Clusters of Innovation: the case of Medicon Village

Biotech-related SMEs normally require strong investment in their initial stages because of cutting-edge equipment acquisition or high-level scientist salaries. These costs are probably one of the biggest barriers that a novel biotech company encounters.

Picture: Mockup of the Medicon Village (taken from news.cision.com)

In this way, the approach of outsourcing services, equipment or even lab personnel might become an important mechanism that permits many SMEs to overcome these barriers. In Medicon Village, these (and other) solutions seem to produce a real advance in the development of value for people's health and wellbeing. They represent a collaborative community of clinics, researchers, entrepreneurs and even business men in a shared location at Lund, Sweden. That implies not only reduced costs but also a better science with innovative products. The success of Medicon Village has led to extend its concept to international partnerships in other regions like the Sherbrooke Innopole in Canada. Interestingly, these Clusters of Innovation additionally produce a positive effect in the atractiveness of the regions in which they are located. Medicon Valley is a clear example of how a life sciences biotech cluster can help in the development of novel start-ups.


Finalists of the Smart Society app challenge!

We are happy to announce that we have been selected for the final round of the FI-WARE challenge in the field of Smart Society applications. FI-WARE is an open, cloud-based infrastructure focused mainly in the development of Future Internet (FI) applications. This initiative is funded by a European Commission (EC) program that includes Smart Cities, Smart Energy, or E-Health projects among others. The idea of the European agencies is the design and development of a technological environment in which Companies and Public Administrations would connect to innovators, while developers and entrepreneurs would accelerate their ideas.

Following this line, currently there are interesting pilot projects like the SMARTAGRIFOOD project, which aims to shift to a bio-based economy with the advantage of FI applications in agriculture. Probably one of the most important things of these EC programs is that they are focused in the small and medium enterprises (SMEs). They really want that SMEs become the core participants in the advance of the european societies. Thus, there are specific calls for SMEs to be funded in these areas. In June, there was presented the third open call for SMEs with a 80M € budget in several fields like Health, Transport, Energy or Environment.

Other approach that is being used in this program is the early detection of innovative entrepreneurs that are able to generate advances in related FI areas. This is the idea behind the FI-WARE challenge in the field of Smart Society applications, that tries to award disruptive innovations with a clear benefit to the society. In the first round, they select the twenty best ideas (from 300 participants); then, the selected people will generate a prototype of their applications, which will be presented and evaluated at the final round of the Challenge. We have been selected for this final round thanks to the OURSKIN application, a Personalized Medicine approach in Dermatology that tries to improve the prevention of skin conditions thanks to FI technologies. Congratulations to the other finalists, we are looking forward to meet them in the final round!


idTracker: a new solution to high-throughput drug screening

In the field of pre-clinical drug screening, there are several barriers that produce elevated costs (in terms of money and time) to small biotech companies. For example, the ability to manage a large number of animals, with different doses and co-adjuvant therapies. This provokes the use of adequate infrastructure and more technicians. In addition, sometimes these conditions turn the pre-clinical screening into a mere toxicity assay with a lack of analysis of differences in complex behaviors provoked by the drugs.

To address these problems, a spanish group at Instituto Cajal leaded by Dr. Gonzalo G. De Polavieja has developed a incredible novel technique to identify and track multiple animals in a group (click here to see the paper published in Nature Methods). The algorithm is able to obtain a fingerprint profile that is specific for each individual, and this profile is used to reconstruct the trajectory of the animals along a video. This allows to maintain mixed animals inside the same testing arena, because you can identify and recover them at the end of the experiment. Moreover, not only the total needed size of the equipment is reduced, but also you might analyze the social behavior of the animals, and find if a specific drug affects it.

                                    (detail of the identification algorithm, picture taken from CSIC)

There are at least two more advantages of idTracker. First, you do not need expensive equipment for these analyses (a commercial videocamera and good light conditions). Second, it seems to work in a cross-species work (they tested the technique with laboratory animals like zebrafish, Drosophila or mice). This advance might be applied in drug screening biotechs involved in neurological diseases. Drugs with the ability to correct or improve the social interactions of model animals could become lead compounds for several brain conditions.


Personalized Medicine as a challenge

A recent article in Cell reviews the scientific knowledge in the area of Personalized Medicine. Each individual is unique, in molecular terms, as we have distinct genomic, epigenomic, transcriptomic... profiles. As companies develop cheaper and quicker techniques to obtain these profiles, we as society will have a great opportunity to transform this information into new diagnosis, prognosis and treatment procedures.

Dr. Eric Topol, the author of the article, is one of the brightest minds in healthcare. As Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, he is probably the main world leader in this transformation. Interestingly, he spreads his views not only over scientists but also over companies, health managers, politicians and the lay public (for example with his book 'The Creative Destruction of Medicine').

    (Eric Topol, during a talk)

Precisely, such a revolutionary process (the change from classic to personalized medicine) will generate, in addition to great advantages, big challenges to every healthcare stakeholder: the patients will become healthier, but they also will need to be informed and educated; there will be novel market opportunities (and several decaying ones) for small companies; big pharmas will try to adapt their schemes to the new paradigm, and finally public and private healthcare systems will be required to make integral modifications or even be re-built. 

The Future of the Medicine will be written in the next few years. There are too many social advantages that might arise with a good utilization of Personalized Medicine, generating individuals with the unseen power to control its health. Potential problems and risks will appear in the path, too. The society demands more pioneering scientists, doctors and politicians like Dr. Topol to guide people in the revolutionary process we are in.


Citizen Science for companies?

One of the cutting-edge trends in scientific research is the Citizen Science. In general, it consists of   participating in data generation, analysis, or even experiment design by citizens (non-scientists).

(infographics from http://www.citizensciencecenter.com)

Information technology (IT) has facilitated data transmission, real-time communications and data analysis using personal computers. But one of the most known projects in Citizen Science dates back to 80s and 90s, in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Cornell University, NY). Citizens/Collaborators gather data from bird observations, and the results of the population distributions are analyzed by the scientists. In other projects, like SETI@home, the collaborators will offer some of their computational resources to analyze Big Data. In wikipedia you can read  a list of current projects of Citizen Science.

This way, Citizen Science directly benefits to the citizens, because it allows their participation in scientific experiments, and it democratizes Science to an extent. On the other side, professional scientists qualitatively increase their resources to either embark on either more ambitious projects or speeding up them. A book describing the philosophy behind Citizen Science in a detailed manner  is  'Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science', by Michael Nielsen.

Although is normally associated to public or non-profit organisms, the Citizen Science concept should be applied without any problem to profit-driven organizations, that is, to companies with R&D departments. A potential example might be the use of computational resources from the citizens to study therapies against a rare disease. The society would become benefitted from the generation of novel drugs against diseases that Big Pharma is not normally focused on, whereas the company obtain a new niche market  in which it would compete with reduced costs.  The citizens might even decide which disease they want to be studied. And it is not limited to computational collaboration, as an open lab could be used for the citizens to perform experiments. This and other actions would place a company near to an inclusive definition of Citizen Science. As a result, they will help the company to create a social value added to the one that is generated by its activity.

Ciencia Ciudadana para empresas?

Una de las tendencias con mayor potencial de crecimiento en el entorno de la investigación científica es la Ciencia Ciudadana (Citizen Science). De forma general, consistiría en la participación de ciudadanos (no científicos profesionales) para la toma de datos, su análisis, o incluso el diseño de los experimentos.

(infografía de http://www.citizensciencecenter.com)

Aunque las nuevas tecnologías han facilitado tanto la transmisión de información a tiempo real, como el análisis de datos en ordenadores personales, uno de los proyectos más conocidos de Ciencia Ciudadana surge durante los años 80 y 90 en el laboratorio de Ornitología de la Universidad de Cornell en NY. Los ciudadanos-colaboradores realizan observaciones de aves, y estos datos son recogidos por los científicos que analizan la distribución o el crecimiento de las poblaciones de estos animales. En otros proyectos, como SETI@home, el colaborador pone a disposición parte de sus recursos computacionales para analizar datos masivos. En wikipedia se puede ver una lista de proyectos en curso de Ciencia Ciudadana.

Así, la Ciencia Ciudadana beneficia al ciudadano porque le permite participar en experimentos científicos, y democratiza de cierta manera la ciencia. A su vez, los científicos profesionales incrementan cualitativamente sus recursos para poder abordar proyectos más ambiciosos o de manera más rápida. Un libro que describe bastante detalladamente la filosofía detrás de la Ciencia Ciudadana es 'Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science', de Michael Nielsen.

Aunque normalmente se asocia a organismos públicos o sin ánimo de lucro, el concepto de Ciencia Ciudadana debería poder aplicarse sin problema a compañías con ánimo de lucro, es decir, a empresas que hagan investigación. Un posible ejemplo sería el uso de recursos computacionales de los ciudadanos para poder investigar terapias contra una enfermedad rara. Mientras que la sociedad se vería beneficiada por la aparición de nuevos fármacos contra enfermedades que usualmente no son investigadas por las grandes farmacéuticas, la empresa tendría un nuevo nicho de mercado para poder competir con un coste reducido. Los ciudadanos podrían llegar incluso a decidir qué enfermedad analizar. Y no se reduce solamente a la colaboración computacional, también se podría usar un laboratorio abierto al público para que los ciudadanos realizaran experimentos. Esta y otras acciones permitirían a una empresa estar cerca de una definición inclusiva de Ciencia Ciudadana. Como resultado final, también ayudaría a crear un valor social añadido al generado por su actividad.


Buscando partners para el programa Eurostars

El programa Eurostars es una iniciativa de Eureka (una organización que promueve la investigación por parte de los países europeos) junto con la Unión Europea (en su programa FP7). Eurostars está dirigido a las PYMEs que se dedican a la investigación.