Extracting the power of science for the benefit of humanity

Of the hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed scientific articles published each year, most remain within the confines of scientific findings. Only a few develop into translated discoveries that change our lives, such as the recent mRNA Covid vaccine or the GPS in smart phones, which uses the theories of relativity to correct the time from satellites.

And so, what turns good research into “translatable research”?

The promise good research carries may be less relevant to its translation beyond mere knowledge than other factors, such as the scientist’s passion to see the development of his/her ideas, a strategic intellectual property positioning, the management of the risks associated with taking the project to the market, the identification of viable market opportunities, finding the right partners to develop the project commercially, the availability of financing and the kind of investors that the project may attract.

Technology transfer organizations within academic institutes play a key role in facilitating the transformation of scientific discoveries into products and services and developing them into successful businesses. Allow me to share with you the strategy of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST).

Nestled amongst 85 hectares of semi-tropical forest with breathtaking views of the East China Sea, OIST is a young and vibrant graduate university established by the Japanese government in 2011 to conduct innovative research and nucleate a knowledge cluster that will catalyze technological innovation in Okinawa and more broadly Japan. OIST is truly unique. It is an international university in Japan. English is the official language. More than half of the faculty, researchers, and graduate students come from abroad, representing more than 60 countries. High-trust funding from the Japanese government provides researchers the creative freedom and flexibility to take the risks necessary to achieve breakthrough discoveries for the 21st century and beyond.

The catalyst for OIST's strategy for innovation is its Technology Development & Innovation Center (TDIC), a 20-person division of global professionals headed by Vice President Gil Granot-Mayer, former CEO of Yeda, the commercialization arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. TDIC is on a mission to extract the power of science for the benefit of humanity through inventions, collaborations with industry, and new spin-off companies.

TDIC views the transformation of scientific discoveries into new products and services, from research to patenting to commercialization, not as discrete activities, but rather as a continuous process requiring hands-on and pro-active support.

Technology Transfer Lifecycle illustration

In addition to the mainstream intellectual property protection and licensing functions at the core of any technology transfer organization, TDIC is developing bespoke support programs to nurture innovation, from OIST and beyond. In this article, we will highlight 2 core elements of TDIC’s approach to innovation:

  1. Proof-of-Concept Research
  2. Startup Acceleration

Bridging the technological gap between lab discoveries and market application

Engaging the interest of the industry and financiers to invest in so-called “high-risk/high-reward” projects has proven tougher and tougher over the years. Commercial entities often consider new insights from the academic laboratories too early stage and of too-uncertain financial promise for consideration. Universities are therefore increasingly required to do more to bridge the gap between lab discoveries and market application. The confront this challenge, OIST established the Proof of Concept (POC) Program, a gap funding and competitive support framework for researchers to validate, scale and otherwise de-risk technologies utilizing a design-build-test-learn (DBTL) cycle. The immediate result of this activity is more mature and fundable projects. Investing in proof-of-concept research also gives us a better understanding of our technologies, their benefits and their challenges, leading to a sounder management of our portfolio. Last but not least, this activity helps our faculty to develop the tools how to translate their research (not just the particular project) towards real world applications.

One of the most advanced projects supported by the POC Program is a novel method for producing high performance perovskite materials for next generation photovoltaic cells, developed in the lab of OIST Professor Yabing Qi. POC support enabled the researchers to more than double the size of the perovskite solar modules without compromising energy efficiency, a significant step in demonstrating commercial feasibility of the technology that led to a co-development deal with a major Japanese manufacturer.

In the 4 short years since it was established, the POC Program has strengthened 10 patent families, contributing to 18 high-impact scientific papers, 2 co-development deals with companies, 1 license, and 1 startup. To demonstrate how important gap funding is for OIST’s innovation strategy, the university set a target to allocate 5% of its annual research budget towards proof-of-concept research over the next 10 years.

Proof-of-concept research can also benefit enormously from engaging with industrial, financial, and entrepreneurial partners in the early stages. At OIST, we pro-actively seek industry and commercial experts to advise and collaborate on POC projects. This is not done for the sole purpose of risk sharing – it is rather based on the understanding that our commercial partners know best what the market needs are and how to develop products.  The private sector is also a key source of jobs for university graduates and an important licensee of university technologies, among other important connections.

Multifaceted and mutually beneficial relationships between academia and industry
Multifaceted and mutually beneficial relationships between academia and industry

An example of the multifaceted and mutually beneficial relationship that can result from academia-industry collaborations is the co-development deal OIST negotiated with a major Japanese lab testing reagent and equipment manufacturer on a novel microfluidic device developed in the lab of OIST Professor Amy Shen. The collaboration proved to be a unique training opportunity and resulted in a researcher being recruited by the company. It also exposed the company to other research at OIST which led to a second co-development deal with another professor.

Accelerating Startups

In one of his first speeches as OIST President, Dr. Peter Gruss expressed his vision that OIST “realize an innovation ecosystem in Okinawa that can take ideas to production and marketing and provide the basis for future jobs.” This set the bar for linking OIST research to innovation and entrepreneurship. The unique ways in which OIST is working to realize this vision for an innovation ecosystem is through space, hands-on support, investment, and community.

The Innovation Square Incubator facility opened in 2019 as a shared space for startups and established companies from Japan and abroad to co-locate on the OIST campus. It is designed as a hub for internal and external innovation, which we anticipate will have a positive economic impact on Okinawa by seeding new companies, industries and high-tech jobs, in the same vein as the most successful hubs globally such as the biotech hub in Boston, USA or the cyber hub in Ber-Sheba, Israel.

Hands-on support is provided by the Startup Accelerator Program, established in 2018 with founding support from the Okinawa Prefectural Government. Each year, a select group of entrepreneurs from all over the world is chosen to participate in a fixed-term residency program at OIST, where they receive the funding, mentoring, and partnerships needed to launch their technology ventures in Japan. As an international English-speaking graduate university located in the heart of Southeast Asia, OIST is ideally positioned as the perfect gateway to the region with the Accelerator Program serving as a “soft landing” platform in Japan for global startups. 

EF Polymer, a startup recruited from India working to develop super absorbent polymers made from agricultural waste, went through the Accelerator Program in 2020, incorporated their business in Japan, established strategic partnerships with a number of local companies, and went on to raise ¥40M in seed venture funding. This year, one of the two teams we have selected is composed of female scientists passionate about developing comprehensive services and products to women transitioning through menopause. The project lead is a former researcher at OIST who participated in TDIC’s annual entrepreneurship training program where she was able to test her concept through an intensive customer interview process and where she met her team members.

An additional pillar in TDIC’s multi-layer approach is the development of student entrepreneurship. We believe that TDIC’s activities should support both the “grown up” academic investigators as well as the junior researchers. Junior researchers and students are often drivers of innovation and change in the labs. They are a promising resource for technology development while looking for opportunities, career options, independent projects, and new skills. Accordingly, TDIC has initiated the Technology Pioneer Fellowship Program which is designed to select postdoctoral fellows and graduate students nearing the end of their training and education who wish to transition from basic research to impact-driven commercial applications. OIST Technology Pioneers receive a curriculum of lectures, workshops, seminars, and “bootcamps” as well as support from TDIC to enable them to work full-time on commercializing their technology. TDIC is also providing them access to a global network of industry experts, investors, and business leaders to provide guidance, develop strategy, and make introductions to strategic partners.  One of our first Pioneers, David Simpson, from cohort 1 is working with local awamori distillers to apply his sustainable green technology to treat their wastewater; the other, Paul Tsai, is combining machine learning and microscope technology to drastically cut the time taken for cell analysis. 

The Technology Pioneer Fellowship Program is the foundation for a broader entrepreneurial club activity that TDIC is planning to launch this year. Our aim is to encourage a self-motivated core group of junior researchers to take ownership of entrepreneurial activities on campus. 

To invest in high-growth startups that can seed an innovation ecosystem, OIST is making unique partnerships with venture capital firms such as Beyond Next Ventures (BNV). The OIST-BNV Innovation Platform provides selected startups with access to a US$5 million investment fund and tailored business services. It is also what is driving OIST's ambition to establish a venture capital fund that would connect the portfolio companies to OIST's world-class resources and which we hope will lay the basis for the development of an innovation park/smart city adjacent to OIST's main campus.

“Trees that are slow to grow, bear the best fruit” said the famous French playwriter Molière. We are confident that the combination of the unique characters of OIST, a multidisciplinary, multinational basic science graduate university, with the active, open, and bold technology transfer strategy implemented by TDIC will bear fruits and will produce over time breakthrough technologies. Governments and policy makers must realize that technology transfer is a complicated and important mission. Transforming an embryonic idea, sometime with no clear application, and many times before there is a market ready for it, into a commercial product or service is a big challenge. Getting industry or investors to invest in it is even harder.  Most of the successful technology transfer stories matured over a couple of decades. These are the realistic timeframes when we deal with the commercial development of technologies from universities. Any society that aspires to enjoy the fruits of cutting-edge academic innovation must be persistent and patient.

By Gil Granot-Mayer (Acting Vice President for Technology Development and Innovation), Lauren Ha (Associate Vice President for Technology Development and Innovation), and Julie-Anne Lucchetti (Coordinator for Corporate Development).

The Japanese translation of this article was published on July 15, 2021 in the 産学官連携ジャーナル under the title "人類のために科学の力を引き出す産学連携のあり方".