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In many forums in the field I hear people say things that make me cringe: “We know how to do excellent science but not how to innovate.” This is very typical. And another: “Our talent has to leave and can’t return.” I’ll make an initial concession: nothing is perfect (as Màrius Serra said of Hawaii). But, as the probably apocryphal quote attributed to Captain Jack Sparrow goes, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”

Speaking of talent… The approximately 3,000 researchers who completed their PhDs in Catalonia in the 2017-2018 school year (4 in 10 from abroad) have joined a job market, with half choosing an academic career and the other half a career in business. 100 of them opted directly for an industrial PhD, half at a Catalan SME. They will probably find a job fairly easily, as 9 in 10 doctors are working, and many of them (between 60% and 80%) work as doctors.

Whether they stay in Catalonia or leave and then come back, they will be able to join one of the nearly 1,700 research groups in Catalonia, 20% of which work in the healthcare and medical sciences. They will join the 28,900 researchers who, in Catalonia, which has one of the five top metropolitan areas in Europe, will be three times more likely to be awarded a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) than if they go to Sweden.

By the way, those who are awarded an ERC grant will probably have been ICREA researchers previously (41%). This is remarkable, if you take into account that only 1 in 100 researchers in Catalonia belong to this institution, whose researchers attract €355,000 in external funding each year on average and 9 in 10 of the articles published can be considered high impact.

And since we’re talking about ICREA… its website reads: “Although this is by no means expected from ICREA researchers, it so happens that sometimes they hit on something that shows promise of becoming a powerful new technology, but it seems impossible to develop that further without significant investment of time and money. In these cases, many choose to explore the option of creating a spin-off company dedicated to the concept.

So, when ICREA researchers decide to move into entrepreneurship, they have a very good success rate: more than 50% of all funds raised by new biotechnology firms developing therapeutics in the BioRegion goes to spin-offs co-founded by an ICREA researcher. Let's pause here, because they are only 9 of the 46 biotechnology companies working in therapeutics in the BioRegion of Catalonia. In fact, since 2010, of the top 10 biotech firms with the most investment, the 5 that are led by an ICREA researcher have raised 76% of all investment. This means, these researchers of excellence are also excellent entrepreneurs. 

A few years ago, I read an interview with Roger Gomis, ICREA researcher who leads the Growth Control and Cancer Metastasis group at IRB and he said, “You shouldn’t be afraid of facing a different world.” Gomis also added that “there’s more money than it seems” to fund research “but the project has to fit with their needs.” A bit in the same line as the quote from Jack Sparrow we talked about before. Founder of Inbiomotion, Gomis affirmed that, in the world of biotechnology or diagnostics, investors “are willing to put in the money as long as the only risk is that which is an intrinsic part of the biology.”

This is how it works in Catalonia. It isn’t surprising that 34 of these ICREA researchers have been awarded a Proof of Concept grant, which allows researchers who have previously won an ERC grant to explore the market potential of their work. Catalonia has almost twice as many of these grants as Belgium, more than Italy and Switzerland, and nearly as many as Israel.

Innovators in Catalonia are eager for funding to, as Laura Soucek explains, “turn years of research into a real therapeutic opportunity.” Soucek, who by the way is the cofounder and CEO of Peptomyc, a spin-off of ICREA and VHIO, is in the news these days with her drug Omomyc.

This eager search for funding can be seen in all of the opportunities that open up. Maybe we should urgently create a solid, consistent and sustainable proof-of-concept program, with public-private funding, in which scientists, investors and companies establish the goals together and strengthen local drug discovery platforms.

Maybe we are so successful in Europe in the Proof of Concept, or the European Research Council’s SME instrument (€75 million awarded, 5% of the program total, European region with most money granted for phase II SMEs in all of H2020) because countries that already have this sort of program don’t need to turn to Europe in search of funding.

According to the 2017 Regional Innovation Scoreboard, Catalonia is failing in spending on innovation and in internal innovation at SMEs, for example. And it is passing in production, employment and very high-tech exports. There is no shortage of talent in the BioRegion of Catalonia nor of research and innovation. Not in the most competitive sectors. It is the production model that must change, and above all we have to stop saying we don’t know how to innovate.


Photo: Ana Lora, Creative Commons

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Silvia LabéDirector of Marketing, Communications and Competitive Intelligence
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