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Covid response will reset university-industry links

Image: AstraZeneca

Pandemic has put the focus on agility and equity in collaborations, says Alex Stockham

Collaboration between universities and industry is central to the exit strategy for both the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic recession it has caused. Interventions to treat, mitigate and vaccinate against the virus have arisen, and continue to do so, from international partnerships between teams in academia and industry. 

An economic rebound is also being pegged to R&D as a means to generate new products, services and employment, with examples being Spain’s September announcement of plans to double its R&D spend and the UK government restating its commitments to sizeable increases in public R&D spending.

But, as with every walk of life, universities and companies have been placed under strain by the pressures of the pandemic. Out of it are emerging new approaches to collaboration.

The coronavirus has disrupted university-industry collaboration as it has every aspect of academic life. Major conferences were among the first things called off in March, soon followed by on-campus meetings. Lockdowns have caused communications to be put on hold as teams adjusted to working from home, and many researchers who aren’t working on Covid-19 have been shut out of their labs. Supply chains have been disrupted. Unpredictable shifts in consumer demand and behaviour have hit companies’ bottom lines and put pressure on R&D budgets.

Many university-industry collaborations have been paused, while starting new collaborations on anything other than Covid-19 has fallen down the list of priorities. Adam Stoten, the chief operating officer at Oxford University Innovation, the university-owned company that manages technology transfer and consultancy at the University of Oxford, has documented how the impact of the pandemic was felt first as a decline in company requests for academic consultancy and the termination of consultancy contracts, followed by concerns from companies spun out of university research that were looking to raise investment in the coming months. 

But it’s not like people in science to sit around scratching their heads. The mobilisation of the university-industry community around Covid-19 has been unprecedented. As of mid-December, the New York Times’s vaccine tracker recorded 58 vaccines in human trials, most of which are being developed through partnerships. This is the tip of the iceberg. Researchers in academia and industry the world over are working on interventions to see us out of this pandemic.

Quantity and quality

We certainly saw this at IN-PART, where we run a digital platform for connecting universities and companies worldwide. On 23 March—the day the UK first went into lockdown—we put out an open call to any academic teams working on Covid-19 who were seeking industry partners. So far, we’ve received 204 submissions from 70 institutes across six continents, each detailing a breakthrough or technology being developed to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 or to treat Covid-19. 

Through our matchmaking platform, we’ve set in motion over 65 conversations with teams in industry to further develop and then deploy these interventions. These projects are being led by the likes of Merck, Roche, AbbVie, Ford, Philips, Thermo Fisher and GSK Vaccines. We’ve seen the number of invention disclosures relating to coronavirus rise from one to almost 200. Most of these disclosures are novel; the rest are looking to repurpose and build upon existing innovations, particularly those covering diagnostics, modelling and tracking, drug delivery and disinfection. 

So much for quantity, what about the quality? Some journal editors have reported being overwhelmed by sub-par papers from researchers seeking to jump on the Covid bandwagon. But while this may be a concern for the primary literature, the impact on commercialisation will probably be much less.

Repurposing is not a sign of bandwagon-jumping: it’s not unusual for a discovery or expertise to be redeployed for an unintended application. Industry also approaches research with a rigorous, critical eye, creating a safeguard against poor-quality work being incorporated into new technology. For a company to invest in an academic partnership, experts across multiple tiers within the business need to be confident that its worth their time and money.

New collaborations

The all-hands-on-deck approach to the application of Covid-19 research has bred new approaches to collaboration. Over the summer, we surveyed university technology transfer offices that use our platform. They reported a shift towards a more flexible and leaner approach to setting up partnerships for Covid-19, on much shorter timescales than normal. 

This is an understandable response to the urgency of the problem. For the pharmaceutical industry, it usually takes between 10 and 17 years and over a billion dollars to turn a discovery made in an academic lab into a drug that’s approved for the market. While the true cost in time and money will not be known until the finish line, the global effort to deploy vaccines for Covid-19 has set records for speed and efficiency.

One reason for this speed is that scientists have been able to repurpose vaccines already in development for other pathogens, as well as using the experience gained from the related coronaviruses that cause Sars and Mers. The global funding drive led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the global vaccines initiative Covax has enabled overlapping clinical trials to be conducted. Progress on other interventions such as diagnostics, therapeutics, patient support and care is less visible but just as rapid.

The effort to develop vaccines and other interventions has also changed how university technology transfer offices approach licensing. In particular, there is a stronger focus on making sure innovations can be accessed equitably around the world. The most high-profile example is the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, with its focus on ease of use and low cost.

At the centre of this approach has been the non-exclusive, royalty-free licence. This type of agreement allows a company to commercialise an innovation without having to return a portion of the profits generated, while also leaving the invention open to other companies to engage with. 

In return for granting non-exclusive, royalty-free access to Covid-related breakthroughs, universities have been asking companies to make any resulting technology or products available in a way that offers equitable global access. It’s an egalitarian approach, adopted as a means to accelerate negotiations with companies to maximise the number of people benefiting from useful Covid-related research as quickly as possible.

It’s an open question whether the same flexible, accelerated approach used to commercialise Covid-related research could be applied to other global challenges. There has been talk, for example, of some of the changes that have been made to the regulatory and development pipeline being retained after the pandemic to make it easier and quicker to trial new drugs. 

Technology transfer

Companies’ and universities’ efforts on Covid-19 send a signal that challenge-driven research can drive innovation and funding into a specific field. With the UK’s sights locked on spending 2.4 per cent of its GDP on R&D by 2027, the response to the pandemic might offer lessons to achieve this aim. 

The Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenges already take a mission-oriented approach to supporting innovation, but different challenges pose different, and potentially conflicting, mixes of imperatives and motivations. How, for example, do we weigh the economic benefits of pursuing artificial intelligence and automation against humanity’s need for solutions to climate change?

The government must shape the wider influences and incentives to nurture investment in R&D at an integrated, national level. Even once these are in place, the project will crumble unless academic research can be embedded into applications that are useful for health, the environment and the economy. This is why we believe the work we’re doing at IN-PART to simplify the initial connection between industry and academia is a contribution towards hitting the 2.4 per cent target.

There are two general areas in which the response to the pandemic might permanently change university-industry collaboration. The first is broadly cultural, the second is around the approach to commercialisation. 

The forced shift to remote working has done a great deal to accelerate the pace of digital evolution for many technology transfer offices. It has been shown that most of the people in roles that support research and collaboration outside the lab can, to a large extent, work productively from home. As a result, technology transfer offices are much better equipped to start, manage and maintain collaborations from a distance.

This should have a knock-on effect of further encouraging international partnerships. We see this trend at IN-PART: around 70 per cent of the 9,000 interactions made on the platform since its 2014 launch are between teams in different countries. Likewise, with conferences still on hold, companies are increasingly using digital partnering platforms such as ours to find the external academic expertise needed to support their R&D.

Finally, in terms of the commercialisation of research itself, many universities have said one of the best things to come out of the pandemic has been the increased awareness of—and value placed on—taking research down this path. The spotlight on technology transfer has led to higher levels of engagement from researchers across all disciplines interested in working with industry. This should draw in further investment and support.  

Alex Stockham is communications manager at IN-PART, a digital platform that connects universities and companies

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight