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Why we need innovation

Why we need innovation

If we were to ask a dozen people their definition of innovation, it is likely we would get twelve different answers.

This may strike us as odd since seeking to deliver innovation is a key goal for both corporations and academia. However, it highlights some of the challenges of being innovative.   

While both academia and industry have individually been successful in delivering innovative products and services, we have also seen great success from academic/industry partnerships. Why? Because innovation involves not only having an idea but also successfully implementing it. The development and distribution of Covid vaccines has been an excellent example of this – both positive and negative. The pandemic has spawned many different types of partnerships: collaborations between companies, collaborations between universities and all kinds of partnerships involving both sectors.   

Universities in the UK have traditionally had a greater focus on pure research and sometimes (quietly) frowned at those who emphasise the commercialisation of products, appropriating the term “The Dark Side”. This was a term I heard all too often after I had graduated with a degree in Biochemistry and joined a pharmaceutical company. While perceptions may have evolved over the years, sadly elements of this legacy still linger and can often unintentionally limit progress. 

Commercialisation of products is fundamentally about getting the product to someone who needs it and can provide enormous benefits to the relevant end-user. A consequence of shying away from “commercialisation” means many potentially good ideas remain just that – ideas.  In the US we have seen many universities become major forces in innovation, and have institutions such as Stanford and MIT where driving ideas to products is in their DNA.   

In the UK, universities that have long embraced innovation are now really well placed to contribute to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic. Indeed, university innovation and knowledge transfer have not just helped us fight Covid, they are now helping us build back better.  And this is one of the reasons that at the beginning of this year I was delighted to become a Non-Executive Director of Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service.  

For example, our campaign Bench to Bedside highlights a number of cases where world-class academics are working with companies, or setting up their own companies, to directly improve patient outcomes.  

This is effectively demonstrated by Dr Luca Cassetta, founder of Macomics, which develops novel, first-in-class immunotherapies designed to modulate macrophages, increasing the body’s immune defence against tumours.  And Professor Neil Henderson who is leading research – in collaboration with two major pharmaceutical companies – to develop therapies that improve the prognosis for people living with liver disease. 

But companies face challenges too innovation is dependent on team members coming with great ideas – but how we find these is critical.  I have worked in companies where brand teams are asked to generate their annual plans, then spontaneously add one or two “innovative ideas” to their closing comments – this is innovation for innovation’s sake and rarely produces the desired outcome.  A more useful approach is to improve our ability to uncover and develop the ideas that thoughtful people already have – these can come from within the company or from collaborations. New ideas often come at the juncture at two disciplines where one expert can look at the work of an expert in a different field and immediately see opportunities. This frequently happens when we develop successful collaboration between industry and academia, and connect people with very different backgrounds and experiences. 

There was a lot of wisdom in George Bernard Shaw quote “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” I like to think he would have extended it in today’s world to encompass the concept that if we then worked together we could make those two ideas into something really meaningful, or dare I say – innovative. 

By Dr Gillian Cannon, Non-Executive Director of Edinburgh Innovations

Related Links

Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations

Investing in innovation, from bench to bedside

Investing in innovation, from bench to bedside

At the forefront of research to develop gene therapy treatment for Rett syndrome is the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Stuart Cobb, his team and their partnership with Neurogene.

Neurogene began working with Dr. Stuart Cobb shortly after its inception in early 2018. Interested in collaborating with the University of Edinburgh to incorporate innovation into the organisation, CEO and Founder of Neurogene, Rachel McMinn reached out to Dr. Cobb, Professor in Neuroscience at the University.

Following a visit to Edinburgh, their partnership to find a gene therapy for Rett syndrome – a genetic neurological disorder – began.

Creating new gene therapy technologies

After realising that more ‘conventional’ therapies were unlikely to meaningfully improve the lives of people with Rett syndrome, Dr. Cobb, his research team and Neurogene focused on finding innovative and alternative gene therapies for the disorder. The team is working to do this by creating new technologies that will provide a more precise, safe and effective gene therapy for the disorder.

A shared purpose and mission

There is great alignment between Neurogene and the University. They both recognise the importance of collaboration, innovation and the impact of their work. They both share a sense of urgency when it comes to finding solutions for treating a complex disorder like Rett syndrome. And they both appreciate the impact an effective treatment could have on the lives of patients and their families – it is this that motivates the team to constantly innovate and test ideas.

Edinburgh Innovations’ ongoing support

Neurogene is collaborating with the University and Edinburgh Innovations (EI) on more than one research project. Despite some disruption at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the collaboration has successfully continued, and Neurogene and EI have worked effectively together to uphold a robust and productive scientific exchange.

From a business standpoint, EI have been paramount to progress and success so far. Their legal and business support allows the researchers and Neurogene to focus on what they do best – developing life-changing treatments for people living with Rett syndrome.

Success founded in innovation

So far, Dr. Cobb’s team have successfully developed a technology which allows the disruptive gene that causes Rett syndrome to be replaced with a healthy copy. This technology delivers gene therapy to the cells that need replacing with more precision than any standard gene therapy. Such early progress means the team will likely be able to develop treatments with the potential to transform patients’ lives, and they hope to be able to take these treatments to clinical trials.

Neurogene’s investment in gene therapy innovation and technology has opened up an incredible world of possibility for Dr. Cobb and his team, and has the capacity to go on to impact the field as a whole.

“We really value our collaboration with Edinburgh Innovations and the University, and believe that we are all working with a fundamental belief that investing in innovation is critical to successfully developing meaningful treatments for complex diseases like Rett syndrome.”

– Rachel McMinn, PhD CEO and Founder, Neurogene


Related Links

Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations

Bench to bedside: with industry all the way

Bench to bedside: with industry all the way

Collaborations with pharmaceutical companies not only facilitate the transition of a scientific discovery from bench to bedside, but as the University of Edinburgh’s Dr Veronique Miron discovered, can also contribute to career development as a researcher.

Veronique is a translational research leader in the field of central nervous system regeneration. Her team focuses on identifying new therapeutic targets for neurological diseases in which the insulation surrounding nerve fibres, termed myelin, is damaged – causing nerve dysfunction and problems with movement, sensation and intellect.

Such disorders include multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, for which there are no approved treatments to repair the damaged myelin. By taking an unconventional route of harnessing the regenerative properties of immune cells, Veronique’s work has attracted the interest of several pharmaceutical companies looking to meet the therapeutic need for regenerative drugs for neurodegenerative disease.

Working with pharma from the start

Her collaborative journey began when Veronique was a PhD student at McGill University in Canada, where she discovered the regenerative impact of a drug made by Novartis, which was originally aimed at the immune system.

Working with Novartis led to numerous impactful first and co-author publications, allowed Veronique to garner interest in her work at international conferences, and created long-standing networks within both industry and academia.

To the UK, Biogen and MRC award

Moving to the UK to carry out a postdoctoral fellowship, Veronique had the opportunity to develop a project with Biogen to identify regenerative factors released by immune cells within the central nervous system.

Forging this relationship not only led to development of new protocols to isolate and sequence small numbers of immune cells from the injured brain, but also provided funding to bridge her salary between her postdoctoral position and first faculty position. The funds gave Veronique the opportunity to generate the key preliminary data needed to land a prestigious Career Development Award from the MRC, through which she launched her independent research programme.

Prize-winning research

Having established her group, Veronique then liaised with GSK through a joint PhD studentship to investigate what regulates the transition from a potentially damaging central nervous system immune cell to a regenerative one. Veronique and the team discovered that death of immune cells is a surprising but important pathway for therapeutic targeting. In addition, through this collaboration, the student involved was able to engage with GSK researchers and generate a high impact first author publication, which led to a national prize for best paper on neurodegeneration.

By then setting up novel models and platforms for drug testing, Veronique subsequently attracted consultancy contracts which helped bridge salaries for research assistants, allowing the group to maintain its momentum.

Mentor and adviser

These interactions with the pharmaceutical industry have not only facilitated the translatability of the lab’s research, but have also contributed to Veronique’s continued development as a leader and mentor. She advises major funders and pharmaceutical companies on strategic direction in neuro-immunology, and leverages her networks to support trainees interested in transitioning to industry.

Interaction with pharmaceutical companies has been an integral part of Veronique’s research success, and importantly has led to target discoveries that may lead to new drug development for neurological disease.

Related Links

Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations