Novo Foundation develops entrepreneurial research program: Awards DKK 30m

By supporting six researchers, all of whom are also experienced entrepreneurs, in their efforts to investigate the commercial potential of their fledgling ideas, the Novo Nordisk Foundation hopes to create a breeding ground for more entrepreneurship at Danish universities and hospitals.

Photo: Lundbeckfonden/PR

Martin Roelsgaard Jakobsen is among the Danish researchers who has already managed to move his research out of the halls of Aarhus University and into a commercial company. Partly through Unikum, but in particular through Stipe Therapeutics.

But the two successes were not enough to quench his thirst for more entrepreneurship. In fact, they did quite the opposite.

Because there are more molecules and approaches with potential that have emerged as Martin Roelsgaard Jakobsen has immersed himself deeper into his chosen field of study within immunotherapy.

"Throughout the years, I've gathered several ideas within immunotherapy and cancer treatment that focus on the innate immune system, I would like to help test these to see whether they have the potential to be commercialized," Roelsgaard Jakobsen explains.

That's why he was immediately interested when he heard that the Novo Nordisk Foundation was looking to establish a new program with grants totaling DKK 30 million (USD 4.7 million) for researchers that have prior experience with commercializing early ideas. A program he has now been accepted into as one out of five grant recipients.

"There are definitely major opportunities in this area of immunotherapy, where one utilizes the powers of the innate immune system. Both purely scientifically, but also commercially, because the area is still so underutilized," says Roelsgaard Jakobsen and adds:

"That's why I'm so incredibly happy to be included in a program that gives me and my research team the opportunity to explore it."

More specifically, the program aims to strengthen and stimulate entrepreneurship at Danish universities and hospitals – including exploring the commercial potential of new discoveries.

Lack of research funds

At the Novo Nordisk Foundation, it has been a specific wish to support this particular area of development, also known as translational research.

Because, according to Mikkel Skovborg, vice president of Innovation at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the foundation has seen increased interest among researchers to try their hand at it, but also a recognition of a lack of financial leeway and administrative knowledge.

"Traditionally, there has been very little support for the very early phases of innovation in Denmark. We don't have much that supports the translational way, and it's that link in the chain that we'll now step in to support by giving financial assistance to the talented researchers that also have a strong interest and potential for innovating and getting to the patients in the end," he says.

The recipients of the Novo Nordisk Foundation's new grants will receive different forms of support during project maturation. Including support from legal, entrepreneurial and innovation exerts, resources that are typically not available at Danish research institutions," says Skovborg.

DKK 6 million in the bank

Roelsgaard Jakobsen will become one of the first participants in the program and therefore also one of the program's first Distinguished Innovators, who are the ones the Novo Nordisk Foundation would like to support through the project – namely driven university entrepreneurs that can help inspire colleagues to pursue a similar direction.

And Roelsgaard Jakobsen is over the moon about the project, which secures him DKK 6 million (USD 949,500) for testing three of the ideas he has come up with over the years, as well as an opportunity to assist his colleagues with advice and inspiration.

Because although Denmark has come far when it comes to life science, the process of moving people from the academic to the commercial phase can sometimes lag behind.

"There's a completely unutilized potential within Danish universities, particularly within life science, which we can benefit from. But it requires financial support, strategic thinking and focus to support a culture, where it has become more common to think about whether research ideas are suitable for commercial development. So I think its extremely interesting that the Novo Nordisk Foundation has now taken the first step in the right direction and wants to support this," says Roelsgaard Jakobsen.

Supports those with experience

Besides Roelsgaard Jakobsen, Mette Rosenkilde from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and Andreas Kjær from Rigshospitalet have received the foundation's new grant. Both have contributed to the establishment of several companies

So has Senior Researcher Claus Olesen from the Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University, who is both involved in Initiator Pharma and a colleague of Roelsgaard Jakobsen's from Stipe Therapeutics.

Finally, UCPH Associate Professor Zach Gerhart-Hines, an employee at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, was chosen by the foundation from a total applicant count of 45. All five will receive DKK 6 million for their projects.

You have opted to give the grants to seasoned biotech people highly experienced in dealing with companies – what's the reason?

"You gave part of the answer yourself. The ones who have usually made one or two start-ups in the past will often do it again and again. On the other hand, those are the ones who'll have to find the money, which takes a long time," says Skovborg.

"We think that by supporting these people in particular with not just one but three years of financial aid, we increase the likelihood of their research fund benefiting patients in the end. That's the ultimate goal," he elaborates.

Two additional rounds coming

Before then, an intermediate goal of the grants is to bring the researchers' ideas and discoveries to the stage where venture capital (VC) environments take interest and can take over with investments that "make the research profitable."

"We will see a marked increase in the number of patents filed at universities, and that recipients get venture investments after two to four years. I'd very much like to see 10-20 projects within the next three years assessed by VC environments," says Skovborg.

It is the first time that Novo Nordisk awards the grants, and two additional rounds are coming. If Skovborg were to decide, these would not mark the end.

"Initially, we have earmarked just under DKK 100 million for the program. We'll conduct an evaluation after the three rounds, and I fully believe that it'll be a success. We also have ambitions to expand into the Norwegian sector, as the need and the potential are really there," says Skovborg.

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