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Guilty until proven innocent

Martin Fusek

Interview with Professor Martin Fusek, director of IOCBTech, a technology transfer office and subsidiary company of IOCB.

In June, the Emil Votoček Medal will be presented at a ceremony recognizing outstanding personalities who have contributed to the development of UCT Prague or science and education more broadly. Professor Martin Fusek, director of IOCBTech, will be one of the six laureates. In this interview, he talks, among other things, about widespread distrust (which complicates life, not only for researchers), about positive trends in UCT Prague’s evolution, about “inbreeding” at Czech universities, and about his desire to give back to the university what it gave to him as a student.

What does the Emil Votoček Medal mean to you?

I respect it, of course—not in the general sense of the word, but because UCT Prague has been a part of my life for 45 years and I love it. I started my studies in 1978, and for the last 30 years, I’ve been trying to help the university in one way or another and to give back what it once gave me. I’m glad someone noticed.

When you were graduating from the university, did you think that your future would be entwined with UCT Prague to this extent? You’re an instructor here, a member of our Scientific Board, and together with Professor Cibulka, you organize the prestigious Prague–Weizmann School on Drug Discovery.

I didn’t even consider it. I’m not someone who plans his life too carefully in advance. I believe a lot in chance and that things happen beyond our rational comprehension. I think the role of our intellect is very overrated. The older I get, the more I see that we are controlled by emotions, just like other animals, we only think that we’re acting rationally. So, in 1983, when I started my military service, all I knew was that I’d been accepted to doctoral studies at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB), but I didn’t think much more about it. Then a revolution took place, many things changed in our society, and I spent half of the 1990s abroad.

First in the US, then in Germany. Tell us more.

I was lucky to go to the United States immediately after completing my doctoral studies in the summer of 1988—of course, without my family (a measure taken by the then-communist regime to prevent scientists from immigrating – editor's note). I returned after a year, and basically right off the plane attended an anti-regime demonstration with my friends (laughs). However, by a coincidence and thanks to the help of colleagues from IOCB, I managed to spend another year at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, which was an amazing experience in every way. I then decided that I wanted to conduct research abroad for some time. And so I returned to the United States for two years, this time with my family.

Upon your return, you headed into the corporate sector. Why?

At that time, there was a deep economic crisis at Czech research institutions. I discovered I was unable to support my family, or rather, that I could only support them at a basic level, with a standard of living seven times lower than what we’d had in the US. So I decided to go into the corporate sector. However, an American colleague and I still had interesting research activities to continue, so I kept doing science for quite a long time on the side, in the evenings.

What did you do at Sigma-Aldrich and Merck?

We’re talking about the dominant suppliers of products for scientific activities in the fields of chemistry and biochemistry. I did sales and marketing at different levels, local and European. Over time, however, I began to feel that the corporations were too big and that the people were just pawns on a chessboard being moved around by someone. I didn't enjoy it, so I returned to IOCB, charged with creating the conditions and structure for professional technology transfer mechanisms.

You also started teaching at UCT Prague and connecting with the university again. How do you perceive things here, from the point of view of someone who has one foot on the inside and another on the outside?

I always look at things in terms of a gradient: zero, positive, or negative. For UCT Prague, I see a positive gradient; it’s getting better. The economic situation for research and education in the 1990s was really terrible. Neither students nor instructors could not survive without additional employment. A lot of talented people left a number of institutions, UCT Prague included, and some significant scholars left academia for good. Not that there wasn’t anyone left, but we needed more quality people. Fortunately, that is no longer the case today; I see a lot of skilled researchers and a number of personalities at the university such as Professors Slavíček, Brancale, and Štěpánek.

Student numbers have returned to normal after a significant drop in the previous decades, which is important, because my belief is that student quality is constant and that a Gaussian curve applies. Out of 30 people in a course, there will be five excellent ones who love academia and who are very interested in everything; then there will be a large group of mediocre students, and then a contingent of those who just want to pass. But you need those 30 people out of the starting gate. In terms of hardware, it has been essential that the university acquired new premises and that it was able to equip the laboratories well.

What can UCT Prague still do better?

It still suffers from what the entire higher education system in our country suffers from: inbreeding. It is unhealthy for someone to spend their entire academic careers at one place and not force themselves out of their comfort zones. If you haven’t experienced a different environment in another research group, encountered other approaches and areas of research, it’s hard to come up with new ideas and you’ll always be trapped in a particular frame of mind. The situation is gradually improving and I’m an optimistic, but it’s still a problem here.

Inbreeding has been discussed for a few years, but in reality, not much has changed. Why?

It’s a mixture of reasons. When I put myself in the shoes of a student/would-be professor, it’s kind of comfortable to stay at one place. You know how things work, you know the instructors and who’s important. It’s also convenient for instructors and managers. Another reason is that the possibility of going somewhere else is simply limited. If you live in Brno with your parents and you have to go to Prague for your doctoral studies, to find a place to rent…but I think that the problem should be resolved after finishing a Master degree: that students should automatically go elsewhere for their doctorates. The Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS), for example, can play a positive role in this. That is why I always fight for cooperation and mutual communication between universities and CAS.

It's true that a number of our doctoral candidates work at IOCB, which some at UCT Prague see as a great benefit but which others don’t like, because talented students don’t work on research projects.

I realize that no one likes to lose students. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen very often that natural sciences students from Charles University or the Czech University of Life Sciences transfer here. So I understand when an instructor wants to keep a student who is motivated and willing to put a lot of time into their work and who also comes with fresh ideas and so on. But it’s basically an investment when a great student looks elsewhere, gains new perspectives and contacts, and then will, for example, return to the university with a broader outlook. I know of many cases where UCT Prague graduates did their doctorates somewhere else, went abroad for postdoctoral research, and then returned here.

The whole issue is somewhat related to the fact that work at CAS or at the university cannot be done as a regular 9 to 5 job. One has to have some kind of scientific passion inside themselves. And those who have it don’t mind if a student goes elsewhere for a doctorate. Because they know that they are good enough to automatically attract more good students. The problem lies with those who are not passionate about science. However, I’d like to emphasize that I understand both sides, and the solution is not that all graduating engineers suddenly disappear from their undergraduate universities. However, I believe that, with the gradual improvement of the quality of individual mentors, the problem will disappear over time, and there are already enough examples of good practice at UCT Prague.

How do you perceive UCT Prague from the perspective of a technology transfer expert?

I don’t have the exact numbers at hand, but from what I hear, there has been quite a bit of interaction with the industrial sector, which is important. Technology universities exist in part to not be detached from reality and to be able to offer technological solutions or custom improvements to companies that do not have the ability to conduct research themselves. In my opinion, the university could do even more in this area, although not at the expense of basic research, without which today’s quality universities cannot function. What is not quite successful yet is the production its own technological innovations—those that have not been requested by an outside company—which are later offered to the commercial sector for applied use or developed further within the framework of spin-off companies and the like.

What needs to be changed in order for the university to move in this direction as well?

The first condition for incubating original ideas, those sought after by the commercial sector, is really cutting-edge science. It is essentially risky, it may result in a payoff, and it stretches into the unknown. But the entire system of supporting research in Czechia is based on preventing an original, risky approach. In order to receive Czech Science Foundation grant, you simply have to write in the application that you will publish three articles. And it doesn’t really matter if they are good articles. God forbid you come up with something original but you don’t have time to publish an article before the end of the grant: then you’re done and you won’t receive funding again.

The second condition is a sufficient number of scientific personalities who have the passion and skills for cutting-edge research. Here I see a positive trend at UCT Prague over the last 10 years. The third condition is better service from the university for assisting researchers, which does not always work in the Czech environment.

Why?

Imagine you are a scientist with a great idea. You’ve even developed a proof of concept that could actually work. You want to patent your creation and then sell it, or, God forbid, you want to start a spin-off. You are excited and go to the relevant university office, if there’s one at all, and there they smile at you and say: Come back in 14 days. We’re now in the process of doing grant applications and we can’t look at your work until after that. This is repeated several times, because sometimes the legal departments don’t have time, sometimes the economic departments don’t have time, and you suddenly understand that you won’t be able to implement your idea at the university. So you have two options: either you start something yourself without university help, which is still better than doing nothing, or you give up and write a nice article.

Is this really common practice in Czechia?

Yes, it’s common practice to have many barriers that result from an insufficient number of people, the absence of internal processes, and excessive bureaucratization. A scientist with an idea does not want to deal with any contracts or patent applications, they want someone else to deal with all this, because they invented a product after all. When no one assists in this process or everything drags out indefinitely, it’s natural to give up. But Czech universities are not the only institutions with this problem; colleagues in Germany and elsewhere in Europe will describe a similar effect to you…that said, top scientific products with commercial potential should be supported as much as possible at the national level, because they have enormous added value and give us a chance to change the structure of our economy. It would help if a uniform methodology were created across universities and academies. But I know that this is not a trivial matter and it’s easy to talk to when I have the IOCB backing me up.

Isn’t the problem also related to a lack of ideas with the potential to succeed?

When cutting-edge science pushes the boundaries, ideas automatically come, by definition.

So what should the technology transfer support system look like?

If I look at MIT or Stanford, for example, a person with an idea has a service partner who knows what to do and who responds immediately. We at IOCBTech try to do the same, so when a researcher comes to us, we immediately sit down and get to work. In the first stage, we evaluate to what extent an idea is unique, whether it falls into an intellectual property category and if it can be protected in some way. In the second phase, we analyse if the market will be interested in the idea. Every institution that wants to support the transfer should be able to offer these services with rapid turnaround times. Furthermore, follow-up processes need to be precisely defined so that everyone is clear about what will happen next, and project managers should be there to bring the plan to its goal. Which, by the way, means visiting companies and trade fairs showcasing new technologies. As for UCT Prague, I’m not sure if two people are enough for such a large and research-heterogeneous organism, even if transfer at the university is crystallizing in the right direction.

A separate department of technology transfer was established at UCT Prague relatively recently; before that, transfer was part of the research department.

Having a separate department is essential, precisely so that there is no mixing of agendas and so there are no delays. It’s also important that researchers know about it (smiles). For example, at top universities, the general rule is that a transfer office must be located on campus, because researchers simply do not travel elsewhere. Rather than to bother with the hassle, they’d rather just publish an article.

How many people do you have in the transfer department?

There are eight of us. One colleague deals with patents, and another is learning in that area and takes care of the administration. In addition to organic chemistry, another also studied law, so she deals with legal issues. The rest of the department is made up of project managers who work with researchers on refining their ideas and taking care to bring things to the commercial sector. I repeat, though, that we’re not in a completely standard situation thanks to the power of IOCB. You have to pay for both quality and quantity, there are not many of us, and most of us have a double degrees and great experience (for example, as head of research at Zentiva). On the other hand, all universities have relatively decent funds in reserve, or, at least, they do not decrease from year to year. I think that finding funding for creating a professional technology transfer office is not such a big problem.

A significant part of current IOCB research is in medicinal chemistry. How difficult is it to recognize that a new substance has both therapeutic and commercial potential?

It’s an extremely complex process, for which we often hire experts from abroad. In addition to verifying that a mechanism will work, that it won’t be extremely expensive, and that it can pass rigorous testing, you need to determine if the health insurance companies will even pay for the new drug. Because if not, there is no point in developing it. When making decisions, you also look far into the future; our development chain lasts 15 years. Was the problem you want to treat already solved? That’s why we also try to establish relationships with big players so that we can ask them if they would be interested in a certain solution in the future. If they say no, another solution has already been developed, saving us time and money. And conversely.

A central technology transfer office for various institutions has been established in Germany. Shouldn’t Czechia be inspired by this?

I know that something similar is being created there, but I don’t know the exact definition of its operations, so it’s hard to comment on it. In any case, it certainly does not make sense to create one central office for all universities and research institutions based in Prague to which researchers from Brno must travel. That’s just stupid. I can imagine that some central institution would be created that could expertly help existing departments at the universities. But the problem of applied research in our country lies somewhere else entirely: in an unfinished reform that was supposed to centralize the support of applied research in one institution. The Technological Agency of the Czech Republic was founded, but many ministries (such as the Ministries of Culture, Agriculture, Health, Industry and Trade) remained, and they continue to invest in applied research. It would help if there were to be a single institution that would professionally distribute funds and help the development of applied research in Czechia. It could also offer expert support for technology transfer and above all, provide a body of professional project assessors, such as they have in Finland, for example.

In an interview for the vedavyzkum.cz website, you identified an enormous level of bureaucracy as a fundamental problem of effective technology transfer. How should the system really work to serve its purpose, that is, the application of scientific knowledge to the benefit of society?

First of all, the laws would need to be amended. Many of the currently-valid ones were created in the 1990s, a really stormy time during which a lot of bad things happened. And since we’re talking here about the handling taxpayer money, of course, a number of laws were created in such a way as to essentially protect public funds against abuse as much as possible. I understand that, but on the other hand, 30 years have passed and society has changed a lot, but the laws have not changed. On top of that, we have to observe European legislation that we’ve managed to make even more complex. There’s still no legal framework for technology transfer which clearly states what an institution should or shouldn’t do to stay on the safe side. We live in a world of permanent presumption of guilt. In a nutshell: you’re guilty until proven innocent.

Your director position includes negotiation and business skills. Where did you hone your skills? And how did your transformation from a scientist to a businessperson/manager take place?

I gained my negotiation skills mainly through practice in sales positions. When I started at Sigma-Aldrich, the very first day I had to set up a booth at the Pragomedica exhibition and staff it together with colleagues from Germany: sink or swim. But I learned one thing: it’s always good to understand what the other side is thinking and where one can be of help. And to build upon that. But it doesn’t always work out…

CrossCampus was your brainchild. Why did you launch the popular relay race, which is a lot of work, a few years ago?

I think an area where Czech research can do better to excel is multidisciplinarity. In other words, connecting disciplines. I also enjoy networking in general. Well, as I walked around the campus, I suddenly realized that the interactions between IOCB, CTU, and UCT Prague could be improved. At that time, I used to run a lot (no longer the case due to health problems), and I suddenly had the idea of a relay race around NTK that could connect people and encourage cooperation. I went around to the Rectors and NTK’s director and talked them into supporting my idea. And it was actually the beginning a bigger idea: creating Campus Dejvice.

Updated: 26.6.2023 19:18, Author: Michal Janovský

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