Into the Valley of Death: The challenging alliance between academia and industry

While prejudices may still exist on both sides of a partnership between academia and industry such partnerships often can kick-start innovation, according to one university expert working in the animal health field.

Sven Arnouts, business developer at Ghent University’s Center for Strategic Prophylaxis and Vaccine Development (PROVAXS) told delegates to the Informa VetSummit in Berlin that academia-industry partnerships can stimulate innovation.

Such partnerships can lead to more technologies crossing the “valley of death” lying between scientific knowledge and the end market, when both parties are playing to their strengths.

He noted there is a perception that academics have no interest in making revenues and seeing product development through to the final step – their interests lie in publishing scientific papers and earning funding. Conversely, there is a tendency to assume companies are only interested in the top line of their next financial results.

“However, there are many entrepreneurial academic scientists as well as people working in industry with a strong scientific background,” Dr Arnouts said.

He suggested universities and animal health firms “need people who understand the situation on both sides – Ghent University has many business developers with experience from industry and we have a general awareness of industry needs and insight into market relevance of academic research”.

PROVAXS is a consortium of laboratories at Ghent University and has a particular expertise in infectious diseases. The studies it carries out are focused on host-pathogen interactions and lead to the identification of new targets for diagnostics and vaccines – PROVAXS licenses the intellectual property it works on and, after collaborating with an industry partner, it draws in milestone and royalty payments from products sales that are invested again in basic research.

Technologies previously licensed by PROVAXS include: ELISA tests for the Ostertagia ostertagi gastrointestinal nematode in cattle and the Fasciola hepatica parasite; and technology for PRRSV-vaccines in pigs.

PROVAXS’ parasite tests were commercialized through a deal with Svanova, the Swedish veterinary diagnostic subsidiary of Boehringer Ingelheim.

Dr Arnouts said his team’s particular expertise lies in infectious diseases, immunology, vaccines and targeted therapeutics.

He also noted PROVAXS maintains “continuous formal and informal contacts between academic staff and industry”, while it also attempts to “manage expectations in a balanced agreement” with its partners.

PROVAXS plans

One week after the VetSummit, Animal Pharm caught up with Dr Arnouts at the R&D Dating for Animal Health event in Strasbourg.

He said: “We are working on 20 different projects at the moment – all at different phases.” While PROVAXS focuses mainly on diagnostics and vaccines, it also has expertise in other biologicals for use as veterinary medicine or feed additive improving animal health.

PROVAXS is currently working on proof of efficacy studies for a vaccine to protect pigs against dysentery. Dr Arnouts said he is currently negotiating with several license candidates for this vaccine.

But what of the ‘Valley of Death’? Can PROVAXS avoid it?

“You can’t avoid it,” he said. “You have to go through the valley with its many hurdles.”

Dr Arnouts said the perfect partner for PROVAXS tends to be the type of company that has experience in getting products to market. He said the ideal collaboration would also see the industry partner help identify the gaps in PROVAXS’ R&D and help it to avoid redoing its proof-of-concept work.