Engage in securing funding, exploring research from fellow scholars, planning, and conducting experiments, obtaining exciting results, participating in conferences to present those results, crafting a manuscript showcasing the results, publishing the manuscript in scientific journals and repeating this process over and over again. Such is the essence of the conventional academic research process.
However, the recent surge in patenting and commercialising research findings has challenged the long-standing traditions of the academic realm.
Why Commercialise Your Research?
“Commercialisation is important as it helps researchers to have a deeper impact on society with their discoveries. Also, commercialising research could offer new opportunities for those researchers looking for a career outside of academia. And then there are, of course, monetary benefits to the researcher as an inventor,” says Andrea Dichlberger, Commercialisation Manager at Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd. Helsinki Innovation Services is the technology transfer company of the University of Helsinki.
Andrea, who holds a PhD, came to Finland for her postdoctoral training at the Wihuri Research Institute. Since then, following a series of fortunate coincidences fueled by her love for science and desire to create an impact has driven her to join the Helsinki Innovation Services team in 2020.
Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd
“If a university succeeds in commercialising an invention, the income is split in three parts. Generally, 50% of that goes to the inventors involved, 20% to the University, and 30% to the faculty/institute the inventors are affiliated with and where the invention was created. If the income is above 100,000 EUR, it’s an equal split by ⅓,” explains Andrea.
Each university determines the split of income individually. At the University of Helsinki, the income is split according to the University’s invention guidelines.
“Creating spin-off companies help universities become self-sustaining as these help universities create additional sources of income. The University can use that money and put it back into education and university-related operations. So, the benefit with commercialisation is multifold,” adds Andrea.
Valo Therapeutics (ValoTx) is a spinout company from the IVTLab at the University of Helsinki. With the help of Valo Therapeutics’s commercial success and the income it generated, parts of the income (30%) was put back into the research unit where the invention was created. For IVTLab this meant that they could invest this money into renewing their lab infrastructure. Commercialisation, in such instances, benefits research in general.
“In addition, more companies create more job opportunities, which is overall good for the economic growth of a country,” says Andrea.
Who Will Help With The Commercialisation Of Research?
Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs), such as Helsinki Innovation Services, play a crucial role in facilitating technology transfer and driving research commercialisation within universities. TTOs are often integrated into the University structure. However, the University of Helsinki’s TTO, Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd, is an independent non-profit company owned by the University.
Helsinki Innovation Services is the only service entity that handles and manages IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) protection at the University of Helsinki. Helsinki Innovation Services only provides services to university employees. So, only researchers who have an employment contract with the University of Helsinki can seek support from Helsinki Innovation Services according to the University of Helsinki’s invention guidelines based on The Act on the Right in Inventions at Higher Education Institutions (HEI). The Act on the Right in Inventions made at HEI obliges university employees to report any inventions to their employer without delay.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison founded one of the earliest university-based TTOs in 1925. It was established to disseminate the discovery made by biochemist Harry Steenbock that irradiating food to increase vitamin D levels could effectively treat rickets. Since then, the number of University TTOs has steadily grown, with close to 1,400 TTOs in Europe already in 2004.
Compared to the other TTOs in the world, the University of Helsinki’s TTO is only getting started. Helsinki Innovation Services was established in 2011. Before that, the University of Helsinki did perform tech transfer activities, but the services were more integrated with the University without an established structure. Today, Helsinki Innovation Services has 16 employees, like Andrea, with solid IPR and business development expertise covering diverse field-specific knowledge.
Andrea can be found on a typical Tuesday at the Helsinki Innovation Services Meilahti office in the Terkko Health Hub premises, where she spends her day working with the Research to Business-funded project KAJO as part of the commercial team. Team KAJO is developing a human stem cell-based testbed to improve drug discovery and development for degenerative brain diseases.
What Are The Initial Steps Towards Commercialisation Of Research?
The experts at Helsinki Innovation Services evaluate the ownership of the invention. They consider whether there is anything worth patenting or protecting under IPR as there are different ways to protect IPR. And, of course, most importantly, they determine whether there is any commercial potential at all.
“When we talk about commercial potential or competitive edge, it’s not always having the most sophisticated and the most advanced technology, but rather, having maybe one application which is truly solving a problem in health science better than the one currently on the market. Even though the researcher develops a cutting-edge but expensive method compared to a test already available in the market, the healthcare provider wouldn’t go for it. The overall benefit in such cases is not there,” explains Andrea.
Alexander Lagerman, Andrea Dichlberger and Elena Inguglia from Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd.
Some of the main things that the Helsinki Innovation Services experts evaluate with inventions are- What are the future trends in that application area? What is the technology trend? What is the market? Is there a lot of competition for a particular invention out there? Are there hundreds of companies already doing something similar? Or are there none? The Helsinki Innovation Services experts are overall interested in the big picture when it comes to inventions.
What Are The Challenges During The Research Commercialisation Process?
“One of the common mistakes researchers make when they come to us and say, hey, we have a super cool new thing. But then we find out they have presented the results already at a conference. In such cases, the invention has been disclosed in public, and hence its novelty, essential for patenting has been lost,” says Andrea.
Researchers can publish their results once the patent is filed and then go on to tell the world about their invention. However, the essential thing to remember is to get in touch with the Helsinki Innovation Services team early on. The University of Helsinki’s invention guidelines and patenting policy are available for all the staff in the University’s Flamma. The Helsinki Innovation Services team is also eager to answer any queries and help researchers when needed.
Identifying the owner of the IPR can often prove to be a challenging task and one of the major responsibilities of a TTO. Nowadays, multiple research labs from different countries collaborate, which involves several inventors, and results in shared ownership of IPR contributions.
“I recently had one invention disclosure where there was a team, and they had actually collaboratively done something with a company, including some R&D work. And, of course, there was already an associated agreement in place that because the company paid for that research, anything developed during that period belongs to the company. In that case, researchers then need to go and ask for consent to publish as any rights to the research results and efforts to commercialise are with the company,” points out Andrea.
What Happens Once The Patent Is Filed?
The Helsinki Innovation Services experts, together with the researchers, will decide what to do with a promising invention to which the University of Helsinki has acquired the rights. They may license or sell the IPR to the industry, or opt for the University spinout pipeline. If the researchers are interested in entrepreneurship and taking on the challenge of developing their research innovation further, they can establish a company.
Some successful University of Helsinki spinout companies like NADMED, Uute Scientific and VEIL.AI can be found at Terkko Health Hub. Terkko Health Hub is a startup hub in the University of Helsinki’s Meilahti Campus, established by the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Medicine and HUS University Hospital.
At the University of Helsinki, a University spinout company is defined as a new company formed to commercialise immaterial property owned by the University and where the University is a shareholder. On the other hand, if University of Helsinki students who don’t fall under the Act on the Right in Inventions made at HEI and the University of Helsinki invention guidelines create a new business, these are called startups. Startups don’t have any University-owned IP involved.
“We get around 110 invention disclosures per year. Since 2015, we have established 23 spinout companies at the University of Helsinki. Considering our limited resources, it’s not bad, as commercialising true science-based inventions is a resource-intensive and time-consuming process,” says Andrea.
Apart from some successful spinouts, there are 18 ongoing commercialisation projects at Helsinki Innovation Services, including KAJO, Globevac, Moncyte, etc, to name a few. Globevac is developing a technical solution that can maintain vaccine efficacy at all temperatures. On the other hand, Moncyte is working on a personalised treatment tool that assists patients in reaching their desired cholesterol level through tailored strategies.
What Lies Ahead?
For centuries, universities in Europe and the United States remained disconnected from the process of introducing innovations to society. Due to their reliance on public funding, universities focused on publishing their discoveries in scientific literature rather than seeking patents. As a result, industry and academia existed in separate realms, with little to no overlap or collaboration.
However, in recent times, the commercialisation of research is open to more than just companies, and many universities in the world, including the University of Helsinki, have put substantial effort and resources towards commercialising resources.
Between January – July this year alone, Helsinki Innovation Services has received 42 invention disclosures, four patents have been granted, 15 patent applications have been filed, one commercial agreement signed, and three spinout companies have been established. The future looks promising, and more innovations and spinouts are on the horizon for the University of Helsinki.
Text: Usha Mohanraj
Banner design: Usha Mohanraj
Photo: Andrea Dichlberger and Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd.
Useful resources for commercialization that can be found on Flamma:
1) Info and support by Helsinki Innovation Services about the “Commercialisation of Research”: https://flamma.helsinki.fi/s/58OCs
2) University of Helsinki’s Invention guidelines and patenting policy can be found from this page: https://flamma.helsinki.fi/s/0mpDf
3) Statistics on invention disclosure, patent applications, licensing agreements, spinout companies. https://flamma.helsinki.fi/documents/37201/0/UH+Research+Commercialisation+Activities+H1+2023+report.pdf/8caa2667-f464-62cd-263f-cf3c3897bb70?t=1692178354341
Other useful resources:
1) Article on Technology transfer: The leap to industry, https://www.nature.com/articles/533S13a
2) Report by European Commission on Metrics for knowledge transfer from public research organisations in Europe, https://ec.europa.eu/invest-in-research/pdf/download_en/knowledge_transfer_web.pdf