AmCham Innovation Talks: How a university spin-off was involved in one of the biggest technology transfers in Portugal

 In News, Research and Development, Start-Up, Universities

Over the years innovation has been a key component to the growth and competitiveness of companies in all sectors and the wider economy, and Portugal’s pharmaceutical sector is no exception.

New technology has developed at a dizzying pace, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, paving the way to unprecedented opportunities, transforming the way we live, work, and the way in which we communicate and relate to one another and the wider world.

And it is here that universities can play such a vital role in helping to develop innovative new technology ideas which become spinoff startups that can launch products onto the market.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Portugal (AmCham) as a facilitator and promoter of bi-lateral economic and trade relations between the United States and Portugal has long recognised the importance of the ties between higher education establishments and technological innovation adopted and applied to the corporate world and its role in the economic and social development of Portugal.

Universities – hot houses for technology projects

It was one of the reasons why it invited Isabel Rocha, Vice-Rector of Lisbon’s Nova University, one of Portugal’s most important technology-led hot houses for fledgling projects that can go to develop into home-grown startup companies, and who addressed the chamber at a breakfast event in April at the Hotel Sheraton Lisboa & Spa.

The event included a discussion panel on technological innovation at several Portuguese companies and this leading educational establishment, speakers who are all leaders in their field in creating, developing, adopting and applying new cutting-edge technologies.

Isabel Rocha says that universities like NOVA have a mission to teach, research and transfer technology, and create value that will impact society through innovation.

“High impact innovation is frequently associated with technology and innovative knowledge/know-how developed in universities”.

Value creation, she says, frequently starts in technological and intellectual property development, and Portuguese universities are among the national bodies that most apply for patents which, by the way, have increased 9% on average per annum since 2018, with Portugal tripling the number of its patents in a decade.

Multi-disciplinary education programs

Isabel explains that the mushrooming of academic spin-offs at an international level has resulted in a trend of transferring knowledge developed in universities to new startups, which on the one hand can be technically developed with a view to going to market; and on the other hand raise the necessary funding from venture capital companies which the universities can’t do in order to develop innovative ideas and prototypes.

The fundamental role that spin-offs can have in the transfer of knowledge, as well as the role of university students in creating other spinoffs, is now why universities run courses and develop multi-disciplinary education and training programs specifically geared towards entrepreneurship.

“These multi-disciplinary education programs can include ideas contests, mentorship programmes, and even spin-off initiatives, and points out that the efforts of some Portuguese universities in this regard have been remarkable in recent years”.

The transfer of technology to companies that are interested in innovative developments might now exist; however, these days it still has a minority role in value creation. Isabel Rocha says that projects created in a university often have a low degree of maturity, and companies are not always willing to take such a high gamble on technology and innovation developed in universities to ready them for market.

50% of startups evolve from universities

Nevertheless, Isabel Rocha believes that startups have an absolutely fundamental role in maturing technology and ideas developed in universities. It has been shown, particularly regarding the development of medications, for example, that over 50% of startups have gone down this path, starting out in some form or other in a university. They then develop into a startup, and go on to the initial phases of product development under the wing of a large pharmaceutical company.

“This innovation path is recognised as essential and is not necessarily complex. Our mission today as a university is not only about technology transfer and co-creation, but also helping to create spinoffs and startups”, she says.

Startups, which tend to comprise the people who are best placed to mature technology, can act as intermediaries between these academic institutions and the market.

“We are one of three universities in Portugal with the most startups in our ecosystem, providing them access to a huge number of programs that support students and researchers in their Masters and PhD degrees, encouraging them to set up their own companies, and supporting them in their technological development”, explains the Vice-Rector of NOVA.

In Portugal, the financial and economic impact of what she calls the “third mission” of universities like NOVA is only just beginning to be evaluated; studies in the US have suggested that the GDP generated by the activities of each flagship university may make a significant contribution to the economy of developed countries.

In the UK, for example, for each pound sterling spent on higher education, there is a £13 return, of which around £3 alone corresponds to the impact generated by academic startups. In fact you only have to think of Google or BioNTech, both hugely successful companies, both starting life as university spin-offs.

Over the past 15 years NOVA has identified around 100 startups created by current or ex-NOVA students and researchers which all told have succeeded in raising over €500 million of Venture Capital investment.

And a growing number of such startups are actively involved in areas such as social innovation, reflecting a trend among younger generations to embrace environmental and social challenges.

One successful spin-off that NOVA has been associated with is CellmAbs which is linked to the pharmaceutical sector.

It was announced in January that this Portuguese biotech spin-off company had developed patented technology at NOVA’s Faculty of Science and Technology (NOVA FCT) in collaboration with the Portuguese Institute of Oncology of Porto (IPO) and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) research centre in Germany.

In what was the largest technology transfer ever signed with a Portuguese company in the field of biotechnology and life sciences, and the most important in this field, it was the result of years of collaborative research with the epicentre in Professor Paula Videira’s group at NOVA FCT, including contributions from the NOVA Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and is representative of the excellence in scientific and transferable research produced at NOVA.

And it could lead to the first innovative Portuguese medicine for oncology to reach the market. In this case, the production of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) specific to cancer cells, without affecting healthy cells, and which represents a fundamental advance, as it allows treatments that attack the disease more effectively, with fewer side effects, and that are personalised, i.e., adapted to the individual characteristics of each patient’s cancer.

“It was one of the largest technology transfer operations in Portugal, and is an example of this development from university to startup, and startup to a large — in this case pharmaceutical — company, and it originated from a NOVA University spin-off.

“We license the technology, recognise its importance to larger companies, and provide both teachers and researchers with a range of benefits, allowing them to dedicate a certain amount of hours per week to develop a spin-off company so that the knowledge can be later transferred to a technology company, such as was the case with BioNTech”, concludes Isabel Rocha.