April 2020 issue editorial by Thierry Heles, editor, Global University Venturing
It is difficult to find uplifting news in today’s world. We are living in an age of a pandemic that has infected 2.5 million people and caused more than 170,000 deaths so far, of lockdowns across multiple major economies, of shuttered schools and university campuses, of healthcare systems proving they are not fit for purpose as the need for ventilators, beds and protective equipment far outstrips availability, and of the worst stock market crash since the Great Depression.
With the odds of a global recession, or indeed depression, increasing by the day, there is a big question mark over how this will impact the innovation ecosystem.
Thankfully, university venturing enters this era of uncertainty in a strong position (see our quarterly analysis). While nobody saw this particular crisis coming, predictions about a looming recession date back years so a downturn in and of itself is not entirely unexpected.
Some spinouts will not survive this crisis. Some universities may even dial back funding support as students, particularly international cohorts and thereby a lot of money, stay away – GUV has learned that some highly ranked universities in the UK are even exploring the possibility of pushing back the start of the next academic year to January 2021.
But there is reason to be optimistic. For one, the world is actually much better prepared to deal with a pandemic today than it was last time, when the Spanish flu infected 500 million people – a quarter of the world’s population at the time.
Some spinouts will do very well out of this crisis. In fact, many are working on treatments and technologies related to coronavirus – in addition to edtech developers, such as University of Arizona’s spinout Sidecar Learning, that all stand to see increased usage.
Examples of spinouts working to solve the current crisis include SpyBiotech and Vaccitech – for more, see our in-depth analysis of Oxford’s spinouts – as well as Kastus, iHeed and Manna – for more on these, take a look at our profile of Atlantic Bridge.
Much like the pandemic, these efforts are going on globally. E25Bio, based out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s The Engine raised $2m last month to develop rapid diagnostic tests for dangerous diseases, including coronavirus.
University of Cambridge’s Diosynvax is using computer modelling to understand the coronavirus’ structure to find potential ways of attack – which would be useful not just in fighting Covid-19, but also related conditions such as Sars and Mers.
Karolinska Institute’s commercialisation arm Karolinska Development invested in Svenska Vaccinfabriken Produktion last month, which is working on DNA vaccines to prevent coronaviruses as well as other illnesses such as hepatitis B and D.
Yissum, the tech transfer office of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is exploring a whole range of potential approaches, from artificial intelligence-powered drug discovery to biochemical detection tools, to tackle coronavirus.
And AnGes, a spinout of Osaka University, is collaborating with the institution on a vaccine using synthetic DNA to produce antibodies. The spinout hopes to launch clinical trials within six months.
There are dozens such stories springing up everywhere. They may not be easy to see as eyeballs are drawn to headlines about the latest death count, but they are there.
These are dangerous times. We all need to take the pandemic extremely seriously and stay at home.
These are arguably the worst time in several generations for the world.
But these are also times full of opportunity for spinouts and tech transfer offices to do what they do best: make the world a better place. It just so happens that in this case, the impact will be immediately visible on a global scale.
So, next time you despair at an incompetent message from a politician (and some of them are admittedly doing a good job) or find yourself unable to resist the urge of reading the news before going to bed: take heart, for your commute may be short for a few months and the watercooler chats a distant memory, but your work will have even more far-reaching consequences than ever before.