New Opportunities for Scientists to Cooperate with Industry

Ljubljana, 18 July - The recent economic crisis has emphasized the need to deepen cooperation between business and scientific institutions as a driving force for higher innovation and competitiveness. This is encouraged by mechanisms as part of the new EU research programme Horizons 2020, while the number of platforms set by institutions themselves is also increasing.

A recent but already well-known example of the creation of such cooperation platforms in Slovenia is the recently-established Slovenian Innovation Hub. The hub was established in May by a group of representatives of Slovenian science and business in a bid to contribute to integration of innovation potential and existing knowledge and skills in the country.

While a national initiative, the hub will be open also to other countries. The Slovenian Innovation Hub will function as a non-profit European economic interest association, representing a modern form of cooperation between organisations and companies from Slovenia and abroad.

Mechanisms are also being established abroad that provide opportunities for research organisations from various countries, including Slovenia. One of these is the SBV Improver project, which encourages systems biology experts to cooperate with industry.

The roots of the project reach back to 2009, when it was developed under the auspices of Philip Morris International (PMI), one of the leading global cigarette and tobacco companies, in cooperation with researchers of the US technology giant IBM.

The project is governed by PMI Research and Development, the research and development unit of PMI, and has so far featured employing more than 430 scientists from 26 countries. No Slovenian scientists have participated so far, but the door is open.

SBV Improver focuses on systems biology, an interdisciplinary field of research connecting biologists, genetics experts, chemists, physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians. Such an approach brings completely new solutions and methods for tackling challenges related to health and the environment.

It is for this reason that PMI is interested in this field of science as it is making significant investments in development and assessment of tobacco products with the potential of reduced health risks in comparison with standard cigarettes. The company is dealing with the challenge of how to design products that eliminate the burning of tobacco and therefore significantly reduce the amount of harmful substances produced when compared to cigarette smoke. They have invested significantly in an assessment program to determine whether reducing the formation of these harmful chemicals results in a corresponding reduction in health risk compared to continued smoking. Systems biology forms one part of this assessment approach, which also includes clinical studies on adult smokers.

In the SBV Improver project, the participating scientists evaluate scientific data and concepts provided by the industry and work together to build comprehensive and sophisticated models of disease. Through this process they also contribute to the development of innovative industrial methodology for verification of scientific data and concepts from the field of system biology. Scientists who participate also have the opportunity to gain access to high quality data and to benchmark their methods against scientific peers.

According to PMI, such approach to tackling scientific challenges could also be used in the future in other fields, such as biotechnology, pharmacy and food and environmental safety.

PMI, which has a subsidiary also in Slovenia, invests considerable funds in research and development. In recent years it invested EUR 1.8bn and employed more than 300 scientists and engineers from various fields, such as biology, chemistry, medicine, mathematics, computer science, pharmacy etc. It has its main research facility in Neuchatel, Switzerland.