Collaborative healthcare innovation in Sweden: Sustainably transforming academic research at Karolinska Institutet into successful business

March 15, 2016 Guest Contributor


Guest post by Mark Farmery, PhD, Senior Business Development Manager, Karolinska Institutet Innovations AB.

The academic research environment is widely recognized as a hotbed of healthcare innovation. The rocky road of successfully translating innovative academic research into viable commercial products has been smoothed in recent years through the emergence of “collaborative innovation,” whereby academic and private partners join forces to tackle the complexities of scientific innovation and deliver step-changing solutions. Achieving this, though, is not straightforward. Academic scientists have traditionally operated in a system whereby citation in high impact journals and sourcing grant funding has more status and provides greater incentive than patent filing or starting a spin-out and this has hindered collaboration, especially with the pharmaceutical industry. What we see in today’s evolving world of collaborative innovation are new partnering models that balance these extremes and provide frameworks that satisfy both pharma R&D groups and the faculty scientist. At the same time, organizational infrastructures have emerged that are designed to promote collaboration and create an environment that allows innovation to flourish.


In the pharmaceutical industry quality external science is highly prized and most companies have made stellar efforts over recent years to tap into this resource. Notably, biopharma business development organizations have been overhauled; refocused and rebranded “crown jewels,” such as compound collections, have been made widely available to promote translational research; excellence in alliance management and creative dealmaking is commonplace and footprints have been changed to allow proximity to geographic hotspots and, literally, open up closed corporate walls. Academic institutions have responded and university technology transfer offices and innovation systems are playing a central role. Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet (KI) is one of the world’s leading medical universities. Innovation discovered at KI has advanced healthcare and ranges from new drugs and therapies to diagnostics and medical technologies. At KI an innovation system is in place that operates by building relationships with academic entrepreneurs and providing a “line of sight” from the lab bench to successful commercial exit, be that collaboration, licensing or starting a company. A number of factors are essential in order to make this happen. A well-defined organization with long-term vision offers a framework through which innovative ideas can mature and deliver. An experienced team, that speaks the language of academic researchers as well as industry scientists and corporate business developers, provides credibility and business acumen. Ultimately, though, success is dependent on the quality of research being pursued. KI’s strategy, introduced in 2014, promotes high quality translatable academic research leading to innovation that can be implemented within the healthcare sector.


Stakeholder integration is central to creating a sustainable academic innovation environment that serves the entire value chain. In recent years KI has established a number of alliances aimed at fostering early stage collaboration, promoting education and fueling academic innovation. Between 2012 and 2013 KI signed two key partnerships with AstraZeneca. In the first deal, focused on translational sciences and biomarker discovery, AstraZeneca relocated a research team to KI Science Park. The company hires lab space and carries out internal R&D as well as funding collaborative projects with KI researchers identified through a calls process. Taking a further step towards a true collaborative innovation model, the partners signed another deal in 2013 that centers fully on integrated collaborative research to develop the next generation of cardiovascular and metabolic disease medicines. In a unique model, researchers from academia and industry work side-by-side under the leadership of one director. In both partnerships the primary aim is to create an environment that stimulates and energizes innovation—KI and AstraZeneca scientists work together in the same research teams, eat lunch in and around the KI campus and go to the same seminars.


In a third collaboration that moves the needle further, KI joined forces with Johnson & Johnson Innovation in 2015 in a non-exclusive platform deal. Here Johnson & Johnson Innovation opened an office at the KI Science Park and have a dedicated scout located on campus, forming a “Nordic life science hub.” Working together with the KI innovation system, Johnson & Johnson Innovation can build close relationships with researchers, startups and established companies and take a prime position in identifying and investing in next generation innovation. Value and sustainability are created by the proximity and time dedicated to the collaboration by Johnson & Johnson Innovation through continuous dialogue and the provision of high-quality feedback, which nurtures and evolves the local innovation ecosystem. The fact that the alliance is non-exclusive means that academic entrepreneurs and spin-outs can maintain flexibility and, together with Johnson & Johnson Innovation and, potentially, other players, find the best scientific and business solutions to drive their assets forwards.


In other types of integrative partnership KI is realizing its commitment to research education and adopting a collaborative approach. In early 2015 a partnership was struck with Novo Nordisk in the field of diabetes and metabolism. Here, selected post-doctoral scientists, embedded at KI, are offered three-year grants, fully funded by Novo Nordisk. The program provides opportunities for exchange between KI and Novo Nordisk labs and specifically targets the career development of the next generation of diabetes researchers. Although a broader platform, KI is also a member of the EIT Health consortium, which aims to increase European industry competitiveness, and improve the quality of life of Europe’s citizens and the sustainability of the healthcare system. The Scandinavian EIT Health node comprises several universities, including KI, research companies and public bodies, all focused on integrating research, business and higher education.


Taking all of this together, current trends point to the emergence and establishment of a broad, flexible and, above all, collaborative global life science innovation ecosystem. Corporations have actively removed cultural, geographic, legal and physical barriers. In the public sector, researchers are hungry to collaborate and commercialize their ideas. The realization that this can be done without compromising academic integrity has opened up new opportunity and the development of high-quality, sustainable innovation. Overall, this provides a strong platform that is delivering innovation and real benefit to the changing healthcare landscape.


Meet Farmery and nearly 2,400 delegates representing an international “who’s who” from biotech, pharma and finance for three days of high-caliber networking at BIO-Europe Spring® international life science partnering conference in Stockholm, Sweden, April 4–6, 2016.


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