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When a team of university researchers develops antibody therapy to treat dementia or a PhD student develops a new method to treat female incontinence, it is by no means guaranteed that the public will ever benefit from their innovations. Some findings from academic research in the life sciences never actually make their way to patients. This isn’t only the case for products and applications that don’t make it past clinical tests or fail to pass muster from a business perspective: Sometimes, excellent researchers simply don’t think of bringing their innovations to market. “It's not uncommon for researchers to fail when founding a spin-off company since they lack the fundamentals of business knowledge and behavior,” says Simon Hoerstrup, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IREM) at UZH.
IREM is working together with the Faculty of Science to launch a new course of study to promote the translation of life science research results into practical applications. Starting in the Fall Semester of 2020, life science Master’s students can choose to minor in BioMed Entrepreneurship, where they will tackle the basics of business and learn how to successfully turn research findings into real-world products and applications. The 30-ECTS minor program teaches core business skills in areas such as finance, team building and pitch training as well as legal knowledge on patent protection and regulatory issues that arise when founding a company. Students also complete an internship at a biotech, medtech or pharma company.
“We noticed from programs for doctoral candidates and postgrads that it makes sense to introduce researchers to business concepts early on,” says Elke Zappe, who also leads the BioEntrepreneurship & Innovation (BEI) program at IREM. BEI is a similar course program geared toward doctoral students and postgrads in the life and health sciences. According to Zappe, there are different currencies used in the world of academic research and the world of business. At universities, what counts is the number of publications you have under your belt as well as their impact factor. In the private sector, on the other hand, intellectual property is king, and the need to protect it is central. If researchers publish groundbreaking innovations without first applying for a patent, it will be difficult to found a spin-off company based on their idea. During the development process, it is already crucial for researchers to know how and when to apply for patent protection for technologies or applications and how to deal with companies that show interest in their research.
The BioMed Entrepreneurship program also aims to encourage researchers to always think about how their research could be brought to market. Otherwise, society will never see any benefit from their work. Zappe and Hoerstrup emphasize that this kind of entrepreneurial thinking does not stand in opposition to the spirit of free research or a career in academia later down the line. Factors such as team composition are also important in research groups, and knowing how to successfully pitch business ideas is a skill that can be useful when applying for research funding. However, traditional degree programs do not teach students many of the soft skills necessary for success in business, such as tailoring your communication to your target audience. So while excellent research is a prerequisite for successfully implementing new ideas, it is no guarantee of success on its own. The new minor program aims to close this gap.
The BioMed Entrepreneurship program is the only one of its kind in Switzerland and part of UZH’s strategic focus on promoting innovation. The new minor program is one of a range of initiatives designed to foster a positive atmosphere for entrepreneurship – an area that Michael Schaepman, the new president of UZH, wants to focus even more strongly on in the future. The minor is not just a bit part in the innovation strategy, however. Hoerstrup explains that the program is a response to the increasing need for life science students to learn more about entrepreneurship.
“We really have a lot of catching up to do in Europe,” he says, referring to leading universities in the US that have been promoting spin-off companies with similar programs for some time now. Based on a joint program between Boston-based MIT and Harvard University, the new UZH minor is shaped by an emphasis on practical relevance, including instructors from the private sector. This means that successful spin-off founders will be able to share experiences from their entrepreneurial careers with students. According to Hoerstrup, many instructors had the following to say about the new program and their motivation for providing pro bono guidance: “If I’d had a similar opportunity myself, I could have saved myself the pain of making so many newbie mistakes.”