Technical University of Denmark: Market relevance must enter early into research

Denmark is one of the most innovative countries in Europe. Still, we must become better at turning research into solutions and products. Research is one of the most important keys to solving societal problems such as providing health for all or solving the global climate crisis. However, the new knowledge must be made available to the business community and put into action. If we want to get closer to achieving this goal , then universities, investors, and foundations must find a suitable model for challenging research from the outset in terms of utility value and market relevance, e.g., strengthening the project’s business development.

Many research projects occur in a cycle between researchers and their own professionalism—a challenge for university research. Often, it is only when a project is completed that the question arises: Can the knowledge and technology generated be translated into making a difference for people?

A sharper gaze is needed
The university collaboration Open Entrepreneurship, supported by the Danish Industry Foundation, has made great efforts to help research-based startups enter the market in recent years. This has been done, among other things, by establishing a corps of mentors consisting of experienced external entrepreneurial advisors from the business community. They have helped to mature the entrepreneurial culture considerably across the Danish universities.

In other words, efforts to help completed research projects move into the market are well underway. But when it comes to initiating new research, we have a significant task in identifying the parts of the projects that can create value in society at an early stage and on an ongoing basis. In a 2019-report to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, an international panel of experts concluded that there is a need for a much sharper gaze at whether Denmark gets concrete solutions or products out of the more than DKK 20 billion we spend annually on publicly funded research.

Transferring knowledge and technology to society can be strengthened, i.a., by Danish foundations, investors and companies making new demands on the research they support. There is a need for a greater focus on product and market considerations and for this subject knowledge to be represented in the research project’s team so it includes both researchers and business developers or commercial partners. Thinking about business development from the start of a research project increases the likelihood of translating the research into solutions.

Fortunately, there are examples of research projects being initiated precisely based on a market need. In recent years, we have seen many health technology and life science projects developed in collaboration between companies and researchers at DTU.

Lots of great examples
This applies, i.a., to the DTU spinout BluSense Diagnostics. They develop methods to test for lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes. The researchers behind BluSense Diagnostics and their IMA technology (immuno-magnetic agglutination) had to consider that the market for diabetes diagnostics was filled with very big players. Therefore, the focus was on using the IMA technology to instead analyze for an antigen from dengue fever—and it worked beyond all expectations. Today, BluSense is the first company to diagnose the dreaded disease with high certainty and to do so within minutes.

Another example is the research collaboration SABS between DTU and FMC, who produce biological plant protection products. DTU contributes with expertise in, i.e., microbiology, genetic technology and automation, while FMC contributes business knowledge about protection against plant diseases and testing in greenhouses and fields and they have experience in upscaling.
Both the SABS project and BluSense are examples of how business has been considered from the start, and the research has been successful in transferring knowledge and technology to society. Some researchers naturally have a market perspective on their research, but we cannot expect this to be the case for everyone. Within the nature of research, there is no straight line from idea to product. Instead, research is a process where you constantly redefine the project and gain new knowledge.

Therefore, we need to support researchers regarding the commercial aspect of their research early in their research. There are currently several initiatives such as Startup Denmark, Innoexplorer and SPARK Denmark—a collaboration between Danish universities created with a donation from the Villum Foundation, the Innovation Fund Denmark, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation. This ambition needs to be extended to the full breadth of research. Companies and foundations must help demand a strengthened knowledge transfer from research to the market.

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