Alex Stockham, communications manager at In-Part, looks at the university-industry collaborations working towards ending the pandemic and considers how Covid-19 might change tech transfer operations.
I am sure everyone remembers when the realisation hit that Covid-19 was here to stay. The morning when the 2020 Autm annual conference was cancelled I had my suitcase by the door. With the lockdown imminent, we realised that we needed to do something to support the university-industry community to find solutions, treatments and a vaccine for this new virus.
On March 23, we launched an open call for research and redeployed our teams. The response was rapid. We received 174 submissions from 61 universities and research institutes across six continents, with each submission detailing a new breakthrough or technology being developed by an academic team to stop the spread of Sars-CoV-2 and to treat Covid-19.
These submissions cover everything from responsive antiviral biomaterials (University of Toronto), serological assays (University of Hong Kong) and early warning systems for post-intensive care deterioration (University of Oxford), to point-of-care diagnostics (Cornell University), therapeutic agents (University of Sao Paulo) and first-in-class RNA vaccines (Max Planck Society). A full list of the submissions can be found in our public directory.
Each project submitted to our call for research was uploaded to our platform and our team ran them through the matching process to identify R&D teams from our network of more than 6,000 companies with aligned interests. The response from industry followed what we had seen in academia. Companies rapidly shifted their focus and redistributed their workforce to bring to market solutions to the pandemic building on the latest breakthroughs coming out of university labs.
Over 60 conversations are now underway between teams in academia and industry to further develop and deploy the solutions submitted to our call for research. These are being hosted by the likes of Merck, Roche, AbbVie, Ford, Philips, Thermo Fisher and GSK Vaccines, along with many others.
Many of the conversations have now reached the stage at which the academics are involved, non-disclosure agreements are in place, and the companies are reviewing confidential data and results. With others, academic teams are conducting new experiments to generate the data companies have asked to see before bringing the project in-house for further development.
Due to confidentiality agreements, much of this we cannot share at this stage. But one of the collaborations is with a UK-based pharmaceutical company seeking results from animal models for a potential oral vaccine developed by academics at Colorado State University that targets the Covid-19 virus-host cell interaction. Another is with a European pharmaceutical firm that has requested further testing of an immunotherapy in development by researchers at Bar-Ilan University that could enhance the response of the innate immune system against Covid-19.
Covid-19 projects and technologies submitted to In-Part since March 23
A breakdown of the research and technologies submitted by universities and research institutes in response to In-Part’s call for Covid-19 research.
Locking down collaborations
The therapeutics and vaccines (it is possible we will need more than one) that will get us out of this pandemic are likely to come from collaborations between academia and industry. There are over 165 vaccines in development, 31 of these are in human trials as of August 18, according to the New York Times’ vaccine tracker, and most are being developed through university-industry collaborations. The global focus on these vaccines as the exit strategy for Covid-19 has put the spotlight on science.
This profile-raising of university-industry collaboration was highlighted as one of the positives to come out of the pandemic in a recent survey we ran with tech transfer offices at institutes in the UK, Europe, the US and South America. Although half of the sixteen institutes we surveyed said the pandemic had had a negative impact on their ability to collaborate with industry – due to financial constraints, restricted access to facilities and companies hitting the brakes on ongoing partnerships – all but one told us about how they’ were taking positives from the situation.
As well as greater recognition of the value of research and an increased interest in commercialisation from academics, tech transfer offices reported that geography and location had become less of a factor in setting up new collaborations with industry. This is something we have also seen through our platform, with 72% of the conversations initiated this year being between teams in academia and industry based in different countries.
We also asked in the survey about new approaches that institutes have taken to maintain and establish industry collaborations during the pandemic. Adopting new digital communication tools was a key driver of change for some. The migration to remote working has disrupted the usual means of communication – on-campus meetings, conferences and calls. Through digital tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, setting up collaborations across greater distances could be part of the new normal.
The other ways that universities told us they were taking the initiative to secure industry partnerships had been through increasing the marketing outputs for their collaboration opportunities, and running a lean approach to set up new partnerships on shorter timescales. The adoption of flexible, accelerated routes to licensing university-developed technologies to industry, to ensure the fastest and most equitable route to deploy solutions for Covid-19, was explored in more detail in a recent article from Oxford University Innovation’s chief operating officer, Adam Stoten.
In what ways do you think that Covid-19 will have a positive impact on university-industry collaboration in the long-term?
What new approaches has your TTO taken to ensure that new and ongoing conversations with industry are progressing in a constructive way?
In-Part survey, August 2020, 16 respondents, multiple-choice.
What happens next?
There is little doubt we are in this for the long run. But the way things are going I am backing science to save the day. Improved treatment regimes and new therapeutics will help to reduce the death rate. Advances in tracking and modelling, along with better personal protective equipment and transmission suppression, will help to stem the spread of the virus. And a vaccine, or vaccines, given widespread adoption, will eventually confer global protection.
Although we have seen the rate of submissions to our call for research slow, it remains open. If you are in a university working on a solution for Covid-19 – whether it is for prevention, diagnosis, treatment or vaccination – share details of your work and we will make sure it is sent to the right people in industry. Likewise, if you are in a company working to deploy solutions, let us know your areas of focus and we will make sure that you are sent the relevant projects.
For our academic community, priorities vary. Around half of the tech transfer offices in our survey said their top priority for the next few months was about maintaining or getting back to business as normal. For others, it is going to be about adapting to a reduced workforce, supporting their researcher base, or increasing the volume of industry collaborations at their institute.
With a vaccine and better treatments, things will get easier. It is not going to be a smooth ride but there is reason to be optimistic. Over the digital watercooler at In-Part, conversations have started about where we could look next with another open call for research. Around which other global challenges can we help mobilise the academia-industry community?
– This article first appeared on LinkedIn. It has been edited for style and republished with permission from the author.