Koenraad Debackere, managing director, KU Leuven Research and Development, and chairman, Gemma Frisius Fund has received the GUV Lifetime Achievement Award 2019
Koenraad Debackere always thought that once he reached 50, he would become a farmer, driven by his passion for the job instilled in him as a child who would help out on the family farm every summer. Debackere has clearly postponed his goal by several years – he was born in 1961 – and shows no sign of wanting to leave his appointments at KU Leuven.
But the difference between a farmer and a technology transfer leader is not quite as significant as it may seem. Both professions rely on an innate ability to look at an environment and recognise its potential. Both spend day in, day out nurturing that environment. Both, more often than not, have to do all that on shoestring budgets. And both, all too regularly and incomprehensibly, are not afforded the recognition from industry and policymakers that their hard work deserves.oenraad Debackere always thought that once he reached 50, he would become a farmer, driven by his passion for the job instilled in him as a child who would help out on the family farm every summer. Debackere has clearly postponed his goal by several years – he was born in 1961 – and shows no sign of wanting to leave his appointments at KU Leuven.
Debackere, through his decades-long engagement in the innovation ecosystem, has received countless recognitions along the way and in 2015 was even made a baron by King Philippe of Belgium.
Debackere’s career at KU Leuven began in 1995, when he became a professor of technology and innovation management and policy, but it is arguably his appointment as managing director of KU Leuven Research and Development (LRD) and chairman of its seed fund, Gemma Frisius Fund (GFF), that he has the most tangible impact on entrepreneurs.
There is another fund he helped set up, talked about less often than GFF in university venturing but one close to his heart – the Tom Debackere Fund, which supports research into lymph node cancer and was established in 2012. The fund is named after Debackere’s second child, Tom, who died in 2007 after a five-month fight against the disease.
In an interview for KU Leuven’s website, Debackere said in 2017 that losing a loved one remained his greatest fear: “Ten years ago we lost Tom, our middle son. He died of cancer in five months. You will always remember that. You cannot control such things, and that is frightening.”
The joys of working in technology transfer include the ability to help commercialise treatments for such diseases, and LRD has been pursuing that mission since 1972 – making it one of Europe’s first tech transfer offices.
KU Leuven itself is one of the oldest universities, founded in 1425 – a phenomenally long history of driving science forward. It was no surprise that the university retained its spot as Europe’s most innovative university for the fourth consecutive year in a ranking published by news agency Reuters.
LRD has formed more than 125 spinouts to date and close to half of these – a total of 60 – were established in the past two decades under Debackere’s leadership. That put KU Leuven far ahead of its closest challenger, Ghent University, which has produced 38 companies since the turn of the millennium.
The GFF was set up in 1997 as a joint venture involving KU Leuven with financial services firms KBC and BNP Paribas. The fund’s scope is not restricted to a specific technology domain, and while it focuses mainly on first-round financing to support a spinout’s growth during the initial years, the fund also provides second-round financing, if necessary, in co-operation with external partners.
One of the fund’s recent investments is Cytura Therapeutics, which secured a seed round of undisclosed size in April this year to advance its pipeline of drugs targeting genomic instability, an approach that could prove transformational in cancer treatments. The spinout emerged from the Centre for Drug Design and Discovery (CD3), a biomedical research translation platform and investment fund formed by LRD and the EU-owned European Investment Fund in 2006 with an initial €8m ($9m) fund, which was followed by a €16m second fund in 2010 and a €60m third fund in 2016.
As an evergreen vehicle, the GFF acts as a long-term shareholder and currently has more than 50 portfolio companies, including Ugentec, a developer of automated DNA diagnostics software that closed a $9.3m series A round in 2018, and Rewind Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical spinout that completed a €15.2m series A round co-led by the GFF and CD3 last year.
Debackere, who is also the general manager and a board member of KU Leuven, has held directorships with investment funds Essenscia Innovation Fund and LRM. He is a co-founder and chairman of Leuven.Inc, the innovation network of Leuven high-tech entrepreneurs, and in 2015 was appointed to a two-year mandate as chairman of EIT Health, a knowledge and innovation community of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.
He was also an expert on the 2014 Boosting Open Innovation and Knowledge Transfer in the EU Independent Expert Group Report on Open Innovation and Knowledge Transfer. In 2006, he was awarded the prize for scientific excellence by the Belgian Enterprise Foundation.
One of the most memorable moments in his career, however, came in 2008, when LRD received the IPTEC Tech Transfer Award, only the third time it was given to an institution. Previous winners were perhaps more obvious candidates on the international stage – Stanford University and Tsinghua University. KU Leuven beat Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and Imperial Innovations to take home the award. Debackere later described his team as “electrified” by the recognition.
One of Debackere’s dominant character traits is a drive always to understand his interlocutor’s point of view – though he readily admits to being stubborn – and he has learnt to forgive and realise everyone, including himself, has limits. This combination of a demanding but understanding leader has undoubtedly played a significant role in turning LRD into a behemoth that more than lives up to the heights usually ascribed to its US peers.
Debackere joins a small, but illustrious list, of GUV Lifetime Achievement Award recipients. But in another year of struggling to narrow down shortlists for all the other GUV Awards, this one was an obvious choice. The editorial team congratulates Debackere on receiving yet another recognition – there is little doubt it won’t be the last.
Above: Koenraad Debackere, right, with his family at the launch of the Tom Debackere Fund
together with Gregor Verhoef, left, the physician who treated Tom Debackere