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Expert Panel: The potential and barriers of university spin-outs


This post is also available in: Danish

Simon Glerup

Co-founder of Draupnir Bio, Teitur Trophics and Muna Therapeutics, Associate Professor at Aarhus University & Committee Member at Novo Nordisk Foundation.

How big is the potential to turn research from universities into spinouts?

The potential for societal impact is unlimited. As an example, Novo Nordisk is now one of the main pillars of the Danish economy and the most valuable company in Europe. Expertise originating from the University of Copenhagen has played an important role in the early development of its key products (insulin and GLP-1 analogs).

What are the biggest barriers to raising the number of successful university spinouts?

University entrepreneurship is tolerated and sometimes supported. But rarely rewarded. The university management needs to find a way to evaluate societal impact, such as entrepreneurship, in a similar way as bibliometric impact (e.g. citations) when they are looking to promote faculty members.

I admire the visionary thinking of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which is a front-runner with the Pioneer Innovator and Distinguished Innovator programs targeted at innovative academics. Very few university professors become entrepreneurs, but once they figure out the model, they often go on repeat and spin out several companies during their careers. These individuals share their network, inspire, and mentor colleagues, leading to the creation of more and potentially stronger spinouts. Thus, the universities should reflect on how to capture and retain academic serial entrepreneurs.

Nicolaj Høyer Nielsen

External lector teaching entrepreneurship at Copenhagen Business School, Co-founder of Penneo and Sepior & early stage investor in Deep Tech and other startups.

How big is the potential to turn research from universities into spinouts?

It’s hard to quantify, but I think it’s much bigger than what we’ve realised right now.

I’ve been on several spin-out journeys, and I’ve invested in two, one of which was sold last year, and the other is developing very well. In specific areas, we are very strong in Denmark – for example, in biotech, but also in technical areas such as photonics at DTU.

What are the biggest barriers to raising the number of successful university spinouts?

The biggest barrier is basically people. You can’t do a spinout without researchers looking themselves in the mirror and saying: I’m going to change careers. And that’s insanely difficult.

I’ve spoken to potential spin-outs, and the reason they are not spin-outs today is that none of the five researchers in the field wanted to leave the academic path. 25-30 years ago, entrepreneurship was not a “legal” way to go – it was the dark side. For younger researchers, it has actually become an option.

We can talk about universities getting better at everything, but if I could fix just one thing, it would be that twice as many researchers should have the dream of becoming entrepreneurs.

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