Building bridges between industry and academia

Taking research results and translating these into applications has always been one of the Adolphe Merkle Institute’s goals. After its first decade of existence, a number of research projects have matured to the point where such transfers have become possible, leading to translation success.

Examples of this are AMI’s first startup, NanoLockin, and the Hemolytics malaria diagnosis technology that is currently under development. At the same time, other more discrete collaborations are taking place between the Institute’s scientists and industrial partners. To create these partnerships, though, specialist knowledge is a must, a need that has long been recognized at AMI. Dr. Valeria Mozzetti has been the Institute’s Technology Transfer and Innovation manager since 2018, helping researchers navigate the difficult path from the laboratory bench to application.

How do you define innovation at the Adolphe Merkle Institute?

Valeria Mozzetti: In its simplest definition, innovating means bringing something new to the market, where many people can enjoy its benefits. No matter how small or well-known, what matters is that it hasn't been used in the same context before. For us at AMI, being innovative is something we do every day, in the sense that when we research, discuss, and write, we always have in mind how the work we do could benefit the wider community on a larger scale, and who our partners should be.

How does technology transfer work at AMI?

Valeria Mozzetti: TT is very involved, since an effective way of innovating is to collaborate with industry. Existing companies know the market, have the distribution channels, and are hungry for innovations. These elements make collaborations with industry very rewarding, because they shorten the path for research to have an impact. Industrial partners can also serve as catalysts for new research projects, because they bring different perspectives and new ideas to the table.

When the research is perhaps too innovative for potential partners, or industry is not ready for it for other reasons, we can help researchers face the challenge of creating new companies. This support includes direct entrepreneurial aspects as well as guidance on how to be successful in the context of broader networks, such as those proposed by the Swiss Innovation Agency, Innosuisse. In 2019, for example, with TT support, Dr. Fabienne Schwab and Dr. Jonas Pollard were both granted research projects by Innosuisse: one for nanofertilizers, and the other for malaria diagnostics, respectively.

How do you square the AMI concept of innovation with academic pursuits?

Valeria Mozzetti: “Publish or perish” is often the mantra in academia, and a scientific paper should be written so that it is replicable. If you want to innovate and be commercially successful, however, you have to develop your technology and products with strict control over what you communicate in order to protect your intellectual property (IP). Researchers can be torn between these opposing forces, tempted to publish groundbreaking research results, which would preclude filing for a patent, or simply developing a company quickly enough to bring the technology to the market. To resolve this situation, and create an appropriate strategy, we try to inform our researchers about these issues through workshops and one-to-one advice. We also have a process in place with an IP board to evaluate all new inventions and collaborations with industrial partners.

So how do you pass on that innovation state of mind to researchers?

Valeria Mozzetti: This mindset hinges on knowledge about products, services, and processes.  In this context, the heads of the research groups have invaluable experience, and provide examples when it comes to industrial collaborations. They are the main source of inspiration for AMI researchers. The other source of information about innovation is AMI's Technology Transfer office. I try to maintain a good overview of the industrial landscape, and of how to convert research-level technology into successful innovation projects. This can be done, for example, through workshops on intellectual property and innovation. The door is always open for questions, and all projects with a strong innovative component are closely followed. I think being agile and able to react quickly is also very important when it comes to innovation. Ideally, our technology transfer work is carried out in a start-up mode, allowing us to respond to the needs of the researchers pragmatically.

Innosuisse projects

Two AMI projects were awarded funding in 2019 by Innosuisse, the Swiss federal innovation agency. The first project, led by Dr. Fabienne Schwab of the BioNanomaterials group, tackles the issue of environmental pesticide pollution. Along with her colleagues, she has developed an efficient and safe solution to stimulate plant resistance with a bio-inspired degradable nanofertilizer. With close to CHF 400,000 in funding, Schwab and her partners are upscaling the synthesis of the nanofertilizer and preparing to perform field trials.

The Hemolytics team, led by Dr. Jonas Pollard of Professor Nico Brun’s Macromolecular Chemistry group, received a similar amount to pursue work on their malaria diagnostics tool over the course of 18 months. The funding is being used for the development of both a full protocol and of a device for the clinical validation of the presence of malaria. The device relies on the amplification of a malaria biomarker found in blood samples.