Sociedade Portuguesa de Microbiologia

Portuguese Society of Microbiology

Economic development based on science and innovation

This opinion paper deserves a special highlight in our magazine for three major reasons. First, it is a fair homage to the “enthusiastic, dynamic and well-trained young scientists” from Southern European countries, who often “are forced to seek employment” beyond their area of expertise and/or out of their country. Second, it challenges the Southern European countries to develop their economy, based on science and innovation, while add value to their human and natural resources. Third, it highlights the untapped potential of existing microbiological resources.

Kenneth Timmis (KT)

How did the idea of this article come to light? Was it something that you had in your mind for a long time or it emerged as a consequence of the awake of the financial crisis and the increased “brain drain” from Southern European countries? Or was it something else?

KT: I guess three things came together. (a) I always had a strong representation of young scientists from S. Europe in my group (my first postdoc, Isabel Andres, was from Spain) and found them to be among the most motivated and creative researchers. Until relatively recently, they were generally optimistic, delighted to work in well equipped laboratories in N. Europe for a few years but always planning to go back and start their own groups in their own countries and contribute to the national effort and output. But since 2000-2005, pessimism about finding a position back home has dominated. And now many either stay abroad or go back but fail to find appropriate positions. This had a profound effect on me, and is a terrible waste of talent, just at the time S. Europe needs its best talent to exit from its economic misery. (b) As you know, I worked for over 20 years at the GBF, later the HZI, and could observe a very professional natural products group discovering and characterizing new chemicals. It was scientifically very exciting – new inhibitors/new modes of action/new biology – and commercially very interesting, with new applications. Big chemistry and big pharma were, among others, involved as development and commercializing partners. But: with the exception of France, there is little big chemistry and big pharma in S. Europe. (c) So it seemed to me that one way to encourage long term economic growth in a sustainable manner, and harness the best young research talent in S. Europe, might be to focus on the discovery of new chemicals based primarily but not exclusively on natural products, mainly from microbial diversity, with the explicit goal of developing a thriving chemical industry within 10-20 years. Obviously, given the current economic climate, this would have to be done as inexpensively as possible, while involving the maximum number of young people so, rather than creating large expensive institutes, I proposed small lean institutes strategically networked with the national research community. This would in my view give the maximum intellectual input into projects and greatest flexibility, since the network partners could change according to need. A key new aspect of the network is the active engagement (through additional funding) of cell/developmental biologists working on totally different topics to consider and then develop new screens for novel activities. This part of the network would be country-specific and hence lead to divergence of interests among the S. countries engaged in this initiative.

So: I had been thinking of this for some time. Once I had drafted a rough outline, I shared it with some friends, mostly from S. Europe, who I knew would not hesitate to constructively criticize and add ideas. They provided really important new perspectives and invaluable contributions, and the “Pipelines” Opinion is the result of this discussion.

Do you believe that Southern European Countries, in comparison with other European regions have still important unexplored microbial resources? For instance do you believe, in Portugal, the sea and the Atlantic coast is largely underexplored? In your opinion, a focus on such areas could make a difference to stimulate the economy?

KT: I certainly believe that S. European countries, and those with which they have historical cultural links due their colonial pasts, have important underexplored microbial resources that represent a treasure trove for new chemical discovery. However, perhaps equally important is the aspect of research culture: N. European countries tend to focus on expensive “big science”, latest technology and new technology development, and tend to neglect/fund with lower priority lower tech, less expensive small science. There is an element of fashion following. But: there is no denying that inter alia microbial diversity is of great importance. And: there are outstanding microbial diversity experts in S. Europe: just to name one, Milton Costa in Portugal is a world leader in the field and incredibly productive. So the combination of microbial resources, available expertise, and the relative neglect by others, makes microbial diversity/chemical discovery a natural priority for S. Europe.

In the proposal of pipelines for new chemicals, what are the major challenges? And what would be necessary to overcome them?

KT: I think the main initial challenge is to bring the idea to decision makers and potential stakeholders and persuade them to support the initiative. Thereafter, the key challenges are to appoint the senior scientists who will take idea to reality, to engage industry to actively participate, to set up systems of quality control that are efficient but not burdensome to research, and to create an environment where there are no barriers between research, development, IP management, SME creation by young scientists, etc. Success must be rewarded. But also poor performance must lead to prompt closure of the relevant unit, so the creation and closing of units must be flexible. For all this to happen in an optimal fashion, it will be important to have creative supervisory boards and scientific advisory boards whose work is transparent and free of other agendas.

Which other niches (besides exploitation of new chemicals), in the field of Microbiology, would deserve further research having in mind a direct impact on the Portuguese society and economy? 

KT: Well, I think Portuguese microbiologists are much better able to answer this question, but agriculture is clearly an important element of the economy, so I think plant:microbe interactions is a topic that has both high scientific interest and practical applications relevant to Portugal. I always felt that cork oak microbiology is not something done everywhere else and of significant relevance. The evolution of antibiotic resistance is another, also in the context of aquaculture.

How do you see applied research? Traditionally we think in a model of the type “From the University to the Industry”. Shouldn’t we build on University / Industry partnerships more often so that R&D investments are hedged by public and private sectors, knowledge transfer is more efficient and time-to-market optimized?

KT: Yes, I totally agree and this is explicitly stated in the “Opinion”. We need to create a more entrepreneurial environment in universities and research institutes. (But don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing for a policy that results only in the funding of applied research – far from it. I am arguing for maximum diversity in our structures that allows people of all talents, experimental/theoretical/basic/applied/etc., to flourish. We need a very strong bottom-up, curiosity-driven basic research base, which accesses the new knowledge that forms the framework for new applications. The key thing is: anyone who is good must be supported and we need to create environments where diversity of talents is not only accommodated but also encouraged and where interfaces between different talents readily form. On the other hand, there also has to be strong selection for quality and performance, and all niches have to be subjected to selection pressure.)

An advice…

Imagine someone who has a billionaire investor ahead and wants to convince him/her that the implementation of a pipeline for new chemicals is a good deal, but… has only one minute to do it … what would you advise that person to say?

KT:

– look around you: almost everything man-made is a product of chemistry

– many new developments – and today these occur with increasing frequency – are based on new and improved chemicals

– chemistry is the future, economically, medically, agriculturally, in travel and leisure; but we desperately need new chemicals to power new economic developments

– natural products, especially microbial products, reveal many new chemical structures; microbial diversity is thus a treasure house for new chemical discovery

– countries of S. Europe have excellent, highly trained young researchers who could power a natural product-led development of a spectrum of new chemical industries, thereby contributing to economic recovery and to the building of knowledge, innovation-based economies

– a core centre-network structured new chemical discovery pipeline would seem a good strategy to initiate this development.

Besides science, technology and soft skills, Universities are also challenged to instill innovation and entrepreneurship in their students. What do you think is necessary to develop these two skills? How can a University promote in their students the ability to take the risk when time comes for them to start new projects?

KT: There are a number of ways universities can promote entrepreneurship, and each one can institute its own palette of measures. Perhaps one important one is to develop mentorship programmes involving successful business people, both those having graduated from the particular university in question and those active locally. This mentorship could take various forms, including general lectures and workshops (group mentorship), the offering of internships to students, and the “adoption” of individual students by a mentor (the EMBO does something like this for the people in its young investigator programme and, as far as I can judge, it is rewarding for both mentee and mentor). Another might be for universities to develop strategic partnerships with industry to develop its IP, but, in this case, to give students roles in the partnerships. I think in all cases, there should be an obligatory spell in industry, IP management, etc., as part of the degree course.

 

 

César Fonseca (CF)

 

Do you believe that Southern European Countries, in comparison with other European regions have still important unexplored microbial resources? For instance do you believe, in Portugal, the sea and the Atlantic coast is largely underexplored? In your opinion, a focus on such areas could make a difference to stimulate the economy?

CF: Compared to other EU countries, Portugal possesses a high biodiversity thanks to its geography and climate. Portugal has special territorial rights over the economic exploration and use of marine resources of more than 1,700,000 km2, including the continental Portugal, the Azores and Madeira archipelagos and surrounding sea-zones. The biological resources associated to such vast area are far underexplored. Moreover, Portugal and other Southern European Countries have historical links with megadiverse countries, like Brazil, which place them in advantage to create infrastructures especially dedicated to explore world biodiversity. Those infrastructures for the discovery and application of novel biological chemicals and processes would contribute to the creation of jobs for highly qualified people and promote the conditions for the development of patents and associated marketable products, and thus attract investors under contract.

In the proposal of pipelines for new chemicals, what are the major challenges? And what would be necessary to overcome them?

CF: In my view, the major challenge is to get funding (both public and private) for such ambitious proposal, especially during a recessive period. Such infrastructure would benefit from public-private partnerships (PPP), although PPP may not get good public acceptance in Portugal…

The creation of a non-profit private institute (of public interest) as a platform to attract the private sector would be desirable. This institute would have the difficult role of persuading the private sector for the investment in innovation in biotechnology, as the way of generating more sustainable products, which would increase their competitiveness in the future in a new European (bio)economy.

Which other niches (besides exploitation of new chemicals), in the field of Microbiology, would deserve further research having in mind a direct impact on the Portuguese society and economy?

CF: R&D in plant and human microbial pathogens is also essential for the competitiveness of Portuguese and world economy. These topics can hardly be seen at the National level. Once again, historical reasons promoted R&D on tropical plant and human diseases, as proved by the existence of dedicated institutes like IICT (now under extinction) and IHMT. The know-how accumulated over decades in these institutes is still a competitive advantage for Portugal that should not be disregarded, mainly when the economy in countries of South America and Africa are growing.

 

How do you see applied research? Traditionally we think in a model of the type “From the University to the Industry”. Shouldn’t we build on University / Industry partnerships more often so that R&D investments are hedged by public and private sectors, knowledge transfer is more efficient and time-to-market optimized?

CF: Applied research is essential for the modernization and competitiveness of our industrial sector. However, the so-called “fundamental research” is very important and should rely on public funding and Universities, as the core of knowledge creation. In my view, there are two solutions to close the gap between Universities and Industry, i.e. to convert knowledge into marketable products: i) the applied research and technology transfer is performed by non-profit private institutes (of public interest), like Fraunhofer (in Germany) or INESC (in Portugal); and/or ii) the applied research (and assistance to technology transfer) is performed primarily by state-labs and, in some cases, by Universities. In fact, state-labs can have an important role in filling the gap between Universities and Industries, as their mission includes the promotion of technological innovation, centered in science and technology activities, having the final objective to increase the competitiveness of companies. One example of an R&D partnership between industry, state-labs and Universities, for short time-to-market products is BioBlocks, a QREN Project promoted by grupo Portucel for the development of novel bio-based products. This kind of initiatives should increase in number and in budget, with specific programs at the national level, regular calls and straightforward application processes.

An advice…

Imagine someone who has a billionaire investor ahead and wants to convince him/her that the implementation of a pipeline for new chemicals is a good deal, but… has only one minute to do it … what would you advise that person to say?

CF: World is changing… we are moving from an oil- to a bio-based economy. In this process we need to seek for novel and more sustainable products, i.e. less pollutant, biodegradable and renewable chemicals. Along with the promotion of biodiversity, in order to maintain the equilibrium (or mitigate the changes) of the planet for future generations, we can profit from the existing biodiversity as a source of novel and more sustainable products that can replace oil-based chemicals. This is the investment you need to do to generate novel, sustainable and high-value products for a new bioeconomy era!

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This entry was posted on 21/04/2014 by in Magazine SPM and tagged .

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