This post is also available in: Danish

While some academics still find it hard to see themselves in spinout companies, ITU professor Martin Pichlmair has his own startups several times. And it’s an adventure he thinks more people should pursue.

“Working on LAIKA, an AI creativity tool. Actually a Doctor of Technology.”

Says Martin Pichlmair, professor and head of the games department at ITU, in his Twitter bio. And if that last part sounds almost like an interpolated sentence, a footnote in an extensive body of work, it’s not entirely wrong. For although the Austrian has already enjoyed a distinguished academic career, he is one of the few researchers for whom it comes naturally to work commercially too.

He started his academic career in 2004 as a PhD-trained assistant professor at the Vienna University of Technology, where he taught and conducted research specializing in computer science. But after just a few years at the Austrian university, he was itching to get started.

“When I do one, I miss the other. I love teaching and delving into the subjects, but when you’re doing research, you’re often really far away from the application of what you’re researching. Instead, you’re training others to go out and produce real things. And I have too much creative power to settle for one side of the table,” Pichlmair says.

In 2009, he quit his job to devote his time to a two-man micro-game studio, Studio Radiolaris, which released several iOS games – including Radio Flare and Zombies vs. Sheep – in just one year.

The following year, he left the company and founded an indie game studio, Broken Rules, where he was involved in both game design and business development.

“Some things are best solved as research projects. Others as a commercial project. People become researchers because they are curious and want to find out something new. Curiosity can take you many places – including commercial places,” says Martin Pichlmair about the bridge between the commercial and the academic.

Are researchers afraid of the C-word?

Although the commercial life drew him in at university, he was always aware of the dividing line that discourages many researchers from starting their own businesses: many fear for their academic integrity.

Broken Rules game Gibbon

“It was definitely part of my thinking. That’s why I made a conscious effort to maintain links with the research institute when I started my first business by continuing to teach. And then when I returned to academia, it was the other way around: I didn’t want to be seen as doing only dusty research work. I always made sure I had a leg in each camp,” Pichlmair smiles.

At Tech Trans Office, University of Copenhagen, KU inventions and rights are best realised through external partnerships or spinouts. And resistance among researchers to the commercial is soon a thing of the past, according to the unit.

Niels Lysholm Engelhard Senior Commercial Officer på Tech Trans Kontoret

“We don’t experience that stigma so much anymore. And it has a lot to do with the times and the culture. The younger generation of scientists is much more likely to see it as an alternative career path where you can mix academia and business in an exciting way. Most have realised that one is by no means mutually exclusive,” explains Niels Lysholm Engelhard, Senior Commercial Officer at the Tech Trans Office.

Facts: KU Tech Trans Office

  • The KU Tech Trans Office receives between 75-80 notifications from researchers, PhD students and lecturers about inventions every year
  • On this basis, entities file around 25 patent applications with a view to establishing a business with external players and investors.

Is there really still a contradiction between running a business and conducting research, I ask the Austrian researcher?

“The danger is real, of course. If you start a business with products that compete in the market you’re hired to research and analyse, you lose objectivity. It’s just very rare that that’s the case,” Pichlmair says, continuing:

“In my own case, I experience as much envy as stigma. Because, like me, many colleagues would like to be able to jump between several different areas.”

University and startup go hand in hand

Today, seven years after Martin Pichlmair joined the IT University and settled in Copenhagen, he’s ready to dive into the deep end again. Together with co-founder Charlene Putney, a game developer and university lecturer, he is behind the ITU spinout LAIKA – an artificial intelligence-based creativity tool for writers.

Facts: Spinouts

  • A spinout company is a company based on a patent developed at and owned by a university. 
  • The creation of spin-out companies is either based on formal agreements drawn up at the research institution or a formal agreement between the institution and the researcher, which gives the researcher the right to use the research in the creation of an independent company for an agreed fee.
  • The number of spinout companies has grown from 13 companies in 2017 to 27 companies in 2020.
  • In 2021, Danish universities acquired 219 invention rights and were granted 40 patents.

The idea is that the sender can start a sentence and make LAIKA wiser and more aware of everything from personal expression to linguistic tone. And hopefully, in time, the tool can open up a whole new world of written communication.

“Ultimately, we hope to reinvent the way people write. Imagine that in the future, autocorrect knows who you are and how you express yourself. We want to develop that kind of support tool,” says Pichlmair.

Spinout companies are typically based on patented inventions or technologies, which the university’s dedicated patent offices help to commercialise in return for a stake in the company. However, in LAIKA’s case, the spinout is based on intellectual property owned by ITU, which is transferred to the company in return for an ownership stake.

The startup has already received an InnoExplorer grant from the Innovation Fund and ITU has agreed in the new year to let Martin Pichlmair dedicate 80% of his time to the company over a period of time.

“This spring I can start calling myself CEO and co-founder again,” laughs Martin Pichlmair, clearly happy to be trying his hand at the commercial world again.