Do scientists in Poland wish to commercialise results of their work?
Tomasz Perkowski, Vice-Chairman of Foundation for Polish Science: Increasingly more often. Nevertheless, there is still an excessive level of optimistic conviction that what you invented is so great that the market is only waiting to buy this idea. Usually, this is more complicated.
Where does this conviction come from?
In Poland, the worlds of science and business are still separate. Hence, the lack of being prepared for the market. Or in other words, your project lacks business readiness. There is a sense of absence of trust between science and business, and this applies to both sides. Scientists are concerned that the business wants to exact ideas from them for free, whereas the business is worried that scientists are more focused on preparing the publication rather than on developing the product or service that could be marketed.
But I do not want to complain. Looking from the perspective of the last 10-15 years, I see huge progress in this matter.
What has changed?
Primarily, the approach to intellectual property protection. In the past, nobody was concerned about it. Now, even if scientists are still sometimes unaware of how to protect their ideas effectively, they know that this has to be done. The market has changed. For many years, the relatively cheap and well-educated labour force was the driving force of Polish economy. Now, entrepreneurs are more aware that they have ran out of this fuel and they focus on innovation. Especially, since there are many public programmes that support it. An entrepreneur wishing to implement innovative solutions into their business, may use public funds and this way, reduce the business risk.
Another change was caused by creating the entire start-up eco-system. Today, it is a lot easier to graduate from a university, establish a spin-off and find funding for it, either from public means or Venture Capital Funds that are also often fuelled with such means. Of course, you have to keep in mind that the danger of excessive reliance of the public money supply is hidden here.
The approach of scientists to cooperation with the business has also changed. 15 years ago, such cooperation was desired at the declarative level but it was not recognised in the scientific environment. Things are changing now. Scientists who achieved success in business, are appreciated.
Tomasz Perkowski, PhD
Vice-president of the Foundation for Polish Science responsible for investments’ strategy. During his career he was also vice-president of FP7 External Advisory Group „Research Potential”, expert and member of advisory board in various institutions including Ministry of Science and Higher Education and Foundation for the Development of the Education System, as well as a member of the Supervisor Board of companies such as Solaris Optics S.A. and Solaris Laser S.A
Nevertheless, they often complain that they have no support. They have no opportunities of obtaining assistance.
If they are our beneficiaries, we always encourage them to contact the Foundation. In such cases, we try to help. We can find additional sources of funding, e.g. for completing proof of concept research or we can help with finding a mentor or a Venture Capital Fund that will provide advice in scientific or business matters.
What type of support do scientists need mostly?
Certainly, aid in terms of financing, IP protection, administration and company management is required. Scientists, specifically young ones, also need mentoring support. One the one hand, from a scientist being an experienced researcher who is a firm part of structures of an institution and who would support them in matters regarding science and contacting the administration. On the other hand, from a business mentor who would tell them what they should focus on.
It does not happen often that a young company has a ready product for which the market is waiting. They usually have an idea that may grow in various directions. They need someone who will tell them which direction has the most market potential or that it is time to verify an idea on the market instead of continuing to work on it, collect feedback from customers and improve it afterwards. Such business experience is lacked by people who graduate from universities or institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
How hard it is to find such mentors?
Very hard. Often, they are business angels who try to help young companies. But, first of all, their help is usually targeted at companies with which they have common experience. Secondly, good managers usually work at companies and they have little time for beginning entrepreneurs. Thirdly, there is still a shortage of the wealthy middle class, i.e. people who made money and who can quit working for a corporation or their own company in favour of supporting innovative ideas.
How important is potential for commercialising research work when applying for the Foundation’s grants?
This is a subject of discussions in almost all programmes financed by EU funds. We have a slightly different approach than public agencies. At the Foundation, we assume that the horizon in which the idea is transformed into a product or service can be distant. Hence, the scientific quality of a project is the key criterion of evaluation in our programmes. Assessment of its commercial potential is subject to a quality assessment because we think that breakthrough innovations can be created from good research, which will make you take not one, but ten steps forwards.