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Mission-Based Universities Collaborating to Meet SDGs

by Søren Bregenholt

Many industries, including the pharmaceutical industry where I have worked the past decades, are under pressure to continue to be innovative and able to develop new and better products to benefit costumers and society. Likewise, European universities are increasingly under pressure to secure third party funding in addition to government funding and to prove relevant return-on- investments of the public funds they do receive.

At the same time the global society is under pressure to tackle the big global challenges such as preventing and curing diseases, addressing pollution and climate change, secure global access to clean water and food, etc. as e.g. defined in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDG).

I foresee that by 2040 mission-based universities will lead the global efforts to tackle these challenges, leveraging world leading research and facilitate collaboration across broad coalitions of industry partners committed to translating break-through science into innovative products benefiting patients, citizens, and societies globally.

This is an extract from ‘The Future of Teaching Report: Global Edition’

How will this be possible?

You may rightly ask yourself. Allow me to explain.

The pharmaceutical and other industries are increasingly collaborating with academic institutions in a variety of ways; researcher-to-researcher, project collaborations, strategic alliance, incubators, public private partnerships, etc., all with the aim of leveraging complementary competencies, capacity and funding to reach goals neither party can achieve alone.

Tackling the UN’s SDGs will require multi- disciplinary collaboration between academia and relevant industries beyond the current level. At the same time, providing solution to the SDG is definitely one way to alleviate the pressure on both industry and academia. To be successful, we must take inspiration in what works already today and what needs to be adjusted. Let me give you two successful examples.

In January 2017, Novo Nordisk and University of Oxford announced a strategic alliance, centered around the establishment of a Novo Nordisk research center on the university’s Old Road campus. The vision of the alliance is to combine world-class research in metabolic diseases, with industry- leading capabilities in translating research into new and innovative medicines. Importantly, the collaboration has an open-innovation like front-end facilitating free communication and idea exchange between Novo Nordisk and Oxford researchers, and focused funds to nucleate and test shared research hypothesis, before these are developed toward prototype medicines.

A different approach to industry-academia collaboration are public-private partnerships such as the EU Horizon-2020 funded Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) supporting a number of targeted cross-disciplinary, cross-sector consortia aiming to tackle large challenges to develop more novel medicines faster and more efficaciously. This model unites multiple stakeholders, often competitors, from industry, academia and sometimes public authorities to leverage a broad range of complementary competences, technology and resources in non-competitive consortia addressing challenges that neither party would be able to address alone or in traditional bilateral collaborations.

Combining elements from these two models would allow what I call “mission-driven universities” to become the focal points of broad innovation partnerships aimed to tackle the big global challenges. The leading universities would establish on-campus open research and innovation environments co-locating research groups from across various industries to collaborate with world-class university researchers to develop breakthrough solutions.

Delivering towards the mission will require access to deep knowledge and technologies across multiple fields, basic and applied research capabilities, patience, significant risk-willing funding, and commercial capabilities to develop, manufacture and market the solutions and much more. A totality that academia and industry can only provide in unison.

However, to expand beyond current collaboration models will require adjustment from universities, industry and government funding bodies.

To ensure that all parties have skin in the game, industry would fund their own background and on-campus research. The university would fund their research groups as well as the supporting infrastructure though long-term mission-supporting government funding. A set-up, similar to the IMI model.

One hurdle will be to manage know-how and intellectual property rights (IPR) in a co-located open innovation system – this is likely to require flexibility from all parties. For this to work, principles of free information and know-how flow confined in the on-campus environment, only with flow-back to the sponsoring organizations. Only when hypothesis or prototypes are verified should conventional IPR principles apply.

Less obvious but critically important: to be able to align its research against the mission, universities will need to prioritize internal research funds, staff resources as well as investment to support cutting edge mission-critical research. This implies that the chancellors and deans of mission-based universities must be empowered with a stronger leadership mandate. Failing to do so, universities will not be able to contribute towards the solutions promised by the mission, less so be a credible and desired partner for co-locating industry – and eventually not a contender for government funding.

Also governments and funding agencies will have to adapt their approach to this new reality. Importantly, resources for mission-driven innovation should be ring-fenced in national budgets, to be allocated in a more focused manner, supporting fewer, larger and only top-tier mission-based programs with significantly larger grants for longer periods of time. It noteworthy, that the EU framework 9 program, the successor to Horizon2020, will adopt such approach and fund mission-driven research.

To be able to solve the big global challenges as those included in the UN’s SDG, we need to move towards a new system with less short term project-by-project funding of individual research groups towards a future where we rely on the combination of stellar scientific ambition and drive combined with the industrial translation capabilities and commercial objectives to discover and develop solutions to our critical challenges to benefit citizens and societies globally. Europe’s leading universities are natural focal points in that vision.

This is an extract from ‘The Future of Teaching Report: Global Edition’