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Tech transfer and COVID-19: revolutionising the nature of research


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The COVID-19 virus has affected every sector and institution, leaving many uncertain about their future. As many SMEs and startups stop their operations, governments, organisations, and industries are working hard to find a vaccine – with technology acting as the driving force that pushes us closer to our goal.


We are faced with a unique situation. On the one hand, research is taking place at a blinding pace. On the other, we have lots of innovative startups and corporations that have individuals with the entrepreneurial skills to develop products and bring them to market. These two forces should be natural allies. Yet, especially in Europe, many traditional, pre-pandemic systems are preventing R&D institutions from finding the entrepreneurial expertise that would unleash their potential.


This global fight demands a unified response. But to achieve this, we need to build robust tech-transfer networks that link cutting-edge research with innovative startups and corporations. Not only will this help us overcome this challenge, but it will also transform the relationship between R&D and innovative organisations in the future.



The current state of R&D

Sharing research findings is a large factor in achieving the goal of uniting research with startups and corporations. In Europe in particular, current systems for R&D collaboration do not always reach their full potential. The system in place generally supports individuality among experts, who typically compete against other researchers in their work. As Xavier Ferrás Hernández, a professor at ESADE specialising in innovation, says, “In our R&D system, thousands of researchers work alone, without forming part of missions or projects that can decisively impact the wellbeing of its citizens.” [Translated from Spanish].


In fact, a study on the state of R&D collaboration in Spanish companies found that: “While private enterprise accounts for 30% of the institutions participating in national scientific output, it authors only 3% of the published papers.”


Why the system needs to change

The current R&D systems in place make it more difficult for tech-transfer initiatives to happen. These institutions that fund and develop the initial research are full of talented and highly capable people. But even so, they often don’t have the skills in-house to develop products that have disruptive or innovative market results.


It’s simply a matter of expertise. R&D teams have exceptionally specialised professionals who are dedicated to unlocking new discoveries. But that doesn’t mean they possess the creative or innovation skills – nevermind the technical abilities – to produce a viable product and market it well. These skills are more commonly found in startups and other corporations, which makes them more qualified to leverage the power of research findings.


The power of tech transfer

When tech transfer takes place, it is incredible what can be achieved. In mid-January, China released the genetic sequence of COVID-19 to the public. South Korea then analysed the code and put its entire knowledge value-chain to work (researchers, public institutions, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies) to obtain affordable diagnostic equipment as quickly as possible. Shortly after, 250,000 testing kits were served to the health units.


The development of the kits represents what an R&D institution could potentially achieve on its own, although with a longer timeline. But what happened afterwards demonstrates the true power of innovation when tech transfer happens. As the kits were being made, a team of engineers was also developing digital applications to help control the epidemic. In just a few days, an app was distributed to the public that allowed individuals to systematically enter their body temperature. Anyone with signs of fever would then receive a visit from a health unit that would perform a test, such as a PCR test.


Universities in the US are also carrying out tech sharing during this time. On April 10, Yale University signed on to a set of technology licensing principles designed to incentivise and allow access to university innovations during COVID-19. Part of the ‘COVID-19 Technology Access Framework’, these principles are intended to be employed without delay to help prevent, diagnose, or treat COVID-19 infections.


COVID-19’s lasting impact 

Increased tech transfer is taking place around the world in response to COVID-19 – and it is certainly not without its challenges. The issue of intellectual rights cannot be ignored and the speed at which everything is taking place does represent a risk. However, with freer sharing of information, we can achieve incredible results. Some of this is already becoming apparent due to the virus.


In China, autonomous driving is seen to be essential in fighting COVID-19, as it helps to transport necessary medical supplies and food to healthcare professions and the public in infected areas. ‘Having been through the pandemic and supported the front line, we realise “automation” and “intelligence” are the best solutions for humans to respond to large-scale emergencies’, says Zhenyu Li, corporate vice president and general manager of the Baidu Intelligent Driving Group.


Not only will technology and the sharing of it remain vital throughout the pandemic’s entirety, but it will also be essential in the post-pandemic era as the world evolves into the new normal. But to conquer this virus as quickly as possible, countries will need to rely on each other through learning and furthering developments from collective research and data. The future of R&D will change and, with it, researchers may find the nature of their work far less solitary than before COVID-19.


The Collider: pioneering tech transfer

The Collider is a venture-building programme that works hard to bridge the gap between science, corporates and entrepreneurship. This innovation project encourages tech-transfer initiatives to connect science and entrepreneurial talent and create disruptive technology-based startups. The Collider is powered by Mobile World Capital Barcelona, a tech-focused initiative that aims to drive the digital transformation of society to help improve people’s lives globally.