Tag Archives: Universities

Research Exploitation according to Jacques Lewiner

The excellent Paris Innovation Review (formerly known as the ParisTech review) just published an interview of Jacques Lewiner (for the ones not knowing him, you may want to have a look at Jacques Lewiner about Innovation. This new article is entitled Research exploitation: catching up at a quick pace!

It begins with:“Academic research is not only a driver of scientific progress. It is a means to change the world. Many discoveries, including in areas related to basic research, can lead to new processes, products or services.”

Lewiner then explains the complexity of a successful exploitation and biases related to it. “The first [bias] is that, when we think about exploitation, we stick to patents. […] But sticking to patents means ignoring the essential, i.e. the entrepreneurial aspect of exploitation. […] Hence the importance of the entrepreneurial aspect: encouraging researchers to found startups and develop by themselves the economic potential of their discovery. The second bias comes [with …] a strong reluctance to admit that a researcher can make money, or even a fortune. […] A researcher’s brain is government property!”

Then Lewiner adresses the topic of licensing – More about it in How much Equity Universities take in Start-ups from IP Licensing? So here is what he says: “Nothing prevents the institution from taking shares in the company. 5% of shares, for example, is a reasonable figure, close to what most dynamic ecosystems offer. […] Holding golden shares would be equally counterproductive. […] In short, we need a whole new culture of investment.”

Lewiner indeed insists on an adequate culture: “Speed is a real challenge and on this sense, a well-equipped institution with some experience and good contacts […] can offer a real added value. Role models can also play an incentive role for researchers. […] All these ingredients of the “startup culture” require transmission.”

In the end, I only disagree with his final comment: “I dream of the day when French doctoral students will answer to the question of what they will do after their thesis with the same mindset as their counterparts in Stanford or Harvard: ‘I’m still trying to figure out in which of my thesis supervisor’s startups I want to work with.’ ” I think Lewiner is wrong. Ideally, they should do their own start-ups, just like they do at Stanford

PS: thanks a lot to the colleague who mentioned this interview to me 🙂

Two Challenges of Technology Transfer – Part 2, Get to Know Your TTO.

My second post about Technology Transfer (following the one about National Systems) is about the micro-economics of the activity. This is motivated by the very good Keys to the kingdom – subtitled What you need to know about your technology transfer office.

Before summarizing its content, let me remind you about the posts which already cover the topic so you will agree it’s not a new topic for me and I consider it as important:
– University licensing to start-ups in May 2010 (www.startup-book.com/2010/05/04/university-licensing-to-start-ups) followed by
– University licensing to start-ups (Part 2) in June 2010 (www.startup-book.com/2010/06/15/university-licensing-to-start-ups-part-2)
– How much Equity Universities take in Start-ups from IP Licensing? in November 2013 (www.startup-book.com/2013/11/05/how-much-equity-universities-take-in-start-ups-from-ip-licensing)
– Should universities get rich with their spin-offs? in June 205 (www.startup-book.com/2015/06/09/should-universities-get-rich-with-their-spin-offs)

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Co-authored by 18 people from Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, the University of California in San Francisco and the University College London, the article describes what should know people interested in getting a license on intellectual property to create a start-up. The paper begins with “As an academic […]entrepreneur, you will face many challenges” and the second paragraph follows with “In addition, you will most likely have to negotiate with your university’s technology transfer office (TTO) to license the intellectual property (IP) related to your research”.

What are these challenges related to TTO? they are written in the article in bold fonts as follows: Overcoming information asymmetries – Long negotiations – Inexperience – Lack of funding – Conflict of interest rules – Experienced legal counsel. This means that as a future entrepreneur, you should be prepared and ideally be knowledgeable about these.

The challenges

The main challenge seems to be the administrative complexity and opacity (page 1), including confidentiality of contracts, which makes it difficult for outside observers to understand fair market terms (page 1 again). In the end, they nearly conclude with: “Indeed, even for the universities for whom we have data regarding equity policies, it was often hidden deep within a jumble of legalese. To that end we encourage universities and research institutes receiving public monies to be fully transparent in their equity and royalty policies, and not use these information asymmetries as a bargaining advantage against fledgling […]entrepreneurs.”

On page 2, I note:
– A negotiation may be long (6-12 months, even 18 months) and one way to make it short is to take the proposed terms.
– A way to mitigate inexperience is by “preparing an adequate business plan or strategy for your IP before approaching your TTO” or by “bringing aboard team members with prior experience in […] commercialization to improve your team’s credibility”.
Lack of funding can be partially solved by signing “license option agreements”.
Conflict of interest rules “exist to prevent academics from playing both sides of a technology licensing deal or devoting too much time to nonacademic obligations”. Furthermore, “TTOs represent the interests of the university (not the academic), yet the academic is technically an employee of the university. “Our policy is to never negotiate directly with the faculty,” says a US-based TTO representative”.
– Experienced legal counsel is advised for assessing the quality of the IP but also because “[…]entrepreneurs often fail to appreciate the opportunity cost to the TTO in outlicensing. If a technology is licensed to an ineffective team (particularly with an exclusive license), the university forgoes any success or revenue it may have received from licensing the technology to a better organized industry partner. Moreover, universities have limited resources and manpower to protect IP, and, for this reason, prefer to license technology to teams they believe are well prepared to commercialize it.”

The equity deal terms

“Perhaps the most striking difference between the United States and United Kingdom is seen with equity deal terms. In the United Kingdom, a typical licensing deal is a rarely negotiable 50:50 split between the university and the academic […]entrepreneur, whereas US interviewees often reported universities taking a 5–10% negotiable equity share.”

You now understand why I said I was not convinced in my previous post about taking the UK as a reference. The US practice shows space for debate. You may check again my article from November 2013, where you will see that a typical deal is either 10% at creation or 5% after significant funding. Very rarely more.

Again the authors mention “US founders often do not realize that some deal terms are negotiable, including upfront fees, option payments, equity, royalty payments, milestone payments, territories covered, field of use and exclusivity versus nonexclusivity” and “In the UK, licensing deal equity terms are often perceived as being non-negotiable, though this is not always the case. In fact, many institute policies explicitly state that equity terms are negotiable.” This may however make the process lengthier.

On page 4, the authors add: “It is difficult to understand the justification of UK TTOs, such as Oxford’s Isis Innovation, taking 50% of a company’s equity at formation — which after investment can leave the academic entrepreneur with an extremely low stake from the get-go, for what was likely years of work, and will require many years and millions more to develop.” and indeed “The data would suggest that TTOs taking less upfront and leaving more to the academic and investors who will actually carry the idea forward pays off in the long term. Simply put: holding a smaller piece of something is still more valuable than a large piece of nothing.”

The mystery of royalties

“It is also worth noting that while a discussion on royalties was outside the scope of this study, it was clear from our research that many university TTOs “double dip” and take significant equity and royalty.” but again “Perhaps more disquieting than the out-sized equity and royalty stakes that universities are claiming is the lack of transparency from many universities on this critical issue.”

My conclusion: any wannabe entrepreneur should read this short 5-page paper and be prepared to negotiate. I would love as much as the authors that universities and research institutes be fully transparent in their equity and royalty policies, though I am also aware of the possibly weakened position of universities which would do so.

Two Challenges of Technology Transfer – Part 1, the National Systems.

Two documents have led me to describe two types of challenges facing the technology transfer of academic institutions.
– First, at a macro-economic level, the challenge comes from the various possible administrative structures, but also the complexity of the operations. The report Transfert et Valorisation dans le PIA (in French) by Bruno Rostand compares the national policies of Germany and the United Kingdom to that of France.
– Secondly, at the micro-economic level, the journal Nature published the article Keys to the kingdom with the subtitle, What you should know about your technology transfer office. I will come back to this in my next post.

Mise en page 1

The report of Bruno Rostand addresses the challenges that France meets after having established regional structures for technology transfer, the “SATT”. He notes that Germany has built a similar system with its “PVA” in the Länder. In both cases, there is a goal of financial independence which seems difficult to achieve if not unrealistic, despite the existence of public subsidies. In Germany, two of these companies have even filed for bankruptcy in Lower Saxony in 2006 and Berlin in 2013.

Why such difficulties? Because the returns on investment have not been up to the expectations. For example, approximately €10M euros have been invested each year in the form of public funds in Germany, but revenues remained much lower. In addition the regional structure has its limitations, as it is difficult to gain expertise in all areas of technology.

The United Kingdom has a different situation. The state has been a marginal actor and technology transfer was organized either by universities (Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College) or by private structures close to venture capital (IP group) which organically helped in structuring technology transfer. Through externalization, these organizations have become private organizations, which have become rich in financial and human resources. At Oxford, ISIS employs 80 people for £14.5m in revenue in 2014. Imperial innovation has been publicly traded since 2006, employs 45 people and generated a profit of £27M in 2014. Imperial innovation has expanded its initial base in collaborating with other universities. Finally, the IP Group has agreements with over 15 universities for a profit of £9.5M in 2014. The report shows very different philosophies, whether public or private, with profitability as an end or not, with an obvious entrepreneurial dimension in the UK. if the focus on start-ups is important, this will lead to different structures, including maturation funds and incubators.

The report also shows that a licensing policy and a policy to support the creation of start-ups are very different. Finally, the new TT structures often have the sole responsibility of the development and maturation of IP, while research collaborations with industry remain the responsibility of universities. This separation could be a weakness when the two topics are linked.

A sensitive issue is that of exclusivity that can create tension when TT management is pooled over many universities. Some universities want to maintain some autonomy, especially in areas where the technical competence of the TT structure seems weak to them. Another sensitive issue is that of the structure by region while a transregional structure by field of expertise might be more appropriate. (The report also addresses research partnerships and international cooperation that I will not discuss here.)

In the final part, Rostand shows the complexity of the challenges. One must first define the mission of technology transfer which can be for profit or not. Externalization seems to be a trend in the three countries, but it has its advantages and disadvantages. It also seems that there is a lot of instability and fluctuations in funding cycles, which does not help to make an analysis of the transfer tools. The report also addresses the issue of human resources (types of skills and experience), another subject which may be related to the available resources of these organizations.

The only personal comment I make here is about my slight frustration at not having found in the report (which is extremely informative) an analysis of the US situation. The country of liberalism and private universities have very few external technology transfer structures, let alone for-profit. I have in mind WARF at University of Wisconsin-Madison – www.warf.org) while revenues of TT in the USA are significantly higher than in Europe. The explanation could simply come from a far more dynamic private innovation, regardless of all the systems in place.

Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises? (Part 4)

This is my final post about what I have learned from Sciences et technologies émergentes, pourquoi tant de promesses? (For the record here are the links to part 1, part 2 and part 3).

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The last chapters of this excellent book try to explore ways to solve the problem of excessive promises that have become a system. In Chapter IV.2, it is question of “désorcèlement” (the closest term I found would be “disenchanted”); I read it as a critical analysis of the vocabulary used by those who promise. The chapter speaks at length of the transhumanist movement, the promise of promises! “[…] Describe how these actors certainly produce, but especially divert away, reconfigure and amplify these promises […] in front of passive and naive consumers.” [Page 261] and later “[but] transhumanists are first activists, mostly neither engineers nor practitioners […] attempting answers to questions not asked or badly expressed, […] hence a really caricatural corpus,” to the point of talking about a “cult” (quoting Jean-Pierre Dupuy), “a muddled, often questionable thinking.” [Page 262]

In Chapter IV.3, the authors explore unconventional approaches, a possible sign of disarray to “scientifically” react to the promises. For example, they have contributed to the creation of a comic book to answer another comic which wanted to popularize and promote synthetic biology.

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The final chapter explores scenarios that may follow the explosion of promises, like the idea of ​​increasing the number of Nobel Prize. New promises?!! More concretely, the author shows that the initial promises are not followed in practice: “The wait & see phenomenon in investment, or lack of innovation, is less known, though widespread: the effect of general and diffuse promises maintains the interest of players but too much uncertainty holds back investment in cycles of concrete promises-requirements.” [Page 297] “A game is at work which continues as long as the players follow the rules, […] they are prisoners of the game. […] They may also leave it if the right circumstances occur and then the game collapses.” [Page 298]

In conclusion, beyond a very rich description of many examples of scientific and technical promises, the authors have shown how a system of promises was built through interactions between the various stakeholders (the researchers themselves, the (political, social and economic) decision makers who fund them, and the general public which hopes and feels anxiety). The relationship to time, not only the future but also the present and the past, is beautifully described, in addition to a desire for eternity. And finally, we mostly discover that the promises have led to numerous debates that were perhaps, if not entirely, useless, as we could have known that the promises can not be kept, even from the moment they were created…

Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises? (Part 3)

This is my third article about the book Sciences et technologies émergentes, pourquoi tant de promesses? After the general considerations on the system of promises, the book presents contributions describing specific areas:

I.3: nanotechnologies
II.1: semiconductors through Moore’s Law
II.2: big ata
II.3: digital Humanities
III.1: neurosciences and psychiatry
III.2: The Human Brain Project (HBP)
III.3: personalized medicine
III.4: biodiversity and nanomedicine
IV.1: assisted reproduction
IV.2: regenerative medicine

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Each chapter is interesting for the curious reader as it shows the dynamics between promises and expectations of stakeholders (researchers, politicy makers, general public). The chapter about the HBP is particularly interesting in the description of the disconnection between content and form. “How was it possible that the HBP “won the competition” despite the lack of evidence to establish pragmatically the scientific relevance and the legitimacy of its ambitious organizational goals? We develop the hypothesis that this deficit, criticized afterwards, was both hidden and compensated by the production of promises shaped to anticipate and / or respond effectively to the political, economic, social and health-realted stakes on the agenda of the “challenges to come”. [Page 166] The credibility of the HBP sealed by this decision has been built […] following an adaptation process and reciprocal validations in the double register of the politicization of science and the scientification of politics. In other words, we show that one of the important conditions of this credibility was the successful co-production of a strategic congruence between [scientific] promises and the agenda of policy issues. [Page 171] The connection between knowledge of the brain and forms of social life took place mainly in the domain of discourse. […] In this contrasting situation, discursive inflation around the brain and neuroscience seems to be the consequence of a lack of evidence, as if it had overcome, positively or negatively, the differences between the present and the future, the proven and the possible, the absence and the desire. This regular feature of big science projects has resulted in the development and implementation of a prophetic rhetoric that seeks to anticipate the possibility of a better future by borrowing to the notions of hope and promise.” [Page 176-77]

I come back to a quote from chapter 3 that is essential to me as a conclusion to this new post: The real progress of techno-science will less come from their ability to keep promises than from their ability to do without them, to inherit critically from the era of great technological promise. This is not to break an idol, but to learn how to inherit. [Page 111]

Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises? (Part 2)

(A word of caution: my English is reaching its limits in trying to analyze a demanding book, written in French. I apologize in advance for the very awkward wording…)

So just one day after my article describing Chapter 1 of Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises?, here comes an analysis of the second chapter, where the relation to time is analyzed, as well as presentism, futurism and the role of time in the promise system. There is the nice following passage:

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Since The New Atlantis, futuristic speculations have accompanied the development of modern science. And in the twentieth century, Jean Perrin has sealed a new alliance between science and hope. But for him, it is science that preceded and provoked hope while now, it is rather hope that drives research. Technosciences reverse, in fact, the order of the questions that was following the three critiques of Kant: “What can I know?” – the issue addressed in Critique of Pure Reason – then the question “What can I do?” – treated in the Critique of Practical Reason – finally the question “What can I expect?” – discussed in the Critique of Judgment. In contrast, in the current scientific policies, one determines what to do and what we can possibly acquire as knowledge by identifying the hopes and promises. (Page 50)

Yet there is a paradox already expressed in the first chapter between futurism with the terms of promise, foresight and prophecy that project us and presentism particularly marked by the memory that freezes the past and transforms the future as a threat that no longer enlightens neither the past nor the present. To the point of talking about a future presentification…

The chapter also deals with the question of the future as a shock, a time “crisis” due to the acceleration. To the feeling of the misunderstanding and helplessness, is added the experience of frustration and stress caused by the accelerated pace of life, the disappointment of a promise related to modernity, where techniques were supposed to save time, to emancipate.

Another confusion: the features of planning and roadmap which are typical of technology projects slipped into research projects where is used the term of production of knowledge, while in research, it is impossible to guarantee a result. But the author shows through two examples, that this development is complex.

In the case of nanotechnology, there has been roadmap with the first two relatively predictable stages of component production followed by a third stage on more speculative systems crowned by a fourth stage which speaks of emergence, and all this by also “neglecting contingency, serendipity and possible bifurcations,” not to predict, but to “linearize the knowledge production”. The roadmap predicts the unexpected by announcing an emergence, combining a reassuring scenario of control which helps in inspiring confidence and with at the same time an emerging scenario, to create dreams. (Pages 55-56)

In the case of synthetic biology “despite a clear convergence with nanotechnology,” the rapid development occurs without any roadmap. “A common intention – the design of the living – gathers these research paths.” And it is more to redo the past (“3.6 billion years of genetic code”) than to imagine the future. The future becomes abstract and it comes as proofs of concept. And the author adds that in normal science in the sense of Kuhn, these proofs of concepts would have fallen into oblivion. The paradox is that there is no question of right or wrong, but of designing without any needed functionality.

In the first case, “prediction or forecasting are convened as the indispensable basis for a strategy based on rational choice”, “the future looks to the present. “In the second case, there is the question of “towing the present” and “fleeing out of time.” We unite and mobilize without any necessary aim. The future is virtual, abstract, and devoid of culture and humanity; the life of the augmented human looks more like eternal rest …

Ultimately, the economy of promises remains riveted on the present either by making the future a reference point to guide action in the present, or it is seeking to perpetuate the present.

Chapters three and four are less theoretical, describing on one hand new examples in the field of nanotechnology and on the other, how Moore’s Law became a law when it was initially a prospective vision of progress in semiconductor. Perhaps soon a follow-up about the next chapters…

Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises? (Part 1)

Sciences et technologies émergentes, pourquoi tant de promesses? (Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises?) is the title of a book (in French only) from a group of authors under the direction of Marc Audétat, a political scientist and researcher at the Sciences -Society Interface of the University of Lausanne. This is not an easy reading book, it is quite demanding, but it raises important questions.

I have already reported on this blog about books that speak of a certain crisis of science, for example in The Crisis and the American model (in French), about the books “La Science à bout de Souffle” or “The University bubble. Should we pursue the American dream?” or in The Trouble With…, a book by Lee Smolin, not to mention the most violent criticism of the promises of technology by Peter Thiel in Technology = Salvation.

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This new book explores the promises related to science and technology to the point of talking about an economy of promises. This is a collective work which does not make it an easy reading, but the diversity of points of views is certainly an asset. I have not finished reading it and I will certainly come back to it. In the first chapter, P.-B. Joly describes the system of techno-scientific promises. He begins by introducing the concepts of Imaginary and Vision [Page 33] This “couple of concepts takes into account how various sources of inspiration are involved in the technical creation. […] The Imaginary gives an almost tangible appearance to concepts and ideals that are a priori devoid of it … [and becomes] a common sense that founds the action into society. […] The concept of Vision is close to that of Imaginary, but on a smaller scale. It is akin to that of “rational myth” used to analyze the dynamics of collective action in changing contexts. […] Coalitions of actors form around these visions of a prospective order and contribute to their dynamics. […] If we accept this conceptual distinction between Imaginaries (at large scales – the Nation – and in the long term) and Visions (at a level of coalitions of actors and active over periods of medium length) then comes the question of the interaction between the two.”

“Unlike Visions and Imaginaries, for which the content of technical arrangements is essential, what is essential for the techno-scientific promises is the creation of a relation, as well as a time horizon of expectations. […] Promises are essential in technology creation, because they enable innovators to legitimize their projects, to mobilize resources and to stabilize their environment. […] Any techno-scientific promise must convince a large audience that it determines a better future than the alternatives, even if the realization of the promise requires major, sometimes painful changes.” (The author mentions the history of electricity or the green revolution as the solution to world hunger)

“Our concept of techno-scientific promises has been systematized and became in the last forty years the governance of the new techno-sciences (biotechnology and genomics, nanotechnology, neuroscience, synthetic biology, geo -engineering, etc.) The construction of a techno-scientific promise meets two conflicting constraints: the constraint Radical Novelty and that of Credibility. […] (And I interpret that) for this request to be credible, one must disqualify alternatives. [Furthermore] For a scientific theory to be credible, its validity is neither necessary nor sufficient. […] The techno-scientific promises must have the support of a circle of specialists. Otherwise, they cannot resist the opposition manifested either in scientific arenas, or in public arenas. An extreme version is observed when the specialists refer to natural laws to justify the inevitability of technological change. (Examples are Moore’s Law and Gabor’s Law.) Thus, in principle, generic promises are not subject to validity tests.”

Finally, this intensification is reinforced by three complementary elements [page 39]:
– the future is more a threat than a source of hope;
– research and innovation are often presented as the only way to solve problems;
– the research stakeholders should demonstrate their societal impacts.

This leads to pathologies [pages 40-43]:
– the myth of a public victim of irrational fears and to be educated becomes an intangible scheme;
– the promises turn into bubbles;
– the radical novelty and uncertainty create conflicting discourses, sources of mistrust because the effects of such radicalism is not predictable so that through experimentation, the technologists become sorcerer’s apprentices and society, a laboratory;
– finally promises lead to endless discussions on fictions, on issues that may have nothing to do with the reality of research.

In conclusion Joly thinks this promises system is one of the enemies of the future because of the clear separation it creates between those who make the promise and those who are supposed to accept it. The recognition of this regime and therefore these problems is a prerequisite imperative.

After reading the first chapter, I remembered the societal concerns of Cynthia Fleury, about whom I have already said a few things in a digression in the article On France Culture, Transhumanism is Science Fiction. Our democratic societies are in crisis, and the distrust of politics as well as of experts has never been stronger. The issue of research and innovation is a component of this crisis. I am eager to discover the rest of this very interesting (and important) work …

How can we foster student entrepreneurship?

I was in Eindhoven today for the great EVP program (20 young entrepreneurs from 4 European technical universities spent two weeks on four campuses developing their projects). I had two inspiring moments: 1st the mayor of Eindhoven had a great speech about the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship. 2nd we had a meeting of 20+ people debating about how to foster entrepreneurship in universities.

Eindhoven’s efforts for entrepreneurship and innovation

The mayor of Eindhoven, Rob van Gijzel, explained that Philips had been nearly everything for Eindhoven for decades (jobs of course, schools, hospitals, PSV…) but a lot of the jobs have been delocalized, and Philips has struggled. He mentioned that the life expectancy of Fortune 1000 companies has gone from 70 years to 12 years (these are notes so I may be wrong with my recollection of facts, but the spirit was it) and the life expectancy of a product is 2 years.

So as a mayor, it is his mission to think about the future, not the present only. Eindhoven still strives because it has NXP and ASML (Spin-off from Philips), because they have the largest Samsung R&D center outside of Korea, and an antenna of the Singularity University. Rob van Gijzel unusually knows a lot about technology for a politician! Maybe it’s because it is Eindhoven… and Eindhoven is putting a lot of energy and money in universities, accelerators, start-ups and the unique high-tech campus Eindhoven (www.hightechcampus.com) which hopefully will create a lot of high value jobs. Big established companies, SMES, start-ups and universities seem to work together in the same direction. I am sure it is not perfect, but the effort is impressive!

Eurotech about Entrepreneurship

My second moment of inspiration was during a meeting of Eurotech about entrepreneurship. For once, it was not about the usual start-ups vs. SMEs, fast growth vs. controlled growth, but we had a great discussion about how to really help students interested in start-ups, about what is important, exposure to or teaching of entrepreneurship,

Just a few notes:

“early on you find inspiration, you are interested and you go where the crazy people are” … “it was the thing to do” …“I was an entrepreneur because my mother pushed me to be responsible and independent, then I tried, and failed twice, and then succeeded once”.

It is a long term effort, you teach, you expose, you inspire, and “you infect them with the virus” with possibly a long incubation. But should we do it early or late, compulsory or elective, filter the good entrepreneurs or expose/teach everyone…

“You need to teach entrepreneurship outside of the class…”

So you need a friendly ecosystem, where the university has its role (unclear which exactly, but it has one!) “Young entrepreneurs should know they do not need to pay for lawyers, they need to find friends who are lawyers, or who have a legal expertise.” You need to break the barriers, help people meet and find the people they need, also break the regional barriers because regional support focuses on local development, which is not necessarily the best friend of an entrepreneur who needs to think globally. Ecosystems have to be open, people need to travel, where the talent and money are

So we agreed there was not a general agreement on the strategic way of fostering entrepreneurship…though it is very important…

Should universities get rich with their spin-offs?

The issue is discussed in the June 2015 issue of Horizons, the research magazine of the Swiss National Science Foundation, to which I was asked to participate.

Dozens of startups are launched every year in Switzerland to commercialize the results scientific research funded in large part by the State. Should universities that have supported them become rich in case of commercial success?

Yes, says the politician Jean-François Steiert.
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Over the last twenty years, about a thousand companies, mostly small, contributed to the success of Switzerland. The majority of them are successful, although investors, inclined to take risks, are rare in Switzerland as compared for example to the United States. Most of the time the spin-offs are supported by taxpayer money, in terms of infrastructure, social networks, scholarships or coaching services. The objective of this kind of public investment is primarily to encourage employment and research.

With the support from public funds, these innovations generate through sales or patents significant benefits in the order of tens or hundreds of millions of francs. The public, as an investor, must be able to require a portion of those profits. Not to allow the State or the universities to get rich, but to reinvest these funds in fostering the next generation of researchers.

At a time when the Confederation and the cantons implement programs of savings due to exaggerated tax cuts, additional funds must be generated in this way and support young researchers in the economic development of their innovations.

“The public, as an investor, must be able to require a portion of the profit.” Jean-François Steiert

When the sale of patents is concerned, it is not a question of aiming for the maximum return, nor of making profits with a unique key. Universities need flexibility to optimize the return. On the one hand, we need the creation and management of start-ups to remain attractive. On the other, one must reinvest adequately in the next generation of researchers.

What is lacking today is transparency. If universities want to maintain the confidence of the taxpayer, they must declare how much money is generated by their successful startups. This information, they owe it to the taxpayer who, rightly, wants to know if her money is well invested in research, a key area for Switzerland.

Jean-François Steiert (PS) is a member of the National Council since 2007 and member of the Commission for Science, Education and Culture.

No replies Hervé Lebret, manager of an EPFL investment fund.
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When Marc Andreessen launched Netscape in 1993, one of the first Web browsers, the 22-year old American chose to start from scratch rather than sign a license with the University of Illinois, the conditions of which he considered abusive. Instead, Stanford University had less tensed relations with the founders of Google, taking a modest 2% stake (which become $336 million six years later at the company IPO). The same university asked nothing to Yahoo! as it considered that the founders had developed the web ite on their spare time. A few years later, one of the founders of Yahoo! made a gift of $ 70 million to Stanford – whereas Andreessen does not want to hear anything about his alma mater.

These examples show how the relationships between universities and corporations can worsen when they do not share the same perception of the value of a knowledge transfer. The latter is often free when it comes to education; but when it comes to entrepreneurship, the overwhelming majority of people think it should not be. Nevertheless, an indirect return already exists: first in the form of taxes and, more importantly, through the hundreds of thousands of jobs created by start-ups. Their value is ultimately much higher than the tens of millions of dollars reported each year by the best American universities from their licenses.

“Abusive conditions can discourage the entrepreneur even before she starts.” Hervé Lebret

How then to define a fair retribution for universities? The subject is sensitive, but poorly understood, partly because of a lack of transparency from the different actors. In 2013, I published an analysis of the terms of public licenses from thirty startups [1]. It shows that universities hold on average a 10% equity stake at the creation of the start-up, which is diluted to 1-2% after the first financing rounds.

It is impossible to know in advance the commercial potential of a technology. We must first ensure that it is not penalized by excessive license terms. Abusive conditions can discourage the entrepreneur even before she starts and discourage investors. And thus kill the goose in the bud.

[1] http://bit.ly/lebrstart

Hervé Lebret is a member of the Vice President for Innovation and Technology Transfer at EPFL and manager of the Innogrants, an innovation fund from EPFL in Lausanne.

Jacques Lewiner about Innovation

I had the chance to meet this afternoon Jacques Lewiner, the renowned French professor and entrepreneur, who has contributed a lot in making ESPCI a completely atypical engineering school in the French landscape. This is probably the school that “innovates” the most, especially through its spin-offs.

Lewiner-at-ESPCI

No need to tell you much about the meeting because all his messages can be found in an excellent interview he gave to the newspaper Le Monde last November entitled “In France, there is a huge potential for innovation.” The article is online (and for a fee – it seems) but there is also a pdf document available, both in French. Allow me then to provide my translation below. His philosophy is simple: encourage and encourage again, with a lot of flexibility; in particular, we must strongly encourage entrepreneurship with Silicon Valley, Boston and Israel as models.

An anecdote before I let you read the interview: he enjoyed reminded me several times that his vision did not make him only friends, as he thought the proximity to the industry and flexibility are essential. But he told me he was the successor of a famous lineage with a similar philosophy: Paul Langevin was a renowned scientist, inventor and author of patents on sonar and… a communist. ESPCI was founded by engineers concerned about the weakness of France and its universities in chemistry after the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870. The Protestant culture of its founders facilitated perhaps closer links between academia and industry. (See History of the Graduate School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of the City of Paris in French again.)

“In France, there is a huge innovation potential”

For the researcher and entrepreneur Jacques Lewiner, we must fight the idea that research does not support the creation of wealth. Jacques Lewiner is Honorary Scientific Director of ESPCI ParisTech engineering school. This former researcher with “a thousand patents” (taking into account the many countries where patents have been filed) is also the head of the Georges Charpak ESPCI endowment intended to help researchers to put their ideas into practice. He is also the Dean of the valorization at Paris Sciences and Letters (PSL), a new entity bringing together several academic institutions. In addition to his research career, he created or co-founded many companies, including Inventel (Internet box manufacturer) Finsecur (fire safety) Cytoo (cell analysis) and Fluigent (fluid management).

What do you mean by innovation? This is what transforms the knowledge acquired – through study, imagination, research … – into a product, a process, a new service. Among this knowledge, those from the research have a very strong leverage. But innovation does not necessarily give a Nobel Prize. And conversely, intellectually beautiful ideas can be of no industrial interest! For example, I was convinced of the value of the piezoelectric plastic materials for which a voltage appears when distorted. I have filed patents and thought that these devices would be used everywhere. It was more than twenty years ago and it is still not the case. Only a few car seats have been able to detect thanks to them the presence of a passenger … In fact, often, the ingredients of an innovation are already around, but it lacks someone to put them together. When we designed the first Internet box with Eric Carreel, creating Inventel, there was no rocket science. We just had the idea of putting in one device a modem, a router, a firewall, a radio interface… It was also very difficult to convince operators of the interest of such a device but, fortunately for us, Free arrived and opened the market.

You did not always meet with success, as shown in the adventure of the first e-book, available from Cytale who filed for bankruptcy in 2002. What lessons did you learn from these failures? By definition, innovation means taking risks. Nothing is taken for granted. In case of failure, we must analyze the reasons and win an experience that others do not. It is enriching. I also remember very well my first failure. I was convinced to have found new properties of “electrets”, the electricity equivalent of what the magnets are in magnetism. I finally realized that they were already known for over a century. However, they could enable the design of new sensors, especially microphones. I tried to convince large corporations by contacting their research center, and not their business units. It was a mistake. These laboratories had obviously no interest in defending an invention that they had not made! I then had the chance to meet a remarkable entrepreneur, Paul Bouyer, with whom I could create my own business. The future was opened to us, but I did in record time all possible errors. I wanted to do everything myself, without understanding the importance of team work. The adventure lasted a year …

Where is France in terms of innovation? It has a huge potential. People are well trained and research is of quality. The basic culture is in place. But there are too many barriers between scientific discovery and the application that will appeal to the market. Our system blocks initiatives. We must simplify French law and do away with some nonsense.

Which ones? Before the 1999 Allegre law, a researcher could not even get into a board! That changed but nonsense persists. Today, it is very difficult for a researcher to become a consultant, the authorization may be received at the end of a very long time, sometimes a year, and, in addition, it has to be out of its filed of competence! Fortunately, some resourceful people manage to get by, but it is an obstacle for most. A ESPCI ParisTech, to help our researchers, we have created an endowment fund. We make strong efforts to answer within two weeks to a researcher who claims an invention. In some institutions, this response may take from six months to eighteen months! Such a delay is likely to delay the scientific publication of the researcher. One could imagine a rule that states that beyond two months no response means agreement.

Are patents necessary? Yes, they are useful in two ways. On the one hand, they avoid if successful innovation is copied and, secondly, they secure investors at a fundraiser. But patents can sometimes be like mirages. CNRS has long received many patent royalties from Pierre Potier’s antitumor drugs Taxotere and Vinorelbine. But when the public domain, these patents do not bring any revenue. [In 2008, they accounted for 90% of CNRS royalties]. To create wealth from research, we must also encourage the creation of innovative companies. At ESPCI ParisTech, we help in patenting but also in the creation of start-ups, by granting them very favorable terms in exchange for 5% of their capital. It is a model of operation similar to that of Stanford University [in California], which portfolio of ownership in start-ups (like Google) represents more income than from patents. Some universities charge a 10% to 25% ownership in start-ups, and further require the repayment of loans. It is far too greedy and discouraging for researchers. A few years ago, the Ecole Centrale estimated that its start-ups had generated a ten-year cumulative revenue of € 96 million. For ESPCI ParisTech, over the same period, it was 1.4 billion. And for the Technion Institute in Israel, it was 13 billion in 2013. Do not tell me you cannot do the same in France!

Maybe is it a question of culture. Can we change it? One should not oppose research and creation of economic activity. But it is true that in France sometimes persists the idea that researchers should not benefit financially from their work. However, it is not shocking that good research also creates economic wealth. We must create a favorable ground leaving the most possible freedom for researchers. We can also improve the training of researchers and engineers. Stanford University and the Technion are also models here. The former, with its Biodesign Center, promotes the mixing of cultures between physicists, chemists, medical doctors, biologists, computer scientists… As part of their curriculum, students are required to file a patent, or even start a business! At PSL, we have created with this in mind a new curriculum, the Institute of Technology and Innovation, in which research and innovation are mixed.

Many economists are pinning their hopes on the digital world to boost growth. What about you? Of course, the digital world will have its place in the future as it will be used in all activities. Sometimes we assimilate the digital technologies and the Internet start-ups. The latter sometimes have phenomenal success, sometimes ephemeral. Many fail. The area that can benefit directly from the research is the industrial sector, creating jobs and activities. Have we reached the peak of development and innovations? Certainly not. On the contrary, a new world is opening for the next generations at the confluence of chemistry, physics, biology, electronics and information technology. All this will continue to result in improved quality of life. Let’s not put artificial obstacles on this path and therefore be optimistic about the results that will follow.

Interview by David Larousserie
Le Monde, November 23, 2014.