Valorization is one of the three pillars of Oncode. Why is it so important? And what does it mean for a scientist to valorize the outcomes of his or her research? Jeroen de Ridder (UMC Utrecht) – Junior Oncode Investigator and co-founder of Cyclomics B.V.* shares his view on the topic, together with Rudy Dekeyser, partner at LSP and together with his LSP colleague René Kuijten one of the key driving forces behind the foundation of Oncode Institute.
Partner at LSP and one of the
key driving forces behind the
foundation of Oncode Institute
UMC Utrecht - Junior Oncode Investigator and co-founder
of Cyclomics B.V.
How do we solve real world problems with fundamental research?
Why is valorization so important to Oncode Institute?
Rudy: “Oncode is an institute not only dedicated to carrying out fundamental research to gain a deeper understanding of the basics of cancer, but also dedicated to translating those new fundamental insights into innovative and better tools for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. And that means that Oncode invites its scientists to take an extra step: in addition to sharing their new findings with fellow researchers via presentations and publications in scientific journals, Oncode scientists are encouraged to participate in translating their new scientific insights into products for the benefit of patients and society. Some examples can be a new screening assay, a novel diagnostic test or a novel drug. At the moment, many European academic centres still tend to limit their activities to education and scientific output. Both are very important and at the core of universities and academic centres. But Oncode strongly believes that it is equally important to add the next step and push scientific results further, beyond publication and into real life solutions. This extra effort transforms the somewhat elusive scientific research into tangible benefits for the society as a whole. We try to trigger a change of mindset so that Oncode researchers will think about valorization even at the very start of their research project.”
Jeroen: “I agree. After my research had yielded new scientific insights, I did confront myself with a dilemma. It is one thing to do research, analyse the data, draw conclusions from it and publish this new knowledge in a journal for peers, but how does the community - or even one single cancer patient - in any way benefit from this effort? And I had to admit they would not benefit unless I took a next step. So I did. And what you discover when you take this extra step is that all of a sudden you find yourself into a world that requires skills and competences you don't have. For example, you have to protect your intellectual property through patents, you have to actively seek parties that are interested to exploit this intellectual property in some way or start a company to exploit it yourself. We had to face all these once my colleagues at UMC Utrecht - fellow-group leader Wigard Kloosterman and postdoc Alessio Marcozzi - and I decided to start a company together.”
Oncode is an institute not only dedicated to carrying out fundamental research to gain a deeper understanding of the basics of cancer, but also dedicated to translating those new fundamental insights into innovative and better tools for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
How does Oncode contact scientists who want to valorize their research?
Rudy: “Oncode takes a very proactive approach. The Oncode Valorization Team stays in close contact with the Oncode Investigators. During regular meetings they discuss the results of the research so the Valorization Team can pick up potential inventions at an early stage. After that, the Team supports the scientists in translating findings into a possible ‘product’. Sometimes the process starts the other way around, when a scientist contacts the Valorization Team asking for support. Less than two years after its foundation, it is heart-warming to see that more than half of the Oncode Investigators are already involved in valorization trajectories.”
Jeroen: “In my case, I definitely needed a ‘pull’ to get me convinced of the potential of our results to develop a new diagnostic tool. The Valorization Team really supported us to carry through with this idea. For instance, they used their network to bring us into contact with scientists who have already walked this path, with financial experts that know how to prepare funding rounds, etcetera. You could say that the Valorization Team helped change my mindset from purely academic to entrepreneurial. And for an entrepreneur scientific details are much less important. What is important, is that the final product solves an actual problem and that it fits into the current routine diagnostic workflow for instance. Besides this the Valorization Team streamlined negotiations with the UMC Utrecht about licensing of the intellectual property, managing conflicts of interest and all other issues around these matters. Unlike in the USA, the valorization process is still under active development in many ways in the Netherlands and both the scientists and the academic institutes lack experience. And I feel the Dutch academic institutes get cold feet when it comes to valorization, because of this. The Oncode Valorization Team helps speed up the discussions and negotiations between start-ups and their ‘academic cradle’.
You could say that the Valorization Team helped change my mindset from purely academic to entrepreneurial.
Jeroen de Ridder
Does setting up a company change the researcher?
Jeroen: “I think so. It’s the change of mindset I mentioned. For me it has become a habit now to ask myself already before I start designing a new research project what real-world problem could be solved by doing that research. Solving an academic question is not the sole and ultimate goal anymore. I want my research to also have practical value for patients. Therefore, the design of a new research project anticipates - as much as possible - the future valorization of the outcome of the project. And I believe that students should be encouraged to develop this mindset already early in their academic education.”
Rudy: “It is very nice to hear Jeroen saying this, because this is one of the main goals of Oncode to - enable exactly this mindset change throughout the scientific community. That means to open and encourage a broader, enriched view in which pioneering research goes hand-in-hand with valorization and generates value for patients and society. At the moment, I still sense some reservation towards valorization in the global Dutch academic society. Many researchers still believe that valorization has a detrimental effect on their scientific output. That’s absolutely not true. Various scientific studies have shown that scientists who valorize the outcome of their research have a higher and more impactful scientific output. In other words, valorization boosts the quality of academic research.
However, this is only true if scientists get the right kind of support during the valorization process. And this is part of the Oncode Valorization Team's mission, to provide top level support. This team speaks both the language of the scientists and the language of investors and industry partners. And it can help with so many aspects of valorization, from filing a patent application, to negotiations with potential investors and pharmaceutical company to founding a start-up company. In so many ways, the Valorization Team is complementary to the knowledge and skills of the scientist.”
Jeroen: “I must be an exception to the rule that most scientists stay focused on their scientific work after setting up a company. At the moment, I find it quite fascinating and attractive to combine my role in the company with my academic career. I can well imagine that in a few years I will return to focus on science with the intention the develop new inventions that can be valorized. In the end, it is important that the company has a team that includes both scientist and business-minded people who work closely together and stimulate synergy between science and business.”
At the moment, I find it quite fascinating and attractive to combine my role in the company with my academic career. I can well imagine that in a few years I will return to focus on science with the intention the develop new inventions that can be valorized.
Jeroen de Ridder
Is valorization important for the Dutch economy and the Dutch scientific community?
Rudy: “It is - both directly and indirectly. Valorization can generate new economic activity and new jobs by establishing strong and well-funded start-up companies, but also by establishing partnerships with the already existing Dutch biotech companies. Adding valorization to an excellent research environment is an extra trump card in creating an entrepreneurial spirit and in bringing international talent to the Netherlands. Nowadays, many international top scientists are already expecting their host institute to provide professional support in valorization. New companies, new local partnerships, extra jobs, more entrepreneurship and more international talent gravitating towards The Netherlands would certainly be helpful in creating a vibrant local life sciences ecosystem both for the industry and the scientific community.”
* Cyclomics B.V. is a Dutch startup company founded in 2018. Cyclomics B.V. developed a new, fast, low-cost and point-of-care diagnostic kit for the detection and sequencing of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA).
Credits: Interview by Marten Dooper