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FEATURE
The Biotechnology Incubation Center of Academia Sinica — A Gateway to Innovative Taiwan
David Ma
Director of Business Development, Medigen Biotechnology Corp., Taipei, Taiwan/ROC

David Ma introduces the latest entrepreneurship programs (ASCENT) sponsored by the most distinguished research institute in Taiwan - Academia Sinica.

The mission of professionals working in the fields of technology transfer and incubation is to promote dissemination of technology for the benefit and use of society, while generating constant flow of income to support innovative research and education,” stated Dr. Chi-Ming Liang, the director of the Technology Licensing Office and Biotechnology Incubation Center (BIC) of Academia Sinica. In order to achieve this grand undertaking, a research institute or a society would not only need to conduct outstanding scientific research, but also would build a solid, innovative, and autonomous entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In a well-established, innovative environment where value creation is efficient, ideas and experiences are shared effectively, collaborations between different disciplines are frequent and without significant barriers, and entrepreneurship is fully adapted, it is no surprise that a sustaining economy can be built that enhances an area or a country’s competitiveness. Formulating such an atmosphere is the ultimate goal of many science parks and technology incubators around the globe. Taiwanese research institutes and universities, as well as its government, have invested numerous resources towards creating an outstanding research setting. However, technology transfers of scientific discoveries from research institutes to companies still have much room for improvement. Many Taiwanese academic institutions have found that they should leverage the island’s industrial and entrepreneurial strengths to produce a world-class, innovative ecosystem.

Academia Sinica, the most distinguished research institution in Taiwan, has had exceptional academic achievements and gained international fame among those in the research community. The research institute is fueled intellectually by both world-renowned scholars and a superior talent pool, which is composed of highly motivated and creative young investigators, post-doctors, and students from over 46 countries. With its profound historical heritage, research resources, achievements, and expectations from Taiwanese society, Academia Sinica is in a position to lead Taiwan to a greater innovative and competitive stage than ever before (Figure 2). In order to facilitate the incubation of technology from research to commercialization, the Biotechnology Incubation Center (BIC) was established in 2003, along with the Genomics Research Center at Academia Sinica, as a core from which to realize scientific discoveries and to support translational development by providing well-established infrastructure and services to companies that are willing to further develop Sinica’s technologies towards commercialization.

Armed with years of experience, BIC plans to share their knowledge of commercializing scientific innovations with Academia Sinica and Taiwanese society. The idea was to have a platform that facilitates exchange of ideas and experiences across different disciplines, institutes, and organizations in Taiwan. The platform is composed of multiple programs that help to build a healthy, innovative, and entrepreneurial environment within Sinica. The BIC named this platform the Academia Sinica Creative Entrepreneurship Network and Tech Transfer programs, also known as the ASCENT programs.

The ASCENT platform covers three major programs: the Seminar Series, the Intellectual Property (IP) Study Group, and the Value Creation Boot Camp. The goal of these programs is to build an advanced learning atmosphere that emphasizes the importance of innovative thinking, IP strategies and protection, business strategies, technology transfer, career development, and entrepreneurship. These programs were designed to be different from traditional scientific training and to be cross-linked with various fields. With strong interdisciplinary interactions and networking events, this incubation center will be able to encourage researchers to freely exchange ideas, increase researchers’ willingness to collaborate, and help researchers to bring their discoveries to the markets.

ASCENT Seminar Series

Traditionally, there have been many academic seminars and workshops hosted by different research institutes and centers within Academia Sinica. However, communications and interactions among institutes were unpopular, and most of the time, the topics of these seminars were limited to scientific presentations. This conventional format was sufficient for building and exchanging scientific knowledge within a specific scientific area. However, cultivating a free-flowing exchange of ideas from various fields is important in establishing an innovative and entrepreneurial environment. Thus, the BIC decided to build a seminar series that was different from traditional scientific lectures. The seminar was hosted every month by speakers with diverse and mixed backgrounds, some of whom have advanced science degrees, including patent attorneys, technology transfer professionals, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs.

In the past three years, this series has had a phenomenal impact on the young scientists in Academia Sinica. Through these interdisciplinary speeches, the seminar series provided a window for the spirit and radiance of industry and business to shine through to people in the ivory tower. For many students and researchers, it was a wonderful, yet rare, opportunity for them to witness what to expect in the real world.

Up to the end of 2012, 19 seminars have been organized with total more than 2,000 attendees. Many students and/or post-doctors discovered new directions for their career paths because of the ASCENT Seminar Series. Many investigators gained critical concepts of intellectual property from these seminars and built good connections with patent experts. These seminars have become important channels among interdisciplinary fields. As Christine Wang, a former postdoctoral researcher and now an associate project manager of a biotechnology company, stated: “The seminar series was an eye-opening event.”

ASCENT Intellectual Property Study Group

Most of the time, scientific researchers are not equipped with basic understanding of intellectual property or the significance of IP strategy when moving towards translational research or commercialization. BIC not only organized seminars that discussed the importance of patent protection, but also formed IP study groups (three months per class) to give researchers hands-on experience with patent searches, patent litigation case studies, and project-based patent map building.

With help from the managers of the technology licensing office of Academia Sinica, the members of the IP study groups have learned practical knowledge and were coached directly by technology transfer professionals. Moreover, these simulated IP exercises gave the fellows a taste of working as specialists in the technology transfer field. The IP study groups continue to be an excellent opportunity for hands-on practice in patent search, IP strategic planning, and IP analysis.

More than 50 fellows have been trained. After these exercises, they will carry important IP protection concepts to their fields of study. In the end, IP study groups will establish a strong and proper understanding of IP protection and preparation within research institutes.

ASCENT Value Creation Boot Camp

To further expand the concept of bringing project-based practices of commercializing technology into Academia Sinica, the center decided to start a long-term (more than 6 months) training program—the Value Creation Boot Camp. Investigators, postdoctoral researchers, and students were invited to bring their current research projects or previously patented technologies to the program. They were able to recruit other researchers or non-scientist personnel to form a working team, with the assumption that they started the companies based on the new technologies.

The working teams prepared business presentations for the professional venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurs who were invited. These experts judged the projects and gave the teams their feedback, suggestions, and questions regarding their concerns about the future development of the business. Then, the teams needed to clarify and improve their business pitches for the follow-up presentations. Over six months of coaching, the Boot Camp not only hosted multiple business pitch events with outstanding business development mentors, but also provided business-training courses for the team, which covered important areas such as identifying unmet needs, business proof of concepts, freedom of operation, business models, business plans, and teamwork. All of these concepts and tools gave these young scientists ways to manage risk if they decided to move towards technology commercialization (Figure 3).

The goals of the ASCENT programs are not only to build an innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem within Academia Sinica, but to bring practicability into the research world. BIC knows that bringing scientific discoveries to business is a long process, but the Boot Camp is a good start for these young scientists to realize and practice how technology commercialization might work. In the year spanning 2011–2012, the Boot Camp finished training 14 teams with more than 50 people in total. Advanced startup training programs, including the Garage+ Program of Epoch Foundation and the Startup Leadership Program, recruited three of these teams for further preparation to enter the business world. We are uncertain whether these teams will become successful startup companies, but these young, talented people have become different than they were a year ago. With the influence of ASCENT’s trainings, these young researchers will become the seed innovators who would generate impacts in the field of technology transfer in Taiwan. By giving these talents some time, through passion and dedication, Taiwanese institutes will build an excellent entrepreneurial environment. The Biotechnology Incubation Center of Academia Sinica could be the engine that drives this movement, along with outstanding scientific research and excellent entrepreneurial training programs, the center will be a gateway to a more innovative Taiwan.

About the Author

Dr. David Ma received his Ph.D. in Developmental Biology of the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences from Washington University in St. Louis, and a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Purdue University. Starting from 2010, he was a manager at the biotechnology incubation center (BIC) of Academia Sinica, in charge of building entrepreneurship training programs, angel investment, technology transfer, and business development. During his service period at BIC, Dr. David Ma specialized in assessing business potential and feasibility of scientific discoveries. He is currently a director of business development at Medigen Biotechnology.

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