The most important thing is to have an appetite to make science useful - Catrin

The most important thing is to have an appetite to make science useful

The CATRIN Technology Transfer Office has a new addition. It is Jiří Navrátil, who until recently connected science and industry within the activities of UNICO, which is one of the domestic leaders in this field. The former researcher started to dedicate himself to commercialization of research after his Ph.D. studies, gaining his first experience at Imperial College London and its Imperial Innovations Technology Transfer Centre. Subsequently, he worked as a technology scout also at Cambridge Enterprise.

What made you change your workplace? How did CATRIN attract you?
Outwardly, CATRIN has always had a profile of a very strong player in science. I recently moved to Olomouc, so working for this scientific centre seemed to me to be the ideal choice. CATRIN does great research, which is competitive even in an international environment. With my experience I would like to contribute to getting scientists, with their ideas and research results, into the international business field. I have a good network of contacts in this world, which I’d like to exploit. It is also important that the translation of results into practice is taken very seriously at CATRIN, which is not always a matter of course in an academic environment. All of this, together with patient and systematic work, are necessary prerequisites for us to succeed in this endeavour.

What areas of research here do you see the greatest potential for commercialization in?
There are a number of global societal issues that are being addressed here. From the energy crisis, to the need for new nanomaterials, to genetically modified plants, to biomedical research. CATRIN has an international team, and the research is at the top level. I believe I can find the right partners to work with to move CATRIN forward in the area of commercialization of research as well.

What are you going to do in the near future?
I am currently working on a detailed analysis of the current situation. In other words, what are the visions of the institution, the research goals, the intentions and the results. Of course, the activities of the Grant Office are related to this, that is, what projects are being written, with which partners. Simply put, I need to find out who can do what, how they think and where they are going. Then it will be possible to prepare a strategy. I want to set up a mirror of business for scientists, that is, what are the expectations of companies and what is good for what. I would also like to show scientists how to think about valorisation of technology. That it is not just about setting up a spin-off or doing a service for the company. I want to explain to them how the system works and what role they can play in it. Today, it is not enough to be just a scientist, but also their managerial skills, ability to organise their time and so on are important. That is another piece in the image of a professional researcher. But researchers cannot bring the result of research into a successful business all by themself, nor can anyone ask them to do that. Their craft is to come up with unexpected, novel ideas. The craft of a technology transfer centre, on the other hand, is to identify a problem for which researchers have a solution and deliver that solution to a partner.

In one of the interviews, you said that it’s very important to set the right expectations for scientists. What expectations should scientists at CATRIN have?
I’m applying the rule that I outlined above. That is, people should do what they’re good at. So a scientist should be perfect at science, and it’s up to me to connect them to those who can transform the idea into an interesting product and initiate that path. The point is, a scientist doesn’t usually offer a finalized product and can’t even know perfectly well the needs of the market. To do that, we need to find partners who follow these processes and can create a successful product.

Meaning, the transfer or valorisation of technology office should be an essential part of research institutions?
I’ve never really looked at how the national system works in this. I’ve focused more on how I can contribute with my experience. But suddenly I sense that a lot of people are looking into this matter and it’s good that they’re thinking about it. I’m seeing a change in approach to these issues, but whether or not CATRIN conforms to common practice of other domestic research institutions, I don’t know.

What specific improvements would you like to contribute to at CATRIN? Is it more spin-off companies or sold licenses?
At CATRIN, we should have all of the valorization activities of research covered, from top-of-the-range publications, to consultancy and contract research, to the sale of licenses. This will prove that we are adapting our activities to social needs. And if we start another spin-off that generates profit, it will be the icing on the cake and a litmus test to prove that we are doing it well.

Until recently, you were sort of an intermediary between companies and academia, now you’re on one of those sides. What do you see as advantages or disadvantages?
My work won’t be much different, but the benefit is that I’ll be able to better understand and follow closely how these ideas actually come about, what the path to the outcome is. Also, thanks to CATRIN’s management, who listen and are very open-minded, I’ll be able to influence the ecosystem that helps to generate new ideas and thoughts. I don’t want to be passive, saying show me what you’ve got here, and perhaps I can help you with that. I hope to be able to influence things in the earlier stages of development, and together with scientists, we can design research so that it has a chance to apply itself to the market. I think I am still the bridge between the market and academics. But the possibility of entering the process significantly earlier is definitely an advantage.

Do you have ambitions to enter foreign markets?
Companies that are able to collaborate with research institutions and come up with new products and innovations are generally few. When you consider the size of the Czech market, the answer is simple—we definitely need to go abroad.

How do you want to get there?
We have a lot of international projects here with a number of foreign partners. CATRIN also has a number of scientists with rich contacts. We can build on that and develop this network. I can also use my foreign contacts, whether it be partners from different consulting companies or colleagues I worked with in the UK and they are now spread all over the world. We still communicate with one other because, strangely enough, we all have exactly the same problems. We share our experiences and can help each other.

Do we really have the same problems in this area as they do in Finland, the Netherlands or Canada?
Some new technologies can be so disruptive that there is no market for them and you have to build a new one and get clients. That’s one of the barriers that we all face. We have something completely new and we don’t know where or how to apply it. There’s not a company that already makes it. Other times there are such companies, but it’s as if a certain inertia or reluctance prevents them from embracing the novelty, even though it might be cheaper but would require some kind of input investment. Sometimes it’s just reluctance to change something that has worked for years. These problems are similar everywhere.

So it takes a visionary, not just on the part of the scientists, but on the part of the companies?
It’s true that when a business owner makes a this is what I want because I believe it decision, it makes things easier. Of course, the confidence that they will get the result from the academics is also very important. You need to have someone in the middle who is dedicated purely to the collaboration and its management. Companies often haven’t set up innovation strategies and can’t respond to the big changes in the market that we’ve been seeing lately. And yet working with scientists and with science always brings new opportunities and a way into new markets. I believe that only those who keep up and are not afraid to innovate with the scientists will succeed in this field.

Let’s go back from companies to the university environment. It’s often said that valorisation of research is a weakness of domestic universities, with occasional exceptions. What do you see as the biggest problem and how to get out of it?
If you look at what comprises a salary of a researcher who feeds a family, valorisation certainly doesn’t play any significant role there. If I’m a pragmatic person, I deal with what feeds me. Which is today’s form of science evaluation—publications and patents, even if they don’t make much sense. If I’m not financially motivated to sell a service or a product to someone, why would I do that? In this system, you need visionaries who want their work to have a real impact. The most important thing is not to have to make science useful, but to have an appetite to make science useful. And to find the pinnacle of self-realization in the practical use of the results of my work.

Martina Šaradínová
April 19, 2024