas range from the traditional, such as seminars and talks, to the more casual, for example the new café and restaurant, which, as we come to the end of the final stage in our development, we fully expect to play a major part in facilitating contact between academic and business minds. In the world of science, a chance meeting at the right moment can be the spark that leads to the generation of new knowledge.
 
The creation of Campuses of International Excellence will bolster the teaching, scientific and innovation activities linked to research and knowledge creation at Spanish universities. What role will the PCB play in this new scenario?
 
In my view, the Campus of International Excellence programme is the best initiative the Spanish Ministry of Education has undertaken in recent years. The UB is a leading university because it is the first and only generalist university in Spain to have two campuses of international excellence: the Health Universitat de Barcelona Campus (HUBc) and the Barcelona Knowledge Campus (BKC). All of the stakeholders in these campuses must be represented, and this does not include only the university and its faculties and schools, but also the observatories, science parks, hospitals, research institutes, university spin-off companies, and so on... This is the profile of modern universities that has become exemplified by the Campus of International Excellence initiative. The notion of campus is a very important one. As part of my career I have spent many years living in the United States and one of the first times I saw the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, I quickly realised the importance of the campus structure. I am a firmly behind the creation of campuses of international excellence, promoted by the Ministry of Education, and, by extension, the Barcelona Knowledge Campus. The PCB and the UPC Research and Innovation Park underpin much of the work of the BKC because they provide a link to the business world. We are part of an urban campus, which is closely tied to the rest of society and located in the heart of Barcelona, which is an important factor. The BKC is also notable for the degree of generosity shown by the UB and the UPC in their strategic alliance to create the project.
 
In January 2010 an agreement was signed outlining the creation of the National Genome Analysis Centre (CNAG), a high-performance genomic sequencing centre based at the PCB that will give Spain a competitive edge in the strategic area of genome research. What has it meant to the PCB to be chosen as the site for this major scientific facility?
 
The CNAG is a joint initiative between the Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Generalitat de Catalunya, coordinated through the Catalan Ministry of Health and Ministry of Economy and Knowledge. The decision to base the centre at the PCB has been extremely important for Catalonia. There was strong competition: other sites in Spain also had a lot to offer, but the final decision was to base the CNAG in Catalonia, and it is a valuable decision both to the PCB and the UB as a whole. So why were we chosen? For two main reasons: first, the presence of advanced technology infrastructures at the PCB and our experience in this sector, and second, the availability of research institutes with a clear focus on academic and business applications. The PCB met these two criteria, and this was decisive in the outcome.
 
 
One of the aims of the Ministry of Science and Education State Innovation Strategy (E2I) for 2015 is to double the number of companies engaged in innovation. How will the PCB contribute to improving the mechanisms for innovation and technological advance that the country’s economy requires?
 
Without doubt, the PCB’s contribution will be fundamental. To give an example, I am planning to give a series of talks as part of summer courses, one of which will focus on entrepreneurship as a career path for university graduates. We must look at business creation as a genuine career option, and one that requires a series of components that help to reach this goal. This process is being made easier by the PCB. The PCB has been working at full capacity over the last ten years to oversee the creation of a large number of companies. We have the ideal facilities for the task and are in a position to help the commercial sector, and we provide a solid platform upon which to create new businesses. The domino effect is particularly successful in Spain, so if you create one new company it will become progressively easier to create more. This is the role of the PCB and other parks of its type across Spain. The creation of innovation-driven companies will be made possible by the support of the universities and science parks. Without universities and, by extension, the science parks that they create, it would be very difficult to reach the targets set by the Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Ministry of Education.
 
 
Science parks strengthen growth, create business opportunities and provide answers to economic and social needs. For an innovation-driven company, what are the advantages of belonging to the PCB community?
 
First, the company will find itself at the cutting edge of knowledge creation. Knowledge has become inextricable from technology and, unfortunately or not, technology is expensive and requires serious investment. Technology must be available to companies, not just the academic world, and science parks provide a range of technologies available to the academic and business sectors alike. A company based at the PCB will find it much more straightforward to access the latest technology and test its suitability for specific applications. Buying new technology as a means of testing it requires a considerable outlay for any company. However, if a company located at the PCB wants to trial new technology it will find a critical mass of researchers who can help determine the correct application to solve specific problems. We have seen that, once they have set up at the PCB, many companies alter the focus of their business models and their objectives because they benefit from the contact with other companies, researchers and ideas. The PCB is a privileged setting where companies can develop their potential to the full.
 
We often talk about the lack of a relationship between the research sector, public institutions and the general public. What is the PCB’s strategy for strengthening links with society and spreading new knowledge?
 
It is very important that we explain to society what we are doing. I would like to give a personal example. I am professor of organic chemistry at the UB, and chemistry has received a certain amount of bad press, it is not viewed in a very positive light. Whose fault is this? I would say it is that of the chemists themselves, since we do not explain ourselves well enough. We often think – incorrectly – that the more complicated the information we give the more intelligent we are, and this has a negative impact on the way we are viewed by society. We must explain things well, and as chemists we have not be able to explain what we do clearly enough. Many people think that chemistry pollutes, but we should remember that chemists develop the medicines we take, design new polymers for manufacturing safer cars, and produce the cosmetics that we use every day... All of this has to be properly explained. Much of the PCB’s work consists in explaining to the public what we are doing in our different research areas, and we do this at a number of levels: for example, for primary school children we offer the activity “Research in Primary Schools”, which brings young children closer to science by inviting them to carry out simple experiments. We also organize the activity “Come and do an express PhD!”, which introduces youngsters to the laboratory environment and research practices to obtain an “express PhD”, which they complete in two hours. In the programme “Research in Secondary Schools”, students in their first year of upper secondary school education complete the practical part of their research assignments at the PCB’s laboratories, under the supervision of one of our researchers. For university students, we offer the “Spend the Summer at the Park” programme, where we invite them to spend the summer with us taking part in research projects and discovering the only drug we allow here: research. We also offer activities to the general public, and the PCB has reached an agreement with CatalunyaCaixa, one of the largest savings banks in Spain, to set up the “Live Research!” exhibition in the emblematic La Pedrera building, to showcase current research efforts in Barcelona.
 
What are your most ambitious goals in your role as Director General of the PCB?
 
We have a clear agenda. The PCB project began in 1997 with the creation of the PCB Foundation, and during the 2001-02 academic year we saw full completion of the first phase. We are now finishing the last phase in the PCB project, and this is something that needs to be stressed – it is the last phase. In some 14 years we have been able to complete all of our plans for the PCB, from the initial idea to the final product, and we are not tempted to extend our work into a new phase. We are one of the tools through which the University of Barcelona transfers the knowledge it generates to the rest of society. The UB is also involved in a number of other magnificent projects – Biopol, the BZ Barcelona Innovation Zone in Zona Franca, the ALBA synchrotron in Cerdanyola – that contribute to achieving the same goal. We now want to complete the last phase in the PCB project over the next two or three years, and we intend to continue with the same model, with companies – and I stress the word companies, because society needs new jobs and companies are the key to creating employment – and with a new research institute, backed by technological infrastructures that will be continually improved. At the PCB we are aware of the fact that the UB has done something different, that our university is treading new ground. When we visit other countries in southern Europe and across the Atlantic, it is rewarding to see that many universities are following the model established years ago by the UB with the PCB. It is a testament to the UB’s pioneering efforts in this field, not just with the PCB but also with the creation of the first research results transfer office, the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation, the Scientific-Technical Services and the IL3 lifelong learning institute.
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