Published: 20-04-2016 10:54 | Updated: 20-04-2016 11:36

Clearing the path to innovation

Alexander von Gabain, deputy vice-chancellor for innovation and corporate alliances, wants to change attitudes towards innovation at KI. “I don’t mean we should start forcing everyone to start up companies or to give up excellent research and education, only that we should be more open to innovation,” he says.

Alexander von GabainAlexander von Gabain was made KI’s deputy vice-chancellor for innovation over a year and a half ago. When he arrived at KI, he found an innovation system that people found cumbersome and complicated.

“Some parts lacked clear roles, people were overlapping each other and weren’t cooperating well,” he says. “On top of this, awareness of innovation was not spread across KI.”

This claim was also corroborated by a survey on KI’s innovation climate conducted by an external expert last spring amongst 70 of the university’s researchers, heads of department and research group leaders.

A committee to give feedback

One of Alexander Von Gabain’s first steps was to put together a committee of people representing important players in the area. This innovation council contains representatives of Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm County Council, investors and the Dean of Research. The council is directly answerable to KI’s vice-chancellor and is led by Alexander von Gabain.

“It’s an important network,” he says. “Not only does it tell all these actors what KI has on its agenda, it also gives us feedback that we’re on the right path with our strategy. But the actual implementation must take place here.”

A strategic agenda for innovation gives the current status of the innovation system and what needs to be done to focus resources and create an environment that encourages innovation. KI’s employees get to learn about the innovation agenda through activities and achieved results, explains Alexander von Gabain.

Priority to build a common path

Work has already begun on structuring the roles the different actors will take in KI’s innovation system. A common operational goal has been set, and meetings are now held more frequently. A priority measure is now to build a clear, common path into the system. The researcher who has an idea or a question should not have to think about whom to contact.

“A common portal will be up and running by the early summer,” says Alexander von Gabain.

We’ve not got there yet, but we’re in promising discussions.

According to the deputy vice-chancellor, many academic researchers underestimate how complex it is to convert an idea into a product or a service. Already at an early developmental stage industrial competence is needed in the form of people who have experience of the process and work with it on a daily basis.

One way to reach this competence is through a new type of corporate agreement, such as that with drugs company Johnson & Johnson entered into last year. The company has opened an office in Karolinska Institutet Science Park and is looking to team up with people from KI’s innovation system on projects that can be offered financing for verified studies.

Education important aspect

The agreement is not exclusive and similar partnerships with more companies are on the cards. The aim is also to establish a proof-of-concept fund – a pot of money from which KI researchers can apply for the financing they need to verify the viability of an idea.

“We’ve not got there yet, but we’re in promising discussions with interested investors,” says Alexander von Gabain, who believes that another way to strengthen KI’s innovative muscle is to adopt new attitudes and an openness towards innovation, such as through lectures, exemplary cases and prizes to those who succeed with their innovation.

Education is another aspect. An introduction to innovation and entrepreneurship has been introduced as part of the compulsory induction programme for new doctoral students. Some study programmes have a clear innovation component, but such initiatives should be even broader, he says.

Text: Sara Nilsson

Translated by: Neil Betteridge

Foto: Gustav Mårtensson

Note: The article has been published in KI Bladet 2/2016 (in Swedish).