Q&A  | 

Lluís Rovira on innovation and entrepreneurship


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Lluís Rovira is the director at CERCA (Institució Centres de Recerca de Catalunya) in Barcelona. He has a distinguished career in scientific research and holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Barcelona. His particular interests are in intellectual property and technology transfer. Lluís spoke to us about his work at CERCA and how Catalan research innovation can be promoted as part of the global scientific ecosystem.

Can you tell us about your current role and how you came to it?

I’m the director of CERCA, an institution that comprises about 40 research centres in Barcelona and Catalonia. The institution was created just a few months before I started in this position, but I’ve been working in research management and evaluation since 1992.


Each of the centres constitutes a legal entity, but CERCA undertakes a lot of cross-sectional activities with all of them. The most recent group we created is about scientific infrastructure. We are trying to optimise the use and funding of our scientific infrastructure, because until now each centre had its own strategy, totally different and separate from the others.

What are CERCA’s main tools or programmes for supporting scientific entrepreneurship?

Maybe the most important one is the CERCA evaluations. Every four years, we join an international panel of experts for each of the institutes. We have been doing this since 2012, and each report has provided great value for the institutes. After a few years you can see the difference – there has been great progress. 


At the European level, all of the CERCA centres have been awarded the Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (HRS4R). This started as an initiative from CERCA, but it is now running without our intervention. The action plans of each centre include provision of a dedicated environment for young researchers to develop intrapreneurship.

Finally, we are trying to obtain a few COFUND grants from the European Commission. COFUND is a Marie Skƚodowska Curie program that awards grants to postdoctoral researchers. We plan to submit this proposal at the beginning of 2022, and it includes an emphasis on intrapreneurship for these young researchers.

Do you have an example of a successful spin-off that was created from CERCA?

Yes, in fact we have created about 170 spin-off companies. One of our spin-offs is Buildair, a company that builds large scale inflatable structures. These are very light, easy to transport, incredibly resistant, and cheap, so they are being used in several countries across Europe, Asia, America and the Middle East.

What are the main barriers in the Catalan scientific ecosystem to creating more spin-offs? How do you think they can be overcome?

For me, one of the main barriers is the psychological issue. Historically, people working in science undertook research just for the sake of creating knowledge. And now we are changing this. 


A second barrier is that there are quite a few new businesses in Catalonia. However, most of them are small and medium enterprises that cannot allocate enough money for a spin-off. Many of them are traditional family businesses which are not used to initiate activities with research institutions. 


The first barrier is an issue of mindset, and I think we can change it. But the second one is a macroeconomic issue, and that’s more difficult to change.

What is your strategy to promote Catalan innovation in Europe? How are you working to be part of the global ecosystem?

The CERCA evaluation is important for us because we organise international panels for assessing the centres, and we have international experts coming from the best institutions in the world, who then establish relationships with our centres. Our centres can then lobby within the European Commission and get involved in common projects from the European funding programmes. 


Our other strategy is based on branding. The individual centres have their own brands. The global brand of CERCA is the fifth top player in Europe, according to European funding bodies, but it is not well known at the European level – so we need to promote it more. 


And the last point is that the CERCA centres participate in several European projects. When you work in partnership, that creates a relationship based on trust.

What is your relationship with The Collider and, in your opinion, what’s the unique value given by The Collider?

We’ve been in touch with The Collider from the very beginning and have always seen them as a good partner to work with. Two advantages come to mind: one is that they always try to choose a well-rounded CEO for the companies, and the other is their way of funding the company from the beginning. That’s why, after many years, we continue to send new companies to The Collider.

Why do you feel tech transfer is so important? What opportunities does it present for start-ups and spin-offs? Do you have any predictions for the future of tech transfer in Spain?

We want to transform the country into a productive environment, especially by creating job positions for talented people. With technology, you can either buy it outside and bring it to the country, or you can create your own technology, manage it, protect it, and sell it. We think this second way is much better. Initially, we had a very scientific profile for our research centres, and that still remains, but now we are very active in technology transfer because we find it incredibly important.

Have you had a source of inspiration or a mentor in your career that you would like to share with us?

I’ve had a few. Two very important ones come to mind. One of them is Eugenio Oñate, an engineer who has been the director of one of our centres, CIMNE, for 35 years and is about to retire. He was one of the first in Catalonia to create the spin-off companies from CIMNE, and since then he has created more than fifteen companies. He always thinks positively and looks for ways to overcome challenges.  

The other one is Elena Canetti. I met her in 2013 when she was working at Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has a lot of experience in technology transfer, so she always gives good advice. Many of her ideas have been implemented in our ecosystem, and we’re still in touch. She has been a fountain of inspiration.

What has been the most rewarding experience in your career so far?

Implementing my ideas gives me a lot of satisfaction. For example, a few years ago, I went to a conference about buttons in Bologna, Italy, and I realised that our centres in Catalonia had no support for patenting technologies in our context. So when I came back, I created a button fund. This has been in place for four or five years, and we’re supporting the protection of 70 patents. We spent something like six or seven thousand euros on that, and we’re beginning to have revenue from these patents.

What professional advice would you give to those just starting out on a similar career?

One thing I found is that there are some tasks which nobody wants to take on, either because they’re viewed as administrative, or because they’re very tough. But sometimes these tasks represent opportunities to grow professionally. My advice to young people would be that if you see that there is something nobody wants to take on, take a look at it, and maybe you will find an opportunity. 


The other thing is that you need to be skilled in two or three different things. As an example, a few years ago I started working in bibliometrics (the measurement of science). This was something new in Catalonia – nobody else was doing it. After a few years, I became an expert on bibliometrics. 


The world of entrepreneurship, technology transfer and the creation of spin-offs is a world full of passion – it’s not just about technology. You need to believe in your own ideas. You need to know technology, but you also need the passion from within to go for the projects and be successful.