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New Member Spotlight: Karolinska Institutet

UIDP welcomes Karolinska Institutet (KI) as a new member organization. KI is ranked among the top global universities for medical education and research and is also the home base for the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. UIDP spoke with Richard Cowburn, who serves as corporate partnering coordinator for KI. He works as a central contact for industry, establishing and managing strategic, multi-facetted partnerships as well as supporting collaboration on individual projects.

UIDP:  What is Karolinska Institutet (KI) hoping to gain from this membership with UIDP in the coming year?

Cowburn: As a single-faculty medical university, KI is very reliant on collaboration across the spectrum—both in the public and private sectors—to realize the full potential of our research findings and in some shape or form implement them to create benefit for human health. We do that with our partner hospitals and regional healthcare providers, with other universities, as well as by collaboration with the pharmaceutical, biotech, and other industries.

We have a decentralized model for university-industry engagement at KI. As part of our ongoing strategy, we have recognized the need to strengthen internal processes and organizational structures for industry collaboration. In this context, UIDP membership may be a source of inspiration for us.

One goal of our UIDP membership is to get a better understanding of best practices from other universities around how they work with industry, specifically with pharmaceutical and biotech companies. What are the rules of engagement they use in their interactions with industry? We have also the ambition to establish partnerships with other industries beyond our current practice. As such we have a need to understand the driving forces and needs of these other industry sectors.

We also want to increase student engagement with industry across the value chain and incorporate how we can partner around graduate education, improving people’s competencies in various fields. Accessing or building new technologies and platforms that would benefit application of our research is also of interest.

In short, we want to better understand how we can collaborate across a much wider spectrum with industry. We have strong partnerships around the world. We will continue to exploit our reputation and our own trademark as a well-recognized global medical university. But it is sometimes a challenge to work with industry globally. Here there is a nice opportunity to work with UIDP to access more companies that have their main headquarters in the U.S.

UIDP: What are the current challenges that Karolinska Institutet is facing in the development of university-industry partnerships?

Cowburn: Accessing the right stakeholders and contact people for forming new collaborative research programs is perhaps the main external challenge we have. We would like to understand the needs and wants of potential partners, to know what they are looking for, so we can match them with the solutions for human disease and personalized medicine capabilities that we can offer. For long-term, deep partnerships to flourish, you must get under the skin and have real dialog with the relevant stakeholders to understand where the needs and opportunities are. We want to have these discussions so we can create something that is meaningful and that can come to fruition—we are seeking to build multi-facetted partnerships that last over a long period of time.

The other major challenge we have is internal. As a medical university focused on research, we are very, very decentralized. We have a number of university departments and research divisions. Many of these have well-functioning relationships and long experience with industry. But other parts of our organization can exhibit a certain level of skepticism as to the value of working with industry. Through this UIDP experience, we hope to create a better awareness of the potential for what one can do as an academic institution through partnering with industry. We see many examples of companies that are looking to cherry pick our academic research by looking for quick licensing and intellectual property opportunities. There is value here, but what I am more interested in is to create more long-term, multi-faceted partnership programs with industry so as to co-create new IP together. In other words, to see more industry engagement at a much earlier stage in the value chain.

I have a background as an academic and as a senior scientist at AstraZeneca R&D. In my role at AstraZeneca, I led an early portfolio build team that was tasked with starting new projects in Alzheimer’s disease. We worked hard to identify new mechanisms and targets for disease therapy in what was a very, very crowded space. Every company knew what everyone else was doing and what each other was looking for. That is not a great place to be. One way to get around this is to enter into co-creation partnerships at a much earlier stage in the value chain, rather than focusing on opportunities that are on everyone else’s radars. The challenge is to understand what industry wants and how we can match our research interests and capabilities to create opportunities together in true partnership.

UIDP: Please share any innovative ways that Karolinska Institutet is making an impact on U-I interactions.

Cowburn: Sweden has a long history of providing universal health care and collecting longitudinal health data on its population. The access we have to the national registers and the value and depth of that data for conducting research is something potential partners might not know about. Here, KI creates value by partnering with industry on health data in collaborative formats. As a rule, we do not provide industry with such health data. Rather, we can give answers to questions by accessing such health data in the framework of legally and ethically compliant collaborative research projects that are managed locally at KI. We have a very nice track record of working with industry in this way.

UIDP: Can you tell us about a particularly successful U-I project or partnership you have?

Cowburn: Our biggest industry partner has been AstraZeneca, and a lot of the success in that relationship is because we have a very strategic, integrated partnership, particularly in the neuroscience, cardiometabolic disease and oncology fields. In working with AstraZeneca we have tested multiple collaboration models including joint research programs and centers, proposal calls for individual projects, technology platform and infrastructure build, as well as workforce development with joint affiliations and industry doctoral and post-doctoral studentships.

An important value component for us is the creation of well-functioning governance and accountability models for our partnerships. We use joint steering groups with representation and input from all the relevant stakeholders (both industry and university). These groups are empowered to make decisions around new projects, resourcing, as well as closing programs. That level of strong governance is something we have worked hard to instill in our long-term, important partnerships with industry.

Linked to this high-level governance are well-functioning, internal alliance management teams that are responsible for the operational aspects of our industry partnerships. They work on a day-to-day basis to both support the projects and programs overall and to identify new programs or opportunities that we can fill our collaborative portfolio with. We have even been able to convince our industry partners to provide funding for these alliance managers that are employed at the university. Our industry partners see the value of creating these teams for making things happen and for ensuring compliance and deliveries.

Finally, everything we are doing as a medical university must be ethically and legally compliant. We put a big emphasis on the legal considerations of working with human disease, biologic samples and data, etc., so that we are fully compliant and do things according to all the relevant legal frameworks for collaboration with industry.

UIDP: Will you share an interesting fact about Karolinska Institutet that people may not know?

Cowburn: There is one peculiarity about the Swedish system (not unique to Karolinska Institutet), the Swedish law about the “professor’s privilege,” which essentially states that any academic working at a higher education institute can own the rights to exploit the intellectual property generated as part of their research. That means that KI and other Swedish higher education institutes work in a different way when it comes to providing support to entrepreneurs who want to set up their own companies. This law  also has implications for how we work with technology transfer. Swedish higher education institutes don´t have typical technology transfer organizations like most universities in the U.S., and there are pros and cons of the Swedish Professor’s Privilege. So, we do work in a different way when it comes to identifying and understanding what we can offer in collaboration and tech transfer with industry. This often requires some explaining to prospective new partners. One of the good things about the Swedish law is that it promotes entrepreneurship and engagement of the scientists themselves as budding entrepreneurs. They can follow their idea to fruition and are more heavily engaged in startup companies rather than leaving them over to a business development expert who will take the idea and run with it. The other consequence is that we need to be very clear with our principal investigators, so they understand what they are agreeing to when it comes to IP and exploitation rights. The university does not sign agreements with industry without the prior engagement and input of the PIs.