Last week I spoke out about changing institutional thinking on translational research programs. Specifically, I recommended the reduction of time from grant submission to award, allowances for greater flexibility in project spending, and support for private “start up” lab space outside of the university through direct funding to the company/PI.
Among the most compelling feedback we received was the suggestion by Drs. John Robertson and Luke Brzozowski at Techna, an institute of University Health Network in Toronto, of creating a pool of talent to help start-ups and academic labs to fill gaps in translational funding. I’ll let them explain…
There’s an important Catch-22 at the heart of Dr. Jonathan Thon’s first suggestion to improve translational research funding in his latest column for The Black Hole: start-ups may lack the resources to keep a project team employed while waiting for a grant result, but often need to show that the team is in place at the time of application to get the grant. And this applies to translational research teams still within a research institute as well, with granting agencies increasingly asking for CVs from key personnel such as project managers – not just the co-applicants.
A related challenge is that start-ups tend to hire (or create) generalists, out of necessity with head counts smaller than the hats to be worn, or because the work for a given specialty would not require a full-time position.
At the Techna Institute in Toronto (part of University Health Network), we’ve helped internal projects and start-ups get around this challenge by having a team of professionals available for secondment in a cost-recovery model.
For example, one of our technology development team members may have a main project within the institution with a long-term commitment covering the majority of their time, but they will also spend a portion of their time supporting shorter-term projects within the institute or with a start-up company. In another case, one of our engineering project managers may be working on a grant-supported translational research project within the research institute with a commitment of half their time, and spend a smaller portion with a start-up company, helping them develop documentation and procedures for ISO 13485 certification.
Depending on the need and availability, it may involve a temporary full-time secondment to a company. And the model covers a spectrum of flexible work arrangements. For example, our creative designers typically work on multiple small-scale projects with short timelines and commitments. Perhaps the most diverse and mutually beneficial relationships that Techna has had over the years is with Acumyn, a local start-up company. Over the years Techna has provided services like project management, software development, medical physics advice and guidance, regulatory and quality affairs, marketing, technical writing, and accounting. As Acumyn has grown, most of the roles have been assumed by the company, leaving Techna personnel with valuable experience and free to pursue other projects within the community.
Changing the way funding agencies work is worth suggesting, but given the world as it is, we feel that the Techna model is another solution to the problem that institutions and their start-ups should investigate. Techna was founded with philanthropic support just over six years ago, and our team of over 40 engineers, technical project managers, designers, developers, quality and regulatory specialists, financial professionals, (and more!) grew in response to demand within the research and start-up community. The philanthropic support through The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation was vital for starting the model, after which the team’s service-oriented business model permitted growth at full cost-recovery. The demand for services over the years has helped Techna grow and reach a point of self-sustainability – though self-sustaining/cost-recovery does not necessarily provide capital for further growth, which will continue to depend upon philanthropic support or more profitable contracts with external partners.
While we’re more than happy to work with start-ups and academic innovators across Canada or around the world, we feel that this resourcing model may be one that other institutions may wish to investigate to solve challenges for start-ups and other translational ventures.
Dr. Robertson is Techna’s research strategy development specialist, University Health Network in Toronto. Dr. Brzozowski is senior director, Techna Innovation, University Health Network.