With over 650 researchers including support staff from diverse backgrounds and an operating budget of 60 million euros, HiLIFE is home to about 80 principal investigators and numerous research groups. Yet, the question of what HiLIFE is eludes many researchers and students at the University of Helsinki.
The Establishment Of HiLIFE By The University of Helsinki
By 2012, apart from the University of Helsinki’s faculties, three fairly small but separate life science research institutes, part of the University of Helsinki, FIMM (Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland), Institute of Biotechnology (BI) and Neuroscience Center (NC), had been under operation for many years. Life science research was scattered across various faculties and institutes on several campuses at the University of Helsinki.
Around the same time, there was a need to develop the University of Helsinki’s life science research infrastructures to better serve the life science research groups, which was partly driven by changes in funding landscapes in Finland. Hence, to streamline the University’s life science research activities, foster better collaboration between its three research institutions and promote high-quality research, the University of Helsinki applied profiling funding from the Ministry of Education and as a result, HiLIFE was established in 2017. Today, HiLIFE carries out top notch discipline-specific life science research in its three operative units: BI, FIMM and NC.
“A central part we play is to support life science research overall in our university, which includes developing, maintaining, and taking care of life science research infrastructures across campuses in partnership with the faculties. So, we invest about 10 million euros every year in research infrastructures which are evaluated by external experts once every four years,” says Jari Koistinaho, the Director of HiLIFE.
Jari was elected as the Director of HiLIFE by the rector of the University of Helsinki in 2022. He is also a professor of neuropharmacology at the University’s Faculty of Pharmacy and has previously been the director of HiLIFE’s Neuroscience Centre.
In addition to supporting research infrastructure, HiLIFE aims to enhance the University’s life science research by recognising, financing, and providing additional support to talented individuals. HiLIFE offers highly competitive tenure-track Assistant/Associate Professor positions. On the other hand, The HiLIFE Fellows Program promotes promising young talents to boost their scientific career.
The HiLIFE EDU program offers grants to postdoctoral researchers and BSc and MSc students to participate in scientific conferences or to conduct a short term research either at the University of Helsinki or at another research institute abroad. HiLIFE EDU also collaborates with The Science Basement.
The Need For Innovation And Commercialisation Activities
“Commercialisation activities and innovation are tools to support primary research and generating impactful science. Such activities bring more money for doing research and help in making new connections with various partners and stakeholders. So, I think this is something important for researchers to realise,” says Jari.
Jari himself has years of experience in academic research and entrepreneurship, having co-founded three spinoff companies. Before his move to the University of Helsinki, Jari spent 20 years at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio studying brain diseases in animal and stem cell -based models along with his research group.
In the early 2000s, some of his students were already considering an alternative career to academic research and the possibility of working in health and life science companies. However, there weren’t that many such options in Kuopio. He and his students thought about founding a company of their own focusing on services of animal and cell culture models of brain diseases for pharma companies.
“Research and innovation are not separate things. I believe great ideas with commercial potential are based on top-quality science. This means that you don’t have to give up anything to create something innovative in your research field,” adds Jari.
Their Kuopio-based startup, Cerebricon Ltd, was successful and eventually acquired by Charles River Discovery Research Services in 2009. The company currently employs around 160 people in Kuopio, and Jari is proud that the CEOs of the companies and many other directors are his previous students.
HiLIFE’s HiPOC Funding For Research Commercialisation
“Typically, there’s no money or funding for commercialisation in research groups. Understandably, all researchers are not so easily motivated to take a look at their research from the commercialisation point of view. And so, what we can do is to give them an incentive for such activities such as the HiPOC grant. We give about 50,000 euros for a maximum of one year to see whether there will be some potential for commercialising their research activities. And if everything goes well, there’s a very high possibility of them also to receive Business Finland funding,” says Jari.
HiLIFE supports early-stage innovations by providing HiPOC grants. These proof-of-concept grants support commercialising research findings and developing novel technologies in life sciences. These grants aim to bridge the gap between early-stage research and securing external funding for inventions and innovations.
Since 2017, over 1 million euros in funding have been given as part of HiPOC grants to 33 projects with the potential to translate their research findings into inventions and commercialisation. Some of these projects like DropPen and NeuroPREP are currently in the research to business phase. Meanwhile few others have successfully transformed into spinoff companies from the University of Helsinki such as VALO Therapeutics and VEIL.AI.
HiPOC grants are only given to the University of Helsinki life science researchers with a doctorate. In addition, they should have either disclosed their invention to Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd or have at least initiated the invention disclosure process. Researchers with pending patent applications owned by the University of Helsinki can also apply for this grant.
The Y Science Event And Other Innovation Activities At HiLIFE
For the past few years, HiLIFE has also been partnering with Slush to bring the science and business community together through an official side event called Y Science. Currently, at its sixth edition, this event aims to promote innovation in science by connecting academia with industry and encouraging science-based business.
“The event has been getting more and more attention. And so many people are attending this event. The program also offers pitching possibilities, and the competitors are given training for pitching their innovations. When people work on their pitches, they also realise the importance of their innovation and its many possibilities,” says Jari.
Over the years, HiLIFE has also actively supported the Helsinki life science innovation ecosystem by funding Terkko Health Hub and Health Capital Helsinki. Health Capital Helsinki focuses on assisting startups, international corporations, and investors with finding opportunities to grow and develop together in the Helsinki region.
Meanwhile, Terkko Health Hub is a vibrant startup community and hub located in the Meilahti campus of the University of Helsinki. More than 60 health and life science startups are currently part of Terkko Health Hub.
The resources at HiLIFE are still limited for carrying out innovation related activities. Despite this, since 2017, HiLIFE has already taken numerous initiatives towards this goal, with a few more to come.
“I see that HiLIFE could be a place that initiates various innovation activities and acts as a testing ground. We can pilot such activities if they look promising and have the resources to do so. Then I hope those activities will be supported and taken to another level as part of the university strategies as was the case with Y Science,” adds Jari.
Text: Usha Mohanraj
Banner design: Usha Mohanraj
Photo: Helena Ryhänen
- Read more about Y Science at – https://terkko.fi/what-is-y-science-and-why-should-you-attend-this-exciting-life-science-innovation-side-event-at-slush/
- Read more about Terkko Health Hub at – https://terkko.fi/the-biggest-health-and-life-science-startup-hub-in-the-nordics-is-in-meilahti/