The Slovenia Times

How to move forward?

Gregor Anderluh, director of the National Institute of Chemistry. Photo: Daniel Novakovič/STA

Gregor Anderluh, director of the National Institute of Chemistry, discusses the need to provide effective support mechanisms to foster and commercialise innovation in his opinion piece for the Slovenia Times. He finds the issue is important in light of the upcoming EU elections as Europe will have to find its own model to be competitive at the global level.

The National Institute of Chemistry has opened its doors to the broader public these days to present its activities and try to address some of the main challenges in scientific research, which are also relevant to society at large. As part of the 9th Week of the National Institute of Chemistry the Slovenian Press Agency has organised a panel debate on innovation. The topic brings up some important questions and reflections.

Slovenia does not excel at innovation. We are in the group of moderate innovators, behind Estonia and just below the EU average. The strengths of our innovation system lie in human resources, a relatively good research system and the use of information technologies. The main weaknesses still have largely to do with funding. The development of innovation is not supported with public funds, and venture capital is practically not involved at all. With the Scientific Research and Innovation Activity Act, however, important steps have been made over the past two years towards providing more funding, especially for research and development at lower stages of technological readiness. So has the relevant ministry rightly shifted its focus on to developing the innovation system.

Understanding the time dimension is crucial in developing an innovation system. It can take up to a decade to develop a successful product from an innovation. Let me illustrate this with an example from my area of expertise, where a UK biotechnology company, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, brought a product to market almost a decade after its founding. The company was founded almost a decade after a key scientific discovery that yielded insight into what protein toxins that play a very important role in bacterial infections look like. The great stability of such protein complexes, nanopores, and what at the time seemed like a crazy idea that by pulling DNA through a pore, the nucleotide sequence could be deduced, was the basis for the development of fast and cheap sequencing of the DNA molecule. The stubborn persistence with this idea, a close attachment to the Oxford research community and several steps of venture capital investment led to mini DNA sequencing machines that, because of their relatively low cost, can be used by anyone, and, because of their simplicity, can also be used anywhere, including in jungles, deserts and even on the International Space Station. The company is now, of course, one of the UK's key strategic companies and a world leader in DNA and RNA sequencing and protein analytics. This is despite the fact that it has taken almost twenty years from a key scientific discovery to having a product on the market.

Is such a thing possible here? It is interesting and exciting to follow the development of the young start-up ReCatalyst, a spin-out of the National Institute of Chemistry. ReCatalyst develops materials for hydrogen fuel cells. Thanks to a combination of innovative ideas and the remarkable enthusiasm of the founders, the company has been developing nicely. Three years after its creation, ReCatalyst now employs around ten highly skilled staff, has received several millions in funding, including a project from the prestigious European Innovation Council, and was named Slovenian Start-up of the Year in 2023. The development of such a company involves several steps, each with its own specific requirements, such as the number of employees, the right premises and infrastructure, and above all the necessary financial resources, which increase by a factor of up to ten from one step to the next. At later stages, public funding is obviously no longer sufficient, creating the need to bring in private, in particular venture capital funding. In environments such as Oxford or the Silicon Valley, the availability of such capital makes this easier. And if such capital is available, then it all goes a little, but not much, faster.

The National Institute of Chemistry has learned a lot from ReCatalyst. It notifies an average of 12 innovation disclosures per year. We are now focused on patenting only those innovations that show clear potential for commercialisation. We have three to four international patents granted per year and had eight in 2023. The example of ReCatalyst shows clearly that innovation in deep tech is best developed in start-ups. This is why we have started to develop a programme to stimulate entrepreneurship among researchers. As an academic institution, we can help innovators, especially in the first stages of innovation development, by means of the NICKI internal financial incentive, which enables the transition to higher levels of technological readiness, as well as by providing the research infrastructure needed for initial development.

Innovation is also an important issue in light of the upcoming EU elections. Will Europe be able to build an innovation system that will compete successfully with the US, China and other countries around the world that have more developed systems and invest significantly more in research and innovation? Will Europe allocate sufficient funds for the Tenth Framework Programme for Research and Innovation? Europe, and Slovenia at the national level, should have a clear strategy for innovation, and we should provide additional funds for innovation and establish support mechanisms that will work in the long term.

Europe needs to find its own way of innovating. Does it make sense trying to catch up with the innovation superpowers with mechanisms that we copy from them? Europe does not have such a strong venture capital industry as the United States. Neither do we have the entrepreneurial mentality that is present there. Europe will have to find its own way and provide administrative and logistical support to innovators in particular in initial stages of innovation development, and, above all, more fresh public funding.


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