From small office to innovation powerhouse: The 51-year evolution of KU Leuven’s Tech Transfer
In this week’s episode, we have invited Paul Van Dun, General Manager of KU Leuven Research and Development (LRD) unit to tell us how it became a one-stop-shop, seamlessly integrating contract research, patenting, licensing, and more.
Learn from Paul’s experiences as he addresses challenges, including building researcher openness and navigating the evolving landscape of legal and compliance issues.
Furthermore, you will gain insights into the delicate balance between creating societal impact and generating commercial outcomes, and the changing dynamics in university-business collaboration.
In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:
KU Leuven has been named one of Europe’s most innovative universities, your tech transfer office is really regarded as a pioneer in the field of knowledge and technology transfer, and LRD has been around for 50 year. Can you tell us a bit more about its story?
Paul van Dun:
Our office effectively started in 1972. As all offices, it started very small, with one or two people. In the 70s, science was still written in universities with a capital S, and researchers were not supposed to mingle too much with industry or other societal actors.
At that point in time, our university decided to create an office to reach out to industry, which must have been quite controversial then. If we take a look at the turnover and the volume in the office then, we can see that it took at least 15 years before it got traction.
I always think it is unfair to compare us, who have been around already for 50 years, with many other tech transfer offices. Our university has been able to send out the message that you can combine tech transfer with good science for 50 years already, and results in the creation of a mindset, and a culture.
And if I take a look at the tipping points in the history of our office, there were a couple of other moments that probably are to be labeled under the same category. In early nineties, it became clear that there were quite some spin-off initiatives, but there was not a lot of capital available. Our then rector decided to create their own venture fund together with two financial institution and more spin-off companies were created.
About 10 years later, we saw that a lot of interesting projects in drug discovery found it very difficult to reach the market. So we decided to create a unit called CD3, which is a drug discovery engine, according to industrial standards, but under the umbrella of the university.
At that point in time, there was not a lot of applause, but today this is a very instrumental tool for us to get things into society. Sometimes you have to row a bit against the tide.
And what also has helped is being a one-stop-shop: The various elements of tech transfer – contract and collaborative research, consulting patenting, licensing, creating spin offs, etc. – are all under one and the same umbrella. Not only that, but we also take care of all the financial arrangements, sending out the invoices, doing the budgeting, and all the HR elements.
We want to give a clear signal that we take care of everything, both for our external clients, but also our internal clients: researchers, lab technicians, professors, etc. They know that, whenever it concerns valorisation and commercialisation, there is one address they can go to and we will take care of everything.
Can you tell us a bit more around some of the challenges that you faced in the areas that you cover across technology transfer?
Paul van Dun:
Plenty of challenges. To start with a very tough one, how can you make sure that your researchers are open to the message that you’re sending and are open to working with other stakeholders?
23 years ago, we saw that it only a minority of the researchers knew us and worked with us. The office was almost 27 years in existence already, but still not most of the PIs worked with us. We tried doing a roadshow and went to visit a lot of labs, but we didn’t get to meet the people that we wanted to target. This was a big message in humility.
The power that you have as a tech transfer office to make people become active in commercialisation and valorisation is relatively limited. There is no hierarchy between the tech transfer office and researchers, so it doesn’t help if you wander around with a sandwich panel saying “You have to work with industry”.
What does help at least in our experience are a couple of things: First, good service and mouth-to-mouth publicity. Second, showcase your successes. This is something that we spent quite some time in, and the successes that we showcase are carefully chosen.
Finally, what is probably a little bit more difficult, is to check what is the message that your university management is sending out. In our university, research and education are number one, clearly. Even though there is a third legal mission – valorisation and commercialisation – research and education are top of the list. But if your upper university management continuously and implicitly sends out the message in speeches of director in publications, etc, that this valorisation is something that is important and that is valued, that will be much more important than all kinds of glossy brochures that you will print or all kind of awareness courses, etc.
A very simple test is to go to the university’s website and see how long it takes you to find the link to the Tech Transfer Office. If you have to browse for 10 minutes before you find something in that area, it may not be a very strong signal that your university is sending out.
The university management changes every so many years, but this is something we spent quite some time in making sure that they are aligned, that they know what we are doing and that they endorse it.
How does LRD balance the mission or the desire to create societal impact while also trying to generate commercial outcomes and protect intellectual property?
Paul van Dun:
Our mission is creating societal impact and, in doing so, if we can earn some money, we will take it in, which then can be reinvested in research and education, but it goes in that sequence: Creating impact first, and if we can generate some financial resources in doing so, we are very happy to do so.
This is a mission that also our university management endorses, but at the same point in time, the bills need to be paid. Which means that although everyone agrees with that mission, as head of LRD, on a regular basis I get the questions: “How do the figures look like? and “How many patents and how many this and how many there?”.
So far, I have not imposed any financial or commercial KPI on our own employees. The main message is: You need to create impact. This being said, every quarter, we have a team’s meeting with the entire team of 140 people where the results of the last quarter are projected. This is a way for everyone to realise that this is where our salary comes from, but it is not their main KPI. Their main KPI is to get technology and the research results out.
I’m convinced that, if you do it in a professional and thorough way and you create as much opportunities as possible, this is the best way to also create financial impact.
To give you an example, we spent quite some time in nurturing and taking care of very small consulting arrangements, which financially are completely not interesting, but each one of them can lead to a bigger financial contract.
Another example is the drug against dengue by Janssen Pharmaceutica, N.V. that we have in phase two of development. When we started that project quite some time ago, nobody was interested. This was a charity project. We really knocked on a lot of doors and nobody was interested because there was no commercial market at all. It was only after the first cases of dengue fever appeared in Southern Europe, Spain, Italy, etc. – probably the consequences of climate change – when it became commercially interesting. It is a nice example of something that started as a 100 percent charitable project, which at the end of the day, hopefully will generate commercial income also.
Thinking a bit more about the future of technology transfer, do you have any final reflections on what does the future bring and how you see LRD responding to it?
Paul van Dun:
There are a lot of trends and opportunities. When it comes to science as such, AI is everywhere. Microbiome is a very hot thing today, for example. There are also trends and opportunities when it comes to tech transfer. For example, we made the business plan competition that we organised for our students some years ago exclusively open for people with sustainable ideas, and you might think: Oh, that limits the input and the influx of people. We never had more candidates and more projects in than then.
I see a couple of other trends, we will not have the time to elaborate on that, but equitable access has become very important post-COVID. I think the influence and the power of universities in a lot of cases is overrated, but still it’s very high on the political agenda.
What does really please me is that, if I compare it with 15 years ago, tech transfer is pretty high on the agenda of most policymakers. The fact that what we do in our job really is an essential contributor to social welfare and economic welfare is something that nobody needs convincing about today.
Interested in more insights like this?
If you would like to know more about Thematic Technology Transfer’s pivotal role in nurturing young innovators, providing them with a fast-track route to transform their ideas into impactful ventures, head now to our episode Thematic Technology Transfer’s role in circular technology.
We also introduce you to the most common approaches to technology transfer and the frameworks for their implementation in our article Four approaches to technology transfer at Higher Education Institutions.
Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform!