Reflecting on the past and looking to the future of technology transfer at EMBL
“Ultimately, what drives us is to make an impact on human health and to secure the best interests of EMBL,” says Gábor Lamm, reflecting on the 20th anniversary of EMBLEM, EMBL’s technology transfer partner. EMBLEM was established in May 1999, and Gábor has been at the helm as Managing Director almost since its inception.
Technology transfer is the bridge that takes innovative science from the lab and sees it through the process of development into commercial products – novel drugs, therapies, diagnostics and medical devices – that can be used for the benefit of society. It is one of EMBL’s key missions.
The decision to establish a company to handle technology transfer at EMBL was made in 1998. One of the reasons for this decision is that commercial activity would jeopardise EMBL’s special status as an intergovernmental research organisation. EMBLEM was therefore set up as a company that operates according to German rather than international law, and which pays corporate tax in Germany. It is thus free to pursue commercial interests and to make decisions independently of EMBL.
A close eye on science
That’s not to say that there isn’t a close relationship between EMBLEM and EMBL. On the contrary, Gábor and his team are proactive in identifying potential commercial opportunities. “We’re at EMBL all the time,” Gábor says. “The Faculty Seminars, where the different groups talk about their research, are very important for us, as are the faculty retreats. We interact with – and take good ideas from – people at all levels, from PhD students to senior scientists.”
Training scientists is also an important part of EMBLEM’s work. All new PhD students receive training on various aspects of technology transfer, including patenting, public disclosure, and the various types of open-source licences.
Securing EMBL’s commercial interests
EMBLEM’s technology transfer remit spans a broad spectrum of activities. These include identifying and protecting intellectual property, facilitating the establishment of spin-off companies from EMBL, licensing technologies to third parties, marketing and contracting scientific consultancy services, and developing collaborative research agreements.
Collaborations are extremely valuable for EMBL scientists. “In the late 2000s we realised that just doing licence agreements was not enough,” says Gábor. “With collaboration agreements, an industrial partner brings something to the table that’s valuable for EMBL scientists, and the scientists contribute something that the industrial partner doesn’t have. We have a joint collaboration on a focused project. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Two key questions
Every innovation is unique and presents its own distinct challenges. However, in all cases the team at EMBLEM ask two key questions at the outset. First, what is the fastest way to ensure that this technology is deployed in the market? And, second, what is the best way to ensure that this technology is made available as broadly as possible to benefit society?
“The answers to both of those questions define everything else that we do,” explains Gábor. “They define the intellectual property protection and commercialisation strategy: is the innovation going to be protected by a patent or by other means? If a patent, in which territories and with what scope? Is it going to be a single patent family, or do you build a patent portfolio around this topic? Who are the potential licensees? Will you put it into a start-up, or license it to an established company? Are you going to have multiple and exclusive licences? All of these decisions follow on from the answers to those two simple questions.”
Looking to the future
EMBLEM’s many successes over the past 20 years are cause for pride and celebration, but there is no room for complacency. Gábor Lamm is looking to the future. “We want to maintain a high level of service for EMBL, and to expand our business offerings. We’d also like to develop new initiatives to foster innovation, and to develop commercially viable opportunities. We want to help deepen EMBL’s relationships with industry, and to support the institute in achieving its goals.” With quiet confidence he concludes, “We’re good at what we do.” This is surely an understatement, but the results speak for themselves, without any need for embellishment.