Health business with Stanford’s teachings

Submitted on 6.2.2017 - 13:11

Terveysteknologia/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall

The development programme of the Universities of Tampere and Helsinki promises products and companies in two or three years

Pasi Sorvisto/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
‘The management process is the weak link. It’s not that we lack the will. We just don’t have the tools or models,’ says the new development project’s leader Pasi Sorvisto regarding Finnish research and development efforts. Photos: Jonne Renvall

Finnish health technology and biotechnology research will soon be commercialised with the help of teachings from the top-level Stanford University in the USA.

Together with the Universities of Tampere and Helsinki, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment launched a development programme that is intended to expand to cover the whole country in two years.

Pasi Sorvisto, who is in charge of the SPARK Finland development programme, promises that the ideas being processed will be refined into concrete products and possibly even companies that will be eligible for funding within two or three years. The ideas can be based on research by institutions of higher education and clinical service organisations in the Helsinki and Tampere regions.

No calls for proposals have been organised yet, but the intention is to collect a suitable group of ideas for refinement by hand picking and launching a call for proposals in the spring and early summer.

‘We will build a Finnish model that is rooted in our own areas of expertise and strengths. Instead of copying the Stanford model, we will use its process thinking, culture of communal cooperation and other elements that will be expanded into a national model,’ says Sorvisto.

Sorvisto imported the development programme to Finland from Stanford University, where he has worked as a visiting researcher, among other things. In addition to his work, he is writing a dissertation for Tampere that is related to building and funding growth companies.

Majority of potential Finnish companies from Tampere and Helsinki

Tampere and Helsinki were selected as partners for the development programme because of Pasi Sorvisto’s estimation that they represent 60–65 per cent of all potential health care companies in Finland.

‘I’m sure there would have been other interested parties, but as the case often is, we must first do something that works and then work on expanding it further. It’s more complicated to try and achieve something meaningful with a larger group of participants.’

Seppo Parkkila/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
‘It’s not that we lack inventions, but our culture has been the wrong type or perhaps lacking,’ says Professor and Vice Rector Seppo Parkkila.

A great deal of money is spent on research and development in Finland, but the results have been lacking in Sorvisto’s opinion.

‘The management process is the weak link. It’s not that we lack the will, we just don’t have a refinement process. We don’t have the tools or models.’

According to Sorvisto, a culture of communal development is foreign to Finns. A technical invention or finding by itself is not enough. The creator must also know what type of clinical need the finding solves. The second criterion is novelty value, which may mean finding a new need for a well-known drug, for example.

Large pharmaceutical companies will not try to develop an expensive medicine if the market for it is limited. Whereas a market valued at a hundred million euros may be too small for a large pharmaceutical company, it may be a major opportunity for an entrepreneur-led start-up company.

‘If these potential companies are not refined further, a large number of medicines for treating rare diseases will never be developed,’ remarks Sorvisto.

Abundance of inventions, lack of a culture

‘We most certainly have a variety of ideas and innovations. The problem is that researchers are usually alone with these ideas and innovations. We have very narrow shoulders at that point,’ says Seppo Parkkila, Vice Rector and Professor (anatomy) in charge of research at the University of Tampere.

According to Parkkila, the newly launched development programme will create a new type of operating culture. The network will provide researchers with the opportunity to take their ideas forward and export them to the world. Health technology and bioscience companies must aim for the global market, as sufficiently large amounts of capital are not available in Finland.

‘Changing the culture is a big step. It will promote cooperation and experts will provide advice on how an idea can be refined. Maybe it won’t be as lonely as it has been until now.’

Parkkila is not willing to give examples of Tampere-based start-up companies, but he does mention that there are many interesting things underway at the BioMediTech Institute and the Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences.

‘It’s not that we lack inventions, but our culture has been the wrong type or perhaps lacking. We have been lacking a spirit of cooperation.’

New medicines more quickly than before

The development of a new medicine takes 15 to 20 years. The newly launched development project promises that the early stages of the development of new health technology and medicines can be shortened so that a work period that usually takes several years can be fit into two years.

‘A researcher doesn’t and can’t be expected to have the training, expertise or tools of a product developer. How can someone possibly fly a plane if they have never learned and practised flying? Researchers are trained to be researchers,’ says Pasi Sorvisto.

The development programme will help researchers build their knowledge and understanding of a product’s refinement process. Sorvisto points out that not everyone who has a degree from an institution of higher education becomes a researcher. Graduates with a Master’s degree or doctorate can also be employed in industry.

‘The point is how the idea is processed further in everyday work. That’s why the greatest benefits can be gained in the early stages of development when the research is still looking for a direction and form.’

Should researchers start thinking about the end product even if they are performing basic research?

‘Well, yes, particularly if there is a clear clinical need for the subject in which the researcher is interested. It’s beyond great if a researcher can visualise early on what their idea can result in. It’s an amazing advantage to have because it also gives direction to the researcher’s work,’ says Sorvisto.

Aiming for cooperation with top universities in the world

The development programme is funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, but universities can also benefit from it. Seppo Parkkila considers the first benefit to be the completion of a chain that is intended for commercialising research.

‘Whether or not it will bring in money, I hope that it will help us advance great innovations. This will benefit the inventor and the university. Another significant aspect is that Tampere and Helsinki will be able to join a network that already includes top-ranked universities.’

The network includes some of the top universities in the world from the USA, Asia and Europe.

Parkkila believes that the University of Tampere’s participation in the development project will also interest Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation.

‘Let’s hope that it will also have a positive impact on the Tekes funding granted to the University of Tampere.’

Text: Heikki Laurinolli