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The Warsaw Voice » Other » August 13, 2008
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Academic Enterprise Gains Momentum
August 13, 2008   
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Combining science and business is one way of developing a career in Poland. The Jagiellonian University Center for Innovation, Technology Transfer and Development (CITTRU) in Cracow offers just such an opportunity.

Over the past five years, the center has developed and introduced regulations for the protection of intellectual ownership rights and the spin-off of product and service companies that make prototypes and test procedures during scientific research. The regulations are based on similar rules followed at leading universities in Europe and America. Cracow's Jagiellonian University is the first university in Poland to have applied such regulations.

The center is financed from European Union structural funds and the Jagiellonian University's budget. CITTRU's activities can be divided into three main areas. First, it promotes scientific research within the business sector, transfers knowledge to firms, and coordinates research contracts. Second, it promotes enterprise, especially original projects, supports new firms and organizes training and innovation workshops. Third, it seeks funding and coordinates the university's strategic investments. This last activity sets it apart from the majority of similar centers in the country.

Spin-off firms

The introduction of principles regulating intellectual ownership has proved to be a milestone on the road to preparing the university for entry into the marketplace. The number of interesting research projects has burgeoned. Last year, two new academic firms were founded and five patents were applied for. Moreover, CITTRU was granted two patents it had applied for earlier, and it applied for three other patents jointly with the ŁódĽ University of Technology.

"The news rules adopted by the university, under which our research workers stand to gain 50 percent of the profits generated from commercially viable projects, are beginning to produce results," says Agnieszka Sito, CITTRU's team leader.

The issue of whether or not a scientist is allowed to personally profit from their own invention is solved differently in different countries. CITTRU's division of profits, 50 percent to the university and 50 percent to the inventor, is somewhat unusual in Europe because normally an employer would earn more. But this encourages the business sector to collaborate with the university since patent protection only makes sense if a given concept can be put into production. CITTRU thus encourages university workers to come forward with innovative ideas.

According to the scientists, the size of their profit share promotes innovative research in a measurable way. The scientists' innovative work is financially beneficial to CITTRU since the Jagiellonian University channels some of its profits to it. Moreover, in line with the new rules, the university will finance patent applications. The university also intends to take shares in any spin-off companies and will support founder scientists in legal and administrative matters, by allowing them time off to develop their businesses, for example.

Soon after setting up the legal framework for the creation of these university companies, the Jagiellonian University signed contracts with the first two last year: with Biospekt Research and Education academic firm in June and with MicroBioLab in July. The Department of Biology and Earth Sciences created Biospekt, which offers specialist services for environmental protection with the use of university equipment, and the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Biotechnology created MicroBioLab, which uses biochemical processes to detect bacteria in public buildings, among other services.

Bio-Centrum, a privately owned biotechnology service provider, has been around for longer. The company offers highly specialized biochemical services that involve recombined proteins, for example. The firm is doing well and became part of a large corporation in the spring.

"Currently we are working on some 15 commercial projects," says Piotr Żabicki, a member of CITTRU's business development team. The projects are at various stages of development. The most advanced involve storm mapping-or the monitoring of storm activity over the Earth's surface in real time-and nitrogen filters for combined heat-and-power plants. Both these projects, albeit still at the testing stage, are the subjects of serious negotiations for future production.

EU funds for student companies

Undergraduate and postgraduate students with innovative ideas can rely on CITTRU funding to start up their own businesses. In the last three years CITTRU has awarded subsidies of some zl.25,000 each to 25 student firms that were among a total of 40 winners in CITTRU competitions designed to promote entrepreneurship.

"Firms run by students do not have to operate in the science sector," says Żabicki. "The competitions were about supporting interesting and original ideas and were designed to dispel fears and doubts that young people may have about running their own company."

Students with the most interesting ideas took part in workshops to help them run their own companies. The experts taught them how to prepare a business plan and research the market and competition. Among the winning ideas were the production of hydrogel, a substance that absorbs water; IT services based on Bluetooth technology; an innovative method for researching breaches of copyright law on the internet; environmentally-friendly architectural design; and specialist Polish-language teaching methods.

The winning firms' inventors say the CITTRU initiative is not just about financial aid to help start a company. Equally important is the opportunity to meet other people who are at a similar stage in their lives, planning to establish their first company. Some of them remained in touch even after the competition was over. Some started to work together after having found ways in which two firms could help each other.

"We are planning to run the competition for a third time but our aim is not only to give financial and legal support to students," says Sito. "Equally important is information gathering, which changes people's awareness. We want to encourage people to go into business, to boost their confidence and to make them want to take the responsibility for their ideas into their own hands."

For this good information is required. An interested party must know where to apply and what CITTRU can offer them. This is why CITTRU operates in diverse ways. In 2007, it organized a photographic competition called Innovations and followed it with an exhibition of photographs-hoping that some people may be inspired with an idea for a business venture while viewing the photographs.

Focus on enterprise

CITTRU's efforts in innovation are aimed at potential investors and businesses. "On the one hand, we contact industry and firms and offer them scientific innovations with production potential; on the other, we encourage industry and firms to commission the university to carry out research work within its means and the range of its workers' experience," says Żabicki.

A growing number of firms are interested in taking advantage of the university's research facilities. Among the firms that have signed cooperation agreements with the university are pharmaceutical firm Pliva Kraków, internet service Onet.pl, cookie maker Bahlsen, and giant consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Several new projects to be financed from EU structural funds are planned for the start of the new academic year in the fall.

"We are aiming to broaden our academic enterprise program directed at our scientists," says Sito. The initiative will last several months and is designed to pass on essential information about how to start a business. This group of people will be able to take advantage of internships that will help them find out about market needs within their field of expertise.

Ewa Dereń
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