Prof. Jan Lubiński: We won’t go far without innovation
An interview with Prof. Jan Lubiński, geneticist and researcher into the role of microelements in prevention of cancer, founder and CEO of Read-Gene SA, a company listed on NewConnect at the Warsaw Stock Exchange, and member of the Council of the National Centre for Research and Development.
Litigation Portal: You are one of the few scholars in Poland who have successfully established and developed a spinoff company based on university research. Read-Gene has 8 foreign patents and 7 Polish patents and its own laboratories and clinics, and offers DNA diagnostic tests and dietary supplements. What is the source of this success?
Prof. Jan Lubiński: It’s not yet a success. Commercialisation is still weak. Patents are one thing and sales are another. It is hard to reach customers without major expenditures on advertising. Meeting regulatory requirements for dietary supplements is also expensive. We have excellent research results, published all over the world, on the role of selenium in preventing cancer, and we have international patents, but we do not have the capital to do business on the scale we would like.
How did you obtain financing?
The company was founded in 2005, and in 2008 we decided to list on NewConnect. On top of that, there were funds from a competition by the Ministry of Economy and EU structural funds. Thanks to this we have our centre in Grzepnica, where we have our own laboratories and medical clinics. But we build everything from scratch, and that takes money.
You didn’t try to interest any investors in your discoveries?
I did. We had about 20 investors from all over the world. Maybe we were unlucky, but the contacts did not bode well for the future. The investors wanted to create a firm that would make a good impression, enter the stock market and earn money—with little concern for the actual operations. What I want is for a patient to come to me whom I can diagnose properly and correctly improve his indicators, so that he is healthier and lives longer. So maybe it is a question of luck, but I did not encounter an investor with the same priorities. They were people focused on a quick, easy profit. But that is not what we were interested in. We had a vision on a substantive level. We wanted to create a new standard. So it is not the case that we really wanted to be independent, but of necessity we have to manage on our own.
Why is there a shortage of such investors?
Apparently it is easier to make money in other ways. It is still relatively easy to make a business in Poland out of doing simple things. But we know that growth depends on innovation. The world runs on products launched on the basis of research, patents and commercialisation. This means real innovations arising out of research or patents, and not simply novelty. As a society we must absolutely choose that path. Otherwise we won’t get far.
Our company is heading in that direction, but we have not reached the stage yet where our patented inventions generate a profit. The commercial part is not built out enough yet. But we are well on the way.
How do you assess the legal and business savvy of researchers and scholars?
Clearly it is very weak, but that works both ways. Academia does not understand business, and business does not understand academia. Businesspeople think that a research discovery can be easily turned into a profit. Their expectations of researchers are too great. But researchers think that a businessperson can come in and make something out of nothing. That is obviously a fantasy.
When it comes to academia, we need a new way of thinking. When my colleagues at the university complain that there is no money for something, I tell them: Don’t expect miracles, just start a business. Then they fall silent. It’s just too big a challenge. But I don’t think there is any other way.
Certain solutions prepared by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education may be helpful here. Support for innovative solutions through 2020 is to reach the universities through firms. This will force cooperation between business and academia. In addition, there is a proposal to enfranchise researchers, as they would become the owners of patents from work conducted at universities. So on one hand they would receive something, but on the other hand they would have to do something with it. Such measures are an attempt to force scholars to get to work.
But of course it is not just a question of mentality. There are real problems with the support mechanisms. For example, the programme for support in obtaining international patents is wrongheaded. In Poland, obtaining support for international patents requires follow-up after implementation. But with patents the rule is that out of every hundred patents, just a few are implemented. So we have international patents awarded, but we do not use this support because we realise how risky it would be. When applying for a patent, we are not certain we will implement it.
Because of the need for financial outlays?
Not only. When patenting an invention, we can only assume that it will have a practical application. But in a couple of years it may turn out that some other solution is better. In the United States, fewer than 5% of inventions are implemented. So it is absurd to condition financial support on subsequent implementation.
When you founded Read-Gene, were you already certain that your discovery would have a practical application?
No, I only assumed that it would. But scientific research takes time. We know going in that some of our efforts will be successful and others not.
If we are talking about combining innovative research with commercialisation and business, there are two possibilities: Either researchers move in the direction of business, or business comes to researchers or begins to do its own research. Neither solution is simple, but it seems to me that it is easier to move in the direction from science to business. Conducting scientific research is not easy, but requires specialised knowledge and familiarity with many nuances.
I take a fairly critical view of colleagues who operate mainly along business lines and then later fill in the missing research. And perhaps they treat my business efforts the same way. But to verify which approach is better would require as large a group of people as possible conducting that activity. There shouldn’t be just one Read-Gene. There should be 100 or 200 such firms, and about 100 or 200 approaches from business to research. For now, as long as there are so few of us, it is hard to draw any conclusions. Moreover, if we are so few our problems are not very visible.
What are the problems?
For example, so far universities and companies have been treated unequally in competitions. Overhead costs have been reported differently for universities and companies. That is inequality and clear discrimination. Now this has changed and overhead costs are calculated the same for universities and companies. And for the first time as well, it is possible to obtain 100% financing for a corporate research project. Previously a company always had to contribute something itself.
On top of this there is the inability to account for company support for a project in the form of an in-kind contribution. Elsewhere in the world this solution exists, but not in Poland. If I have developed my formulas and obtained patents for supplements and diagnostic tests, and a project is realised on this basis, this should be accounted for as my contribution, because I bring knowledge. A general concept along these lines is being developed at the National Centre for Research and Development, but it has not been fully elaborated yet.
It is an excellent thing in general that the centre was established, because involvement of an enterprise is a condition for realising projects there. This forces cooperation between business and science. Systemic solutions are appearing such as the sectoral programme Innomed, which is designed to finance scientific research and development work in the area of innovative medicine. If a company wants to take part in the programme, it must show that it conducts extensive R&D activity. If the company itself conducts only limited R&D, it will seek cooperation with a more experienced company. And that is good. We can see that if there are systemic solutions that offer an opportunity to gain some benefits, people will be mobilised toward innovation. It would be hard to count on that without systemic solutions.
Interview conducted by Justyna Zandberg-Malec following the 8th Food Law Roundtable, devoted to innovations in food technology, held on 10 April 2014 at Wardyński & Partners. The roundtable series is organised for the food industry by the law firm’s Life Science & Regulatory Practice.