Q&A  | 

Entrepreneurship is a game of collaborations: Manuel Palacín on the Importance of Uniting the Worlds of Research and Business

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Manuel Palacín is Programme Manager at The Collider. He specialises in both the tech and data sides of innovation and is highly experienced in promoting different lean start-up methodologies. At The Collider, he seeks to connect proven entrepreneurs with scientific talent to create innovative start-ups that provide marketable solutions to industrial or societal challenges.

You began your professional career in telecommunications engineering. Can you describe how you progressed towards a more entrepreneurial environment?

I entered the entrepreneurial world through my PhD. I had a project which won the attention of the European Commissioners during the presentation. They challenged us to transform our technology asset into a company. So I founded my first spinoff in 2012, which focused on creating a data portal about transparency for local governments, based on big data and data analytics.

During your PhD, you worked alongside individuals with backgrounds in networking, wireless communications, image and music processing, artificial intelligence, etc. How did being exposed to such an innovative environment help you in your ventures?

My engineering background helped me to acquire a broad view of the technology landscape, but when I moved into the world of entrepreneurship, I realised that I was a novice. The laws that govern these two environments are different. Having a good idea or tech solution was not enough, so I worked on my profile and made contact with people from other disciplines, which taught me how business works. The technological background is not the only way to have a good product. The key is to observe the environment and identify opportunities based on market solution feed.

Before The Collider, you were behind a number of initiatives including SmartGovs, Alquimia.io and AB Fisioterapia. How did these experiences influence your work on The Collider?

The experience of founding these start-ups was similar to doing another PhD in real life. SmartGovs was an excellent tech asset based on creating data portals for local governments. However, the timing was not right, and our client was not prepared for our innovative product. From a business perspective, this was a failure; from an entrepreneurial aspect, it was a learning curve. I learned about the new environment and made new contacts.

 

I also worked with public administration on cultural and sport events while collaborating with Alquimia.io. The idea was to use an app to gather information about different places in the city. I learned a lot about technology, augmented reality and AI, but once again, there was a clash with public administration in terms of timing and investment.

 

I also run a physiotherapy business with my wife, and being an entrepreneur in a family business environment has certainly been a learning experience. But I have found that applying my background knowledge and entrepreneurial approach in a more traditional business setting has still worked very well.

 

My collaboration with The Collider started in 2016, when I was working with the Mobile World Capital Barcelona. I helped define and manage the programme in its early stages. We are growing, changing and adapting to the new era. More recently, and because of the pandemic, we have switched to the online world, creating a programme based on experience and online learning.

How would you describe The Collider and define its purpose?

For me, The Collider is a platform or environment rather than a programme. It is a place where scientists and entrepreneurs can network and come together to develop start-ups. We offer plenty of resources, contacts, mentorship and connection with corporations, local businesses and venture capitals. In short we are people connecting with people.

What does the day-to-day look like at The Collider?

We’re currently creating new projects aimed at bridging the gap between the laboratory and the market, such as our On Campus programme. This introduces the Lean Launchpad approach to assess the viability of commercialisation of new tech, and has become the gold standard for innovation and entrepreneurial training. It also educates students about entrepreneurship to facilitate their transition from research to industry. We’re looking to combine the best new entrepreneurial talent, and the strengths of the scientific and business worlds, to give the resulting new deep-tech start-ups a head start.

In your role as Programme Manager, do you get much of an opportunity to participate in the creation of different start-ups?

I have had the opportunity to meet and make friends with interesting people from different backgrounds, which is more important to me than the creation of the start-ups, per se – the programme itself brings people from different personal and professional backgrounds, allowing them to collaborate and develop their innovative and revolutionary ideas together. Thanks to these collaborations, I have worked with big corporations and investors. It has been a tough, but rewarding life experience.

Are there any start-ups that are currently part of the programme that you’d like to highlight?

During these five years, I have seen lots of good talents, research projects and start-ups. I can mention SAALG Geomechanics, founded by two PhD students, who had the same native scientist mindset as I had in my early stage. They are now collaborating with international companies in the construction sector. Pharmacelera is another successful start-up from the university, working in the field of drug discovery.

 

A recent project is Exheus, initially proposed by a team of three researchers in data science, DNA research and biology. They are applying machine learning and data analytics to the field of genetics to facilitate the detection of injuries for professional athletes. Recently they have had the opportunity to collaborate with the public health sector.

 

RheoDx is another start-up, which is applying physics to the industry, food and health sectors. They are working on a progressive approach to detect diseases by analysing blood. It is a collaboration among mathematicians, physicists, The Collider and the entrepreneurial world, which will impact society.

What are the main challenges you see on an industry scale regarding promoting successful tech-transfer initiatives?

The main challenge is communication between the business and research worlds, because they speak different languages. Research has a certain velocity, but the real world moves much faster, so our job is to facilitate this collaboration. On the other hand, we are helping big corporations to identify that there are good assets in their local environments. Our task is about changing mindsets.

What steps should a serial entrepreneur interested in getting involved in a tech start-up take? Conversely, what should an R&D professional with a marketable idea do?

It depends on their background in research or entrepreneurship. Common advice is to form a good team and not worry about ideas. Entrepreneurship is a game of collaborations. We have to be generous with others and share and align people’s knowledge and vision on the same path.

 

The experience of failure is essential. I encourage people to start with small initiatives on their own in order to fail and learn from it. Collaboration among team members is also very important. A failure to manage human resources is the second main reason why companies fail. Empathy is another keyword. Understanding other people’s necessities or concerns and creating a multidisciplinary team with the same vision is the path to success. In short, it is about excellence in execution and excellence in managing teams.

What would be your ideal vision for the future regarding tech transfer? Are there any particular institutions that you’d like to see make a bigger effort in promoting it?

I believe that we are helping to change society by changing the new generation’s mindset. We would probably disappear in the next five years because we won’t be needed any more. This is not bad news, since our mission as a public foundation is to help society by creating a dynamic research and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

 

In the future, universities will have the opportunity to use the same language as the business world, and national investors will take risks to invest in challenging projects from academia. In general, it will be easier for people to interconnect in the new ecosystem, which will be more similar to Silicon Valley and other international tech centres.