How training PhD students in deep tech entrepreneurship can stimulate European innovation

It takes an average of $2.6 billion and around 10 years for a new drug to reach the market. Most of the experiments to get to that point are still done in a laboratory, a slow and expensive process, and unsustainable in the face of global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging population.

Riam Kanso

In 2018, Leonard Wossnig, a German doctoral student in Theoretical Computer Science at University College London, set out to solve this problem by joining a pilot program that helps aspiring student founders turn their research into startups. deep tech. Leveraging a diverse team of researchers at the intersection of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing, Wossnig launched a quantum drug discovery startup, Rahko, that predicts how drugs behave early on.

By 2019, the early-stage startup had closed a £1.3m seed round led by Balderton Capital, which recognized the team’s “unique approaches to unlocking quantum discovery for chemical simulation” and became the sole partner of European launch of the Amazon Quantum Solutions Lab. In 2020, it secured partnerships with some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, including Merck.

The following year, Rahko was named one of the top European quantum computing companies to watch and was eventually acquired by the biotech company Odyssey Therapeutics, becoming the world’s first startup focused on quantum machine learning to reach the start-up stage, just three years after launch.

Since launching that initial pilot at University College London, which has now become Conception X, a deep tech entrepreneurship program for PhD students enrolled in UK universities, I have seen this happen over and over again. . It is a simple but well tested recipe. It has a Ph.D. team working on cutting-edge research with key real-world applications. They know their innovation could help discover effective treatments for now incurable diseases, power carbon-negative cities, or tackle the future of automation. Through a combination of business training, access to pro bono legal counsel, funding opportunities, and expert connections, we help you figure out how to turn your research into a viable deep tech startup.

While not all teams end up on the same path as Rahko, many secure grants, venture capital, build lasting partnerships, and become the tech leaders of tomorrow; some adjust their trajectory and join startups as technical co-founders; others return to the lab with a new focus, working on research that could change the world in a couple of decades.

It is difficult to give an accurate overview of the unrivaled potential for significant innovation brewing in Europe’s research laboratories, which remains largely untapped due to the variable and sometimes stifling IP ownership rules that can make spin-offs unprofitable and difficult to scale.

Conception X has only been around for a short time compared to the time it typically takes to scale a deep tech startup (eight to 12 years), but the numbers are already there. Our portfolio of early-stage start-ups has raised over £21 million to date, created hundreds of jobs and the program has grown to include participants from over 30 universities across the UK and Europe.

The appeal is clear; The best PhD students are promising startup founders: they are used to dealing with failure when running experiments in their labs, and they know the value of persistence; are passionate and on a mission to make a significant long-term difference; they are eager to learn and are aware that there are gaps in their experience or knowledge that they need to fill; and last but not least, their products are backed by years of deep domain research giving them the confidence to keep working on technology that often has no applications in today’s world yet, but will become ubiquitous within a few years. Some of today’s leading tech companies were founded by yesterday’s Ph.D. students: think Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis and Shane Legg, Vaccitech’s Sarah Gilbert.

The Conception X model effectively accelerates the pace of commercialization by working directly with Ph.D. students to help them develop entrepreneurial skills and a business plan while they are still in college, without asking them to drop out. In the UK, this is possible because PhD students often own their IP, especially when it comes to non-patentable software, and don’t have to go through their university’s technology transfer office when launching a startup based on technology. in your research. Even in cases where technology transfer offices are involved, the conversation tends to be much more productive and moves quickly when the founding student has a specific plan for a product.

Similar initiatives, no matter where they are launched, can help spearhead Europe’s collaborative effort to lead the next wave of deep tech innovation, exporting technologies and startups far beyond the place where they were first conceived.

Conception X startup Sephri Solutions, which has developed the world’s first human-sized robot with visual and haptic perception for social interaction, is one such example. The company is based on research conducted at the ETH Max Planck Center for Learning Systems, a joint academic program between ETH Zurich and the Max Planck Society. The end product is a complex mix of next-generation hardware and software, including machine learning algorithms that teach robots to act on user preferences, behavioral algorithms that help robots react naturally to interactions with users, depth perception devices to inform movement, torso detection and more. The first tests have already shown that the robot’s interactions with users, for now limited to hugs, can positively affect their health.

Similarly, climate tech startup Kapacity, co-founded by a Loughborough University PhD student researching smart algorithms for demand response, has chosen Finland as its initial market. The team has developed AI-powered cloud software to optimize energy consumption in commercial buildings and can achieve a 25% reduction in electricity costs and a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions according to early pilots.

There is no doubt that the future of innovation in Europe will stem from its world-leading universities, which play a much larger strategic role than we currently give them credit for. In addition to being educational and research establishments, they are breeding grounds for inventors and founders with a vision of technology for good, determined to work on solutions for the public benefit. In a survey we conducted among our cohort last year, we found that 79% of students wanted to market their research out of a higher sense of purpose.

This is not an attempt to change the role of universities, engineering them beyond recognition. Governments must continue to fund the key education and research functions of academic institutions, but research and innovation must reinforce, rather than subtract from, each other. That is if we are serious about carving out a unique path for European innovation, taking advantage of our competitive advantage.

Main Image: ThisisEngineering RAEng


Hear more from Riam and many other industry specialists at the Tech.eu Summit, taking place on May 17, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. Tickets are now on sale.

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